Violinist Joshua Bell has been outstanding in his field for nearly two decades. Now he is outstanding in St. Martin's.
The virtuoso and one of classical music's most recognizable figures just concluded a tour not as soloist, but as music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Yes, the same orchestra that Neville Marriner founded in 1958, taking it to great prominence by recording seemingly every extant classical and baroque work. The only difference is that Mr. Bell leads with a violin and bow in hand, whether playing a concerto or conducting a Beethoven symphony. The London-based Gramophone Magazine called it a coup for the orchestra, but Mr. Bell feels that should be flipped.
"It is exhausting but incredibly rewarding," he says. "I always play a concerto, but conducting takes my soloing to a different place. I have done the Beethoven Violin Concerto all my life, but I have always had work with conductors and pick my battles. Now I can rehearse the orchestra the way I would like, the way I always secretly would wish."
It's made his life that much busier -- especially since he is now involved with the inner workings of an orchestra such as personnel and programing. But he likes it that way.
"I am used to this," he says. "I thrive on pushing the limits and, in some ways, I play better. If I have time off I am not the most disciplined person. A week can go by where I don't touch the instrument. I love being busy."
Mr. Bell's stature is one of the few who transcend classical music and that can lead to requests that might make a musician cringe, such as a recent appearance performing on "Dancing With the Stars" for its "Classical Night." For him, however, it's part of the responsibility for broadening the scope of classical music and bringing it to new audiences. He did anything but phone-in that performance, pouring artistry into a brief performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."
"I thought long and hard before doing 'Dancing With the Stars,' like I have before doing things like that, such as duets with Josh Groban," he says. "But when I have done them I am amazed by the effect they have. People come after my concerts and say that I never listened to classical music but then I heard you with Groban and now I am a subscriber to an orchestra."
The violinist who grew up in Indiana but is now based in New York, is concerned about classical music's marginalization, and sees the importance of reaching 60 million people on a successful show like that.
"The Grammys used to have a classical artist perform something," he says. "I was on Johnny Carson three times but Jay Leno doesn't have classical musicians [often].
"When an opportunity arises, I take it."
Mr. Bell, 43, is excited to work with Mr. Honeck for the first time and aficionados and fans might be interested to know that lately he has been tweaking his cadenza -- one of the better ones -- for the Brahms Violin Concerto that is on the docket. This is the one part of a concerto in which the soloist is given free rein by the composer to creatively respond to the music. They aren't improvised much anymore, but there is a rich history of performers writing cadenzas for the Brahms, including the likes of Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz.
"I first wrote it about 20 years ago," he says. "I recorded it 15 years ago with the Cleveland Orchestra and felt it was as good as it could be. Every once in a while I would tweak something. But this week I changed an entire section of it. To me my most creative outlets are writing cadenzas."
That's saying a great deal considering his latest CD, a disc of violin sonatas by Ravel, Franck and Saint-Saens with acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk, and his upcoming premiere of a double concerto for violin and double bass by Edgar Meyer.
Yet even with the schedule and with fatherly duties, the avid video game player still finds time for one of his other passions (he is an excellent tennis player, too):
" 'Angry Birds,' 'Cut the Rope,' 'Where's My Water,' 'Temple Run': I have a lot of waiting boarding planes," he says with a laugh about playing the smartphone games.