Arts & Culture
5:32 pm
Fri March 7, 2014

Classical Music Superstar Joshua Bell Returns To KC

Violinist Joshua Bell talks about working with music director Michael Stern and Lalo's 'Symphonie espagnole.'

Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell spends 250 days a year on the road, performing with orchestras around the world. This weekend, Bell returns to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts as a featured soloist for the Kansas City Symphony

A child prodigy who first started taking violin lessons at the age of 4, Bell debuted at Carnegie Hall at the age of 17. Since that time, he's performed with many of the world's major orchestras and conductors with his expressive and physical style.

In 2011, Bell was named music director for the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields where he leads from the first violin.

Joshua Bell (at left) appears in a scene with Malcolm McDowell in the Amazon pilot for ‘Mozart in the Jungle.’
Credit Amazon Studios

"I'm growing a lot as a musician from that experience," he says. "You always got to keep pushing forward, trying new things. And that keeps it interesting."

Bell has also appeared in film and television, from Sesame Street to Dancing with the Stars. Most recently, he appeared in the pilot for the Amazon series, Mozart in the Jungle.

After an open rehearsal at the Kauffman Center on Friday, Bell stopped to take a few questions.

Interview Highlights: Joshua Bell

On a connection to music at a young age

I was drawn to music. I don't know if it's genetic or environmental but it's probably a little bit of both. It runs in my family; everybody loves music and seems to gravitate towards music.

When I was four, my parents gave me a violin after they found me stringing rubber bands on my dresser drawers and plucking out different notes on it. I believe they chose the violin for me. It was my father's favorite instrument. And he had always wished he could have played and he didn't. Once I started, I stuck with it.

And age of 12, I decided to take it even to the next step and look towards making it a career - and sure enough, that's what I'm doing now.

On balancing a focus on music with a regular childhood

I did a lot of sports and video games, normal things that kids do. I'm grateful for that, that my parents allowed me to have a pretty normal childhood. I wasn't expected to become a musician. I think that was important for me, that it was really my decision...

My oldest, my 6-year-old son is playing the cello. And one of my two four-year-olds is particularly gravitating towards the piano; and just on his own, sitting at the piano quite a lot and playing the tunes he hears on my older son's cello. I have a feeling he's going to want to - and maybe all of them will get into music and stay in music.

On the busking experiment in 2007 in a Washington, D.C. subway station

This famous subway experience that somehow went viral. I thought it was just something I did for fun with The Washington Post. It was remarkable how that sort of took on a life of its own.

Probably the sweetest thing that's come out of that is this children's book, The Man with the Violin (2013). It talks about stopping, basically stopping and smelling the roses. But it's told in a very beautiful way from a child's point of view. In our world of hustle and bustle and technology, just to take a step and just look what's happening around you.

On TV and film appearances, from Sesame Street to Red Violin to Mozart in the Jungle

It's always fun for me to be part of either movies or TV. I've done that kind of cameo thing a few times in TV and film. It's always fun to meet the actors. (In Mozart in the Jungle) I got to shoot a scene with Malcolm McDowell, so that was a blast.

It's also nice to see music part of popular culture, classical music. So people can relate to classical music, not as something that's just a peripheral thing for the elite few. Classical music somehow is part of everyone's lives in some way. I was happy to see a show like this being at least attempted to be made.

On his easy camaraderie with KCS music director Michael Stern on stage

The aspect of collaboration and playing off of one another is so important, and it's nice when you do know the conductor, or your chamber music partner, (when) you know them very well personally.

Michael Stern is one of my oldest friends, going back probably 30 years, almost. He's really one of my favorite musicians. It's always a treat when I get to go to work like this, for a weekend, and have a great friend and get to dig into a piece like the Lalo with someone who cares so much about it, about the details.

In the rehearsal there's a lot of talk about just little details and dynamics and phrasings and trying to bring out the nuance in the piece - that's what makes it.

On the role of violinist as storyteller in Édouard Lalo's Symphonie espagnole

It's very Spanish. There's a lot of that feeling of the torreador, the bullfighter in there. You get a lot of that bravura, a lot of the elegant flirtation that you associate with the bullfighter...There's a lot of sensuality.

The fourth movement, which I think is the most beautiful movement, is almost like a funeral-type march. Perhaps the bullfighter didn't make it. And then the last movement, of course, brings us back into a virtuosic dance that kind of lifts you off your feet. It tells a story throughout, and that's what music really is about.

Kansas City Symphony presents Adam Schoenberg's American Symphony, Lalo's Symphonie espagnole (featuring Joshua Bell on violin) and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, March 7 - 9, 2014, at Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Mo. Tel: 816-471-0400.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.