Violinist Joshua Bell

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The celebrated musician talks about his CD, “Musical Gifts,” and closes the show with a special performance.

The world was first exposed to Joshua Bell's violin virtuosity at age 14, in his Philadelphia Orchestra debut. He's continued to captivate audiences, with more than 40 albums since his first recording at age 18, and has earned multiple Grammys. He's equally at home as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist and orchestra leader and has performed on several film soundtracks, including The Red Violin, which won a best original score Oscar. Bell was the first musician to have a classical music video played on VH1 and is currently music director of London's Academy of St Martin in the Fields. His new CD is the holiday project, "Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends."


Tavis: Acclaimed violinist and Grammy winner Joshua Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut at 17. Since then he’s performed with the world’s top orchestras and recently was named the musical director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

He’s also recorded by now more than 40 albums. His latest CD is called “Musical Gifts,” in which he collaborates with musicians as varied as Renee Fleming, Alison Krauss and Chick Corea. As a gift to all of us on this Christmas Eve, he’ll close our show tonight with “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

What an honor for us. You’ve been on – we’ve hung out a few times, but your first time performing for us.

Joshua Bell: Yeah. I guess so, that is – it is. Thanks for –

Tavis: It is, so thank you for doing this.

Bell: Thanks for having me (unintelligible).

Tavis: I’m looking forward to it. You been good?

Bell: Always very good. Nice time of year.

Tavis: Good to see you. It is a great time of year. So what took so long for you to finally do a Christmas-themed CD if you love this time of year so much?

Bell: Well, I never actually thought I would do a Christmas album. But I did a couple of years ago a couple of Christmas songs, one with Chris Botti, the trumpet player, and Christian Chenoweth, and then I really enjoyed making these arrangements of these songs that we know so well, and kind of playing on them and doing some unusual types of things, and with great collaborators.

So I just thought I’d turn it into a whole Christmas album. Christmas, holiday – there’s some Jewish things. My mother’s Jewish, so I grew up in a – this time of year we’re celebrating everything, so I kind of mixed – it’s an unusual Christmas album, but I loved making it.

Tavis: Can you mix all of those traditions? Track number 15 is called “Christmas Confusion.”

Bell: Well, that’s sort of the comedy side of the album. I got my friends – all these are sort of friends I’ve known, and some people that I’ve always wanted to play with.

Like Chick Corea I’d met, but I always wanted to play, so I – and Alison Krauss. I called them to be on the album. Track 15 is “Christmas Confusion,” which plays on the fact that I have this mixed background.

I got my comedian friends, Igudesman and Joo, and I got them to write a sketch mixing in “Hava Nagila” with Christmas songs. It might offend a couple people, I don’t know. (Laughter) But it was really, really fun.

Then the idea of the whole album is just the joy of making music, and that’s what I did at home this Christmastime when I was growing up. We all played music, and it’s a celebration.

Tavis: I find myself asking this question of any and every guest, I suspect, over the years who has put his or her talents to a Christmas project. But you’re a little bit different because you’re playing a violin here.

So how does one go about approaching doing traditional Christmas music playing the instrument that you play? Obviously it doesn’t require, in your case, lent itself to collaborations, which you’ve already referenced, and we’ll come back to that.

But how does a violinist approach putting his own treatment on just traditional Christmas stuff?

Bell: Well that’s the fun part. For me, I’m sort of a wanna-be composer, and I love being involved with the arrangements. In each case it’s a different thing. I called up these people.

I had my wishlist. Many of them responded very positively. With Alison Krauss – Chick Corea, for instance, he agreed to do something. I said, “So what are we going to do?”

So I kind of left it in the hands of each of them to choose a song, and Chick Corea chose “Greensleeves,” which is sort of Christmas-related. He wrote a jazz sort of version of it, and included the violin as a duet.

It’s difficult with voice to find the right way to mix violin and voice, like Alison’s or Christian Chenoweth’s, it’s always a challenge. But the violin is so much of a singing instrument, and I love the violin and voice together.

So I think it’s a fun part of the process to make the violin not just an accompaniment figure, because we all know that you’re singing these songs, the voice would be the center of attention.

Since it’s my album, I like to make the violin really a lead – a co-leading role in all of these songs, and it’s really fun.

Tavis: I couldn’t wait when I got the album to hear, to your point now, how you did that delicate balance, when you have people singing and you’re playing. It really is your project and you’re playing the violin, so how does the violin take center stage?

I couldn’t wait to see you and Frankie, who we’ll hear from in a little bit, rehearse, because I wanted to see how that thing balances out. But it balances out quite nicely, though.

