“Probably the most viscerally exciting piece ever written for the instrument.”
That’s how violinist Joshua Bell described Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra.” Bell performs the piece with the Omaha Symphony this Friday and Saturday.
He said the piece is incredible, passionate and exciting. Bell estimated he’s played the work about a 1,000 times since he was 13 years old but insists it is still one of his favorites.
“When you have played a piece so many times, you do have to make a conscious effort to keep exploring the text of the work. You have to keep looking for new phrasing. And you do find new things each time. Different collaborators make for different chemistry,” he said.
Bell admits he wouldn’t want to play the Tchaikovsky every night. He keeps his schedule varied enough so when he goes back to familiar favorites, he is able to fall in love with the pieces all over again.
Technically, the work was deemed “unplayable” when it was first composed in 1878. That was largely due to its technical challenges. Bell said it demands much from the violinist and tests all limits.
“It’s got everything. Fireworks, incredible intimate moments, dark moments in the slow movement and the climax. Nothing beats it. It’s really one audiences want to hear,” said Bell.
He said the “Tchaikovsky Concerto in D” is one of 10 concertos he could play if woken from a deep sleep in the middle of the night and not forget anything. Even so, Bell said it’s important to rehearse for technical reasons and to keep things fresh. He said even Tiger Woods has to keep practicing.
Bell hopes he grabs those who don’t normally go to symphony concerts.
“I’m trying to reach them. If they clap after the first movement, that would make me happy. I say if you feel like clapping, then clap. I want these people to go away thinking ‘this is just great music. I love the symphony and the orchestra and I love hearing classical music,’” said Bell.
He hope those who know the piece well come away thinking they’ve heard things they haven’t heard before.
“Perhaps the piece isn’t only about the fireworks and romanticism but also has so many intimate balletic moments,” Bell said.
Tchaikovsky doesn’t get as much credit as Bell thinks he should. He said because Tchaikovsky’s music appeals to the masses, some feel it’s not great music.
Bell cannot understand that, “Somehow it’s deep music and great music and yet it still appeals to everyone.”
When I asked him his thoughts about being dubbed a “classical music superstar,” Bell laughed.
“I would have to ask, what does superstar mean? If it means I am playing for full audiences, as I hope to in Omaha, if that’s the criteria, then that’s great. I like playing for a full hall. And if it means people are coming to the concert because they’ve seen me in the film The Red Violin or have listened to my duets with Sting or Josh Groban, then that’s excellent” he said.
He performs on the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin, which was stolen from Carnegie Hall in the 1930s and returned upon the thief’s death in 1985. Bell purchased the violin in 2004 for $4 million, selling his own Stradivarius at the time.
Bell was recently appointed as the new Music Director for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. He took over the reins from Sir Neville Marriner who formed the orchestra in 1958.
“Being their music director is something new for me. I’d been playing with them and directing them as a guest for years. When they started looking for a new Music Director, I was touched they asked me,” he said.
Bell is enjoying his new post as it allows him to explore lots of new repertoire.
During their recent European tour, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 1” and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony.”
“These are works I could’ve only dreamed of getting up and interpreting and directing. Playing a violin concerto on the same concert was a lot of work, but this post is one of the most rewarding things I’ve taken on,” said Bell.
Assuming his new position as Music Director has been challenging for Bell. But he feels it is important not only to be challenged but also to challenge yourself.
“I could probably get away with playing the same 10 violin concertos, traveling around the world, making a good living and enjoying it. But it is so important as an artist to keep pushing your limits and learning. I feel like a perpetual student and that’s a good thing. I want to keep exploring new repertoire,” he said.
For Bell, directing and conducting both help his violin playing and also the way he approaches his solo playing. He said it’s something he wants to do a lot more often.
Live performance is a ton more fun for Bell than recording. He calls recording a “necessity,” but enthuses his love for the energy and electricity he feels when performing in front of a live audience.
“It’s just a one time thing. You play and if you make a mistake, that’s fine, that’s not what it’s all about,” Bell said.
He doesn’t want those who like classical music to forget that going to a live concert offers something special, something extra. He said anyone can sit at home and listen to recordings in a perfectly quiet environment but that there’s nothing like a live performance.
Classical music has something for everyone according to Bell. He said it’s called “classical” because the music has endured over so many years. The pieces appeal to people universally over the centuries, not unlike classic literature.
Bell said, “’Anna Karenina’ will never go away because it’s a story that appeals to the deepest emotions we have been feeling since the beginning of time. Classical music is the same way. And the great thing is, the more you know about it, the better it gets. A great piece of music, because of its abstract nature and depth, the more you hear it, the more you get out of it. And that’s an incredible thing.”
Bell has been in Omaha off and on over the years, with his first performance here occurring at the age of 14. He said he’s excited to listen to the orchestra.
The Tchaikovsky “Violin Concerto” is certainly in the top few of the most popular violin concertos in the repertoire. Bell said it always brings the house down.
The audiences in Omaha can expect Bell to give them everything he’s got for the 40 minutes he plays the concerto.
“They may like it. They may not. But I will give every ounce of energy and emotion I have and hopefully they will come away just loving the Tchaikovsky ‘Violin Concerto,’” said Bell.
Joshua Bell Plays Tchaikovsky Friday, November 16th and Saturday, November 17th at 8:00 p.m. in the Holland Performing Arts Center. The all-Tchaikovsky program also includes the Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, “Winter Daydreams” and the “Festival Coronation March.” Tickets are $25-$75 at omahasymphony.org or 402.345.0606.