Deceptive Cadence
3:20 pm
Mon February 18, 2013

From Bow To Baton: Violinist Joshua Bell Conducts Beethoven

Originally published on Mon February 18, 2013 6:16 pm

Violinist Joshua Bell has followed the lead of symphony orchestra conductors since he turned 7 and made his orchestra debut. But now he's the one waving the baton — or at least waving his violin bow. Bell recently took over the music directorship of the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

On his new album, Bell conducts Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies from the chair of the first violinist (concertmaster). He spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about his new role with the orchestra, how he's often wanted to grab the baton out of a conductor's hand, and why there are never enough good recordings of Beethoven's symphonies. Hear the radio version at the audio link on this page, and read excerpts from their conversation below.

MELISSA BLOCK: Let's talk first about the mechanics of conducting from the concertmaster's chair. Describe what you're doing.

I do basically what a conductor does with a baton except I also play along with the orchestra. So I have to juggle the roles of playing the concertmaster; sometimes I drop the violin and wave my arms.

It's different for people who have not seen a symphony conductor conduct from a chair. I feel very connected to the orchestra in a way that a conductor sometimes does not feel. I think it's more visceral. And it gives more responsibility to the players to play like chamber music, which is really what it should be anyway. I really find there are a lot of advantages to leading in this way.

You say you feel connected to the orchestra in a different way because you're seated there within the group.

I'm making a sound along with them, and so when I draw my bow it's something very natural, watching the way one attacks the instrument. They can feel it in a way that's not always so easy when one is waving a stick at an imaginary downbeat. Of course, a great conductor is an amazing thing, and I respect that role as well. But when you are playing along with them, something special happens.

My whole life I've been watching conductors. I was 7 the first time I played with a conductor. Seeing the ones that do it well, it's an amazing thing. And seeing the ones where it doesn't work, I actually have learned quite a lot from them as well.

It's something I'm starting to do more myself, not having the violin in my hand, and I'm feeling more and more comfortable with that. But in the meantime, this recording of the Beethoven symphonies — there aren't many out there, I think, that are led in this way.

What do you think it is about this recording and conducting these symphonies from the chair that makes it special — that you hear a difference?

[In] the feedback I've gotten from people, they're surprised just how visceral and exciting it is, even a little rough at times. You feel like you are right in the middle of the orchestra when you hear it, and that is something I was striving for because when I'm playing with them I feel this amazing excitement and energy that these symphonies certainly should have. The Fourth and Seventh are incredibly heroic, triumphant and energetic pieces. There's so much of the dance element to it as well, and you feel these rhythms in this recording. These players are really on the edge of their seat. There's never a feeling of complacency. Sometimes I play with orchestras and I see a few in the back that are kind of sitting in the back of their chair — and there's nothing more frustrating than that. With this orchestra there's never that feeling. Everyone gives their fullest at all times.

I love the description by Robert Schumann of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony as "a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants." How would you describe the Fourth, and do you think it's overlooked?

The only problem the Fourth has is its location between the Third and the Fifth, as far as its being overlooked. And it shouldn't be compared. Sometimes people say it's not as great as the Fifth or the Third. It is what it is. And what it is is something incredibly special, and you wouldn't want to change a single note of it.

The Third changed the world with those opening chords; nothing had ever been written like it. The Fourth? I think Beethoven had to write it at that point. He needed to take a break, and in the Fourth he looks back a little bit, although there are always innovations. It's pure joy. It starts out with a mysterious opening, which sort of psyches you out — you think it's going into that dark Beethoven, and it turns into the most glorious, joyful piece that I can think of.

Is there a part of the Fourth Symphony that you especially love to play, when you are in the orchestra conducting from the chair, that just feels fantastic?

The last movement is just an incredible romp that's sort of almost looking back to the fun that Haydn would have with a last movement, although still it's got the mark of Beethoven. The first movement, in the recapitulation, they way it builds, nobody could do it like Beethoven. The way the instruments start layering on top of each other and building, it just bursts into this incredible joy when it recaps.

You've been a soloist for so long — 30 years. Did you always have in the back of your mind, "I'd like to conduct," just like actors will tell you, "I always wanted to direct?"

The term "soloist" — I guess that's what I do much of the time, but I don't think of myself as a soloist. I'm a musician. So that means doing a lot of things. Chamber music has been my great love all my life, and this is just an extension of that.

Certainly there are many times I've wanted to grab the stick out of a conductor's hand and say, "Come on. They need a rhythmic impulse here. Don't tell them to play softer and then make this huge gesture." There are times like that when I think, "I want to give this a try." And so this is a neat chance for me to have my say on these two amazing pieces, which are stories that can be told over and over again, and we really never tire of them.

This is your first recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as music director, with these two symphonies of Beethoven. Did you wonder, "Aren't there enough Beethoven symphony recordings out there?"

I would have to give up my career as a classical musician if I was worried about that. That's what we do. Everything I've recorded in my life, pretty much — except for some of the new things commissioned — they've been done before. You have to have enough confidence in what you're doing that you feel you have something to say, otherwise you shouldn't be doing it. But I guess I'm conceited enough to think that there's something new here to say, without trying to be new. I think that's a mistake if you think, "There are a hundred recordings and I need to be doing something different, so let's just do this extra fast or this extra loud." That's not the way to approach it.

Basically what you are trying to do is say what you think Beethoven wanted to say. It's not me saying it. You want the star to be Beethoven. You want Beethoven to reach the listener.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Call it the musical answer to a midlife crisis or simply a calling to experience music in a whole new, exciting way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: The renowned violinist Joshua Bell, at age 45, is now a conductor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOSHUA BELL: Certainly, there are many times I've wanted to grab the stick out of conductors' hands and say I - this - come on, you have to show this here. They need a rhythmic impulse here or they need - don't tell them to play softer and then give this huge gesture. You know, that's saying exactly the opposite of what you're saying verbally. You know, there are times like that where I think, I want to give this a try.