Bell: Well, yeah, it’s a give-and-take, just like in classical music. You have to allow the person – I don’t want to play on top of them all the time. But it’s chamber music, really, and Frankie Moreno, who you’re going to hear, he’s someone that I had on from – really, the inspiration for this album was the one I did a few years ago, and we spoke about it when I was here.

Tavis: “At Home with Friends.”

Bell: “At Home with Friends.”

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Bell: At that time I’d met Frankie in Las Vegas. I was there and some musician friends said, “You’ve got to go hear this pianist at this club at this bar.” I heard this guy, Frankie, playing incredibly virtuosic piano playing, but singing sort of rock music, and I was really intrigued.

I told him right then, I said, “You should be on my album,” and we became really good friends. One of the most talented people I know. Great harmonica player, drummer, he does everything.

It was really neat to – he and I sat down for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and just kind of – just like we did for “Eleanor Rigby” on the last one (audio dropout) came up with, after a few hours came up with a really different arrangement, sort of a little dark arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which is actually kind of a sad, dark song, in a way.

Tavis: Whenever Joshua’s on the program it always gives me a chance to stick my chest out and brag about being a graduate, a proud graduate, of Indiana University, because Mr. Bell – there you go.

Bell: Hey. (Laughter)

Tavis: Let’s do that again, do that again. There we go.

Bell: Yeah, IU, go IU.

Tavis: There you go. Joshua Bell – both Joshua Bell and I – easy for me to say – are both IU people, but this album, there are a couple of other IU connections, one of which I knew about, the other I did not. So Chris Botti was on this program –

Bell: Chris Botti.

Tavis: – not long ago, and I did not know that you guys actually knew each other like at 16.

Bell: I was 16. He was older than that. (Laughter) He was 22, I think. (Unintelligible)

Tavis: But this is back in Indiana, though.

Bell: We both still look 16, I think. We each pretend, at least. Chris and I, yeah, we were at school in the hallways. We didn’t know each other that well, but we did know each other.

It was some years later that we started hanging out a bit and playing together. So yes, there’s the IU connection there.

Tavis: What a great IU connection. So you’ve got Joshua Bell and Chris Botti and yours truly, and then I just had these guys on my radio show the other day – Straight, No Chaser.

Wonderful group, a capella group that comes together at Indiana University, and now they’re on your project.

Bell: I know. I’d known about them for years and wanted to include them, and also wanted to include for this Christmas album a classical piece that I associated with Christmas, that we all do – “The Nutcracker,” of Tchaikovsky.

I thought I wanted to have it somewhere on the album, and when I asked Straight, No Chaser if they’d do it and they said sure, I mentioned Tchaikovsky and they sent me back a demo of them singing basically singing the orchestra part, the whole orchestra parts done by voices in a way that just blew me away.

It’s somewhat humorous, because hearing voices play all the orchestra parts is really kind of interesting, it makes you smile. But it’s also a beautiful piece of music, and it was a way to include them and me together. Violin with a capella group you wouldn’t think, but it’s fun.

Tavis: It’s amazing to watch this, because you obviously are regarded around the world now, Chris Botti has done his thing in this country and around the world, highly regarded.

This group, Straight, No Chaser, did a special I guess a year or so ago for PBS that did very well, I know, since I’m here at PBS. So they’re coming into their own now.

I think people are going to really start to appreciate them even more over the years.

Bell: I hope so. That’s the fun of these albums also is that each of these people have their fans – Chick Corea and some of the people who are not in classical music.

My hope always is to get some of those fans to hear my name and they may know nothing of me at all, and maybe – and it happens. When I do things like with Josh Grobin or he has so many fans, and I get people after my concerts, classical concerts, all the time coming back and saying, “Never heard of you until I heard the song with Josh Grobin.”

Then they’re now classical music fans, which is something I think we need to reach a wider audience.

Tavis: Did most of these collaborations start with you knowing what song you wanted to do, and then you went after the artist? Or did you say, “This is my wishlist of artists,” and whatever made sense for you and for them, the material came thereafter.

Bell: Yeah, it was pretty much artist-based first. I knew who I wanted to work with. Then it was sitting down with that artist and figuring out something that would work.

Gloria Estefan, she had asked me to be on her album, her standards album, which came out recently. I think she’s nominated for a Grammy for that. (Audio dropout)

Right afterwards I was doing mine, and she was gracious enough to come do something with me. She living in Miami, the Miami connection, I included my friends Tiempo Libre, the Cuban American band that I’d worked with on the last album as well.

They wrote a sort of Latin version of “Auld Lang Syne” for New Year’s. So that was – so each one is kind of I dealt with the artists and figured out something fun to do.

