Joshua Bell’s debut recording in 1986 may have been prophetic. On it, the 18-year-old American violinist performed with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Today Bell has been music director of the self-same orchestra for six years — and has just signed up for three more.
“I love this orchestra so much,” Bell says. “I feel there’s a special chemistry between us. Their attitude is amazing and they give so much in the concerts. As we travel together a lot, I spend time with them in a way that I don’t if I’m a guest soloist. We were recently in Iceland and I was out with them in the middle of the night, trying to find the Northern Lights.”
In January he and the ASMF undertake a seven-date UK tour, performing Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 and the world premiere of Edgar Meyer’s Overture for Violin and Orchestra, written especially for Bell. It’s a typical mingling of his roles as violin soloist, conductor and champion of new music and, he adds, “instead of leaving after a half-hour concerto for a post-concert cold beer, I’m involved in the whole two hours of the concert, which is so much more rewarding.”
Bell, who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, credits his Jewish mother (“in every sense!”) with forming his crucial pattern of hard work and determination. “She’s very strong willed,” he smiles. “I think one reason a lot of successful musicians have been Jewish is that tradition of work ethic and involvement from the parents.”
His violin is, moreover, “the most Jewish Stradivarius you could find”. The ‘Gibson-ex-Huberman’ of 1713, it belonged to Bronislaw Huberman, who founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, later the Israel Philharmonic. In 1936 Huberman was performing at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for the orchestra when the violin disappeared from its case backstage. “It didn’t resurface until 1985, when a café violinist called Julian Altman admitted on his deathbed that he’d stolen it,” Bell recounts. The instrument has been making up for lost time ever since, sold first to Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus String Quartet and to Bell in 2001.
Highlights for 2018 include a US tour and a CD in which Bell and the ASMF play Bruch’s Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy. “I’m glad that, as I get older, each year I feel I play the violin better than I did the year before,” Bell says. “Hopefully that will continue for a while. But eventually if certain physical things start to decline, then — if, God willing, I’m able to live that long — conducting could extend my life as a musician.”
Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields start their tour on January 12 at Cadogan Hall in London.