BLOCK: And so he is. We're listening to Joshua Bell's first recording as music director with the British chamber orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Beethoven's "Fourth" and "Seventh" symphonies. And picture this: Joshua Bell leads the orchestra from the concertmaster's chair, the leader of the first violins. In other words, he plays with the orchestra and conducts it at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BELL: I do basically what a conductor does with a baton, except I also play along with the orchestra. So I have to juggle the roles of playing the concertmaster. Sometimes I drop the violin and wave my arms.

BLOCK: You don't literally drop the violin. You put it down.

BELL: Not literally. No.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: I feel very connected to the orchestra in a way that a conductor sometimes does not feel. I'm within the group. I'm making the sounds along with them. And so when I draw my bow, the - it's something very natural watching the way one attacks the instrument with a bow. They can feel it in a way that's not always so easy when one is waving a stick at an imaginary downbeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: When you're conducting from the concertmaster's chair, are you - do you find yourself moving more? Are you conscious that your - you need to gesture more and to use your body more than...

BELL: Well, I - I've been accused my whole life of moving too much.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: So it comes naturally.

BELL: So when I play concertos, the conductor often - you know, after (unintelligible) says, who - which one of us just conducted, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: Because I tend to - so this is actually now - I'm using this to my advantage. And yes, I move a lot. And I have to gesture a lot. I sit on a chair. It's a little bit higher, and I've almost poked the eye out of my stand partner many a time.

But I'm learning the whole language. I think we have our kind of - a language now that I really feel if I want something, I can show it. I know how to show it, and they know what it means when I make a gesture.

BLOCK: Let's talk about Beethoven's "Fourth Symphony," one of two on your new CD. And I love the description from Robert Schumann. He called it: A slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants, referring to the "Third" - the "Eroica" symphony - and the "Fifth." How would you describe the "Fourth?" And do you think it's overlooked?

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: The only problem the "Fourth" has is its location between the "Third" and the "Fifth" as far as it being overlooked.

BLOCK: Pretty powerful neighbors.

BELL: And it shouldn't be compared. I mean, that's the whole thing. Sometimes, people say: Well, it's not as great as the "Fifth" or the "Third." It is what it is. And what it is is something incredibly special, and you wouldn't want to change a single note of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

BELL: It starts out with the mysterious opening which sort of psyches you out. You think it's going to go into that dark Beethoven, and it turns into the most glorious, joyful piece that I can think of.

BLOCK: Yeah, very dancey and vivacious in the first movement.

BELL: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

BELL: The recapitulation in the first movement, the way it builds, I mean, nobody could do it like Beethoven. The way the instruments start layering on top of each other and building, it just bursts into this incredible joy when it recaps.

BLOCK: I'm not going to try to sing it, but what you're talking about when the theme comes back. Can you sing that part?

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: No, I can't sing.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: (Singing) Barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump para, and everybody starts joining until finally it bursts into this just - anyway, it's better to listen to it.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 4")

BLOCK: How would you describe the evolution of Beethoven as a composer between the "Fourth Symphony," which he wrote in 1806, and then the "Seventh," which he wrote six years later? What's happened in between?

BELL: Oh, jeez. Well, the "Fifth" and the "Sixth" are - happened - I mean, the "Fifth," of course, being the one that we all know, I mean, Beethoven shaking his fists at the world - and that's the kind of classic Beethoven that we think of. The "Sixth" being, I think, maybe the most beautiful of all the nine and really profound.

BLOCK: And then you come to the "Seventh." What defines the "Seventh?"

BELL: "Seventh" is, I would say, is heroic. First of all, I hate sort of encapsulate a whole symphony, you know, in just eight words. It just sounds stupid. And I'm regretting...

BLOCK: You're taking it back already.

BELL: ...saying it.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: But the "Seventh" is - I find the triumph of the human spirit, really. I mean, which is a common theme to, I think, a lot Beethoven. But he pulls it off, I think, incredibly well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

BELL: He was a tortured composer, very rarely happy. But I think he actually felt that he had created something really special. The slow movement, of course, of the "Seventh," is usually on everyone's top 10 lists of desert island pieces. The slow movement is in contrast to that, is somehow very dark and full of lament.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

BELL: But it has to be done just right because if you take it too slowly, for instance, it can become too sentimental. It has to have this rhythmic pulse. And you play it at a true allegretto, not at a, you know, not andante. It's more than just singing beautiful tune. It's got this element that just goes right to the heart of the emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

BLOCK: Joshua Bell, this is your first recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as music director - these two symphonies, the "Fourth" and the "Seventh" of Beethoven - did you wonder, you know, aren't there enough Beethoven symphonies out there? Is this really where I want to make my first impression?

BELL: Well, gosh, I would have to give up my career as a classical musician if I worried about there being - because there's - they've been done before. And you have to have enough confidence in what you're doing that you feel you have something to say. Otherwise, you should not be doing it. But I guess I'm conceited enough to think that there's something new here to say, without trying to be new.

I think that's a mistake if you think, OK, there's 100 recordings. And I need to be doing something different, so let's just do this extra fast or this extra loud or, you know? I mean, that's not the way to approach it. But there are just so many ways to approach these pieces that I think there is room. And I'm very proud to have it. I hope people will buy it. But if not, at least I have this for my legacy for my grandchildren someday.

BLOCK: Well, Joshua Bell, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

BELL: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Joshua Bell conducts Beethoven symphonies "Four" and "Seven" in the new recordings from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.