Tavis: So not too, too long ago you had a birthday, turned 46.

Bell: Oh, you’re not supposed to say that. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m not supposed to say that. I thought that was only for women, you can’t say –

Bell: How old are you then? How old are you?

Tavis: I’m 49.

Bell: Okay, good.

Tavis: All right (unintelligible).

Bell: Okay, I was worried for a second. (Laughter)

Tavis: We’re right in there together. So Josh is 46, I’m 49. But this Stradivarius – I’m not going to pick it up. You can – it’s yours, so you pick it up. So at home as you’re watching this, take a guess how old the Stradivarius is.

Not 49, not 46 – just turned 300.

Bell: Yes.

Tavis: Three hundred years old.

Bell: Yeah. And it’s going to be around long after we’re both gone. (Laughter) It was made in 1713, which is pretty awesome. That was during the time of Johann Sebastian Bach and before George Washington was born.

It’s pretty awesome. I don’t know example what month it was made, so I’ve been celebrating all year its 300th birthday, and it’s pretty special.

Tavis: And it still sounds pretty good.

Bell: I think so.

Tavis: No, I think so too.

Bell: Obviously, it’s worth a lot of money as well.

Tavis: I wasn’t going to go there, but since you did, I remember when you bought this, because it was in the news how much you had paid for this. So I’m not saying anything that isn’t knowledge for those who are fans of yours. So this thing, if the news reports are correct, cost about $4 million.

Bell: Something like that, at the time.

Tavis: Something like that at the time.

Bell: So I assume the value of this just goes up every year.

Bell: Yeah. It’s the best investment anyone could make. Not that I’ll ever see the fruits of it, because I’ll have this for the rest of my life. But my grandkids will, and it’s – yeah, there are so few of them.

There are probably 400 or 500 at all in existence of Stradivarius, and many of them are in museums. Fewer and fewer are even played and available. So when one comes on the market, it’s, they’re – I’m very lucky.

Tavis: So after 300 years, though, I would assume – and I don’t know how these instruments work – but after 300 years of it being in existence, I assume that it has the capacity to take you, as my friends would say, “take you to checkout.”

You can play this for the rest of your life and there’s nothing that’s going to happen to this at a certain point in terms of the sound of it?

Bell: No. I don’t think so. As long as I take care of it and don’t sit on it, it’s really remarkable how they remain – the way things were made, period, in those days. Somehow, everything was done with great quality.

But Stradivarius in particular was the most amazing craftsmen and one of the great artists and scientists that ever lived, because he figured out something with the sound and the science of acoustics that we still don’t understand it completely. It should be around and playing. It’s not getting any worse.

Tavis: I’ve never asked you this, and I don’t know why you would, but let me just ask anyway – do you ever, have you ever since owning this, played any other instrument other than this?

Bell: Occasionally I do. Just a couple weeks ago I played at the White House at the lighting of the –

Tavis: Yeah, Christmas, yeah.

Bell: – of the Christmas tree, which is outdoors, in the rain, and cold and in the rain, and I could not bring this out. So I took another violin, which is a very nice modern violin, and I played on that one.

So there are a few times where – but really, the connection between violinist and violin is so personal, it becomes an extension of yourself. Switching from one instrument to another is not really a thing I like to do.

Tavis: So let me ask then, could you tell – for those of us who saw the ceremony, we couldn’t tell the difference in how beautifully you play, but could you tell the difference in your sound on this other instrument, this other violin?

Bell: Yeah, it’s both sound and the way it responds and the nuance of what you do. I can definitely feel it. But when you’re doing something outdoors with amplified already, it matters less and less.

The beauty of a Stradivarius is that you can play in Carnegie Hall without any amplification and it has this, the sound has, inside it, has something that projects, and it has multifaceted sound, something that kind of gets lost when you use amplification anyway.

But certainly I can tell in a second the difference. Anyone who says that they’ve done experiments and nobody can tell the difference between, that it’s all in your head, it’s not true. (Laughter)

There’s a big difference if you know how to use a violin like this. There’s a difference. It’s like being an artist and having a million colors at your disposal to make a painting rather than a few, and you feel you can do so much more with the music.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Carnegie Hall, you’re still a young man, but as I mentioned at the top of this conversation, you were just a teenager when you first hit the stage at Carnegie Hall. Do you remember that night?

Bell: Oh, very well.

Tavis: Yeah, tell, tell –

Bell: I was 17.

Tavis: Yeah.

