Joshua Bell is no longer officially a wunderkind – he turns 50 in December – but the virtuoso violinist still sounds like an excitable kid when he talks about the myriad projects, people and pieces that form his busy professional orbit.
“I hate the term ‘conservative!’” Bell snaps as we chat about Jean Sibelius, whose violin concerto will be the star of the show on Sunday when Bell performs it with conductor Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony. “That’s thrown at Brahms and Bach. Yet they’re both so innovative. To slap the word ‘conservative’ on (Sibelius) is so unfair.”
Clearly Bell hates labels, too, especially when applied to a composer as complex as Sibelius, a Finn who was almost 92 when he died in 1957, but whose music never followed the raucous trails to modernity blazed by his contemporaries, such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg. “You can innovate without reinventing. To me he has such a unique voice, and I would never think of it as conservative. His music feels unlike anyone else’s.”
The Violin Concerto in D Minor, Sibelius’ only concerto of any kind, was written in 1904 and completely revised a year later. It is this version that has become enduringly popular, and many violin superstars, from Heifetz onwards, have recorded it. Bell laid down a well-received interpretation with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When asked if his approach to the work has changed since the CD was released, Bell admitted to something surprising.
“I haven’t listened to that recording since I was editing it in 1999. I move on, and (my interpretation) naturally evolves. I hope I play it better now. I think (every artist) thinks of new ideas and throws out old ones constantly. Even from night to night my interpretation can change a lot.”
Likewise, Bell doesn’t listen to others’ recordings of the Sibelius either. “Heifetz, I grew up with his recording. And Zukerman’s – his dark sound was very conducive to that piece, which uses the G-string (the violin’s lowest string) a lot. It sounded rich and viola-like.
“But I haven’t heard it since I was 14. As you get older you develop a special relationship with these pieces that you play a lot. I tend not to go back and listen to other people’s…