Bell: That was – my Carnegie Hall debut I was 17 years old, with the St. Louis Symphony, and just before we went on our first European tour. It was awesome. I grew up, my teacher, talking about Carnegie Hall, hearing stories about Jascha Heifetz, my idol, and his Carnegie Hall debut in 1918 or whenever it was. I don’t know the exact year.

So walking out on that stage and knowing that all the great people that had ever played there, and it was awesome. But actually, I played my best that night. Somehow, it just inspired me to play my best. So yeah, that was a special moment.

Tavis: That is a fascinating notion for me, because there are moments that are so drama-filled, the expectation is so high, that sometimes as artists we measure up, and sometimes we get intimidated in the moment.

What do you think it was about that particular night at 17 that allowed you, by your own statement and sense, to play your best?

Bell: I don’t know. I think generally under pressure I feel I play better, and I think the pressure helps me to get excited and focus.

So I feel lucky that that’s the way it affects me, because there’s some great artists I know that are just afraid to walk on stage every time, and they suffer from it.

There are moments where I’ve suffered, believe me, but something like Carnegie Hall is definitely, it inspires you. It’s hard to say what it is. It is partially the acoustic that’s generous, and you feel like what you’re doing is coming across to the people and you don’t have to force.

Funny enough you mentioned Carnegie Hall. This violin had some history at Carnegie Hall. This is where it was stolen, at Carnegie Hall in 1936, from Huberman, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.

He owned this violin and it was stolen from him in ’36 and disappeared for another 50 years. He never saw it again. So that was the sort of scene of the crime.

Tavis: But you didn’t steal it.

Bell: I didn’t steal it. (Laughter) I wasn’t around.

Tavis: You weren’t around in 1938, yeah.

Bell: But yeah, it was a famous story. When I came across the violin in London in 2001 I knew all about it. It’s a very famous story about this being stolen from Huberman.

So I knew about it. I picked the violin up in the show and played a few notes on it and said, “This is my violin. I have to have it,” and never looked back.

Tavis: But that will never happen to you, though. You’re not going to get it stolen from you.

Bell: I do my best not to (laughter) – although the insurance money would – I could live on that for a very, very long time.

Tavis: I was about to say, the insurance on that must be awfully nice. (Laughter) When you do – on those rare occasions, because you’re human, you’re not human and divine, when you on those rare occasions walk off the stage and feel like you haven’t done your best, haven’t hit your mark, is there a typical answer as to what was missing on that particular night?

Was it notes, was it – I’m just trying to get a sense of what you sense about a performance that wasn’t top-notch.

Bell: Yeah, it does happen, and to various degrees. Sometimes it’s preparation, sometimes I try to figure out what did I eat that day, like was I not, didn’t I sleep well enough, did I pack too many concerts in the week before?

Try to figure it out, because it’s the worst feeling in the world to walk on stage and not feel completely confident, for one, or to walk off stage feeling like you could have done better.

But you learn from it, and often, the times after the worst concerts come sure enough, like a week later, the best one you ever did. So you’ve got to keep remember that.

Tavis: I just read somewhere that after the first of the year I think you’re off to Europe on concert tour?

Bell: Going out on tour with my orchestra, I like to say now, because the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which I’m directing and playing with, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’m doing at the moment.

Getting to direct and conduct Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” for the first time is like a dream come true. So I’m doing that along with Brahms concerto and everything else.

So European tour with them, and then booked – the concert life, the schedule is booked for three years in advance, really, so at least it’s good to know I’ll be working.

Tavis: That’s good. Congrats on that opportunity as well.

Bell: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: So this is Christmas Eve, so we have obviously pre-taped this conversation, so I assume that right about now you and I are both with our mamas back in Indiana.

Bell: Both in Indiana, you –

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, we’re both back home in Indiana.

Bell: – Kokomo me in –

Tavis: I’m in Kokomo and you’re in Bloomington, yeah.

Bell: – me in Bloomington, yeah.

Tavis: So Merry Christmas to you.

Bell: Merry Christmas to you.

Tavis: Happy Hanukah and Happy New Year and Feliz Navidad, and whatever else I’m missing – Happy Kwanzaa and all that good stuff. Have a great trip in Europe.

Bell: Thanks, thanks. Thanks for talking with me.

Tavis: Great tour. Good to see you. The latest project, the newest project, from our friend Joshua Bell is called “Musical Gifts” from Joshua Bell and friends. Speaking of musical gifts, he is now going to bless us with a gift.

He and his friend Frankie Moreno are going to perform “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” So now I will say good night, and thank you for watching. As always, keep the faith, and enjoy Joshua Bell and Frankie Moreno.

[Live musical performance by Joshua Bell and Frankie Moreno]


Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 26, 2013 at 10:17 pm