Music Interviews
9:03 am
Mon September 3, 2012

Classical 'Rock Star' Joshua Bell Takes On Conducting

This interview was originally broadcast on June 7, 2012.

Joshua Bell, the violin prodigy who grew into what some call a classical-music rock star, has taken the helm of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, an English chamber orchestra based in London. Bell is the orchestra's first music director since Sir Neville Marriner, who created the group.

On his first tour with the group as both music director and conductor, Bell plays the violin while conducting the orchestra simultaneously, gesturing with his bow. He leads from the concert master's chair, rather than the podium, which seems unusual to some audiences.

But the ASMF orchestra "really knows how to read those sorts of cues," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. In fact, Bell says, Marriner originally led the orchestra from the violin, too.

"So this orchestra, their roots come from being directed from the chair," he says. "Not with a stick."


Interview Highlights

On good conductors vs. bad conductors

"A bad conductor [is] someone who can actually get in the way of the music. I mean, the great secret is that an orchestra can actually play without a conductor at all. Of course, a great conductor will have a concept and will help them play together and unify them. But there are conductors that actually inhibit the players from playing with each other properly.

"And, of course, there's interpretive things ... I cringe, you know, when I see the way they don't follow the score or they're giving cues that are contrary to what's intuitive for a musician who's trying to follow them. There are so many things ... that one can do wrong. I'm still learning myself, you know — what works, what can help create the excitement and where I should just not give a cue and just let them play. And then, when you do that, when you're not giving a beating every single beat and showing every single thing that you have on your mind — when you don't do that, then, when you do show something, it makes so much more of an impact. So I'm still learning all those things myself."

On conducting from his chair

"Somehow it makes the players ... have to sit on the edge of their seat. They can't get away with kind of sitting back and following. They have to lead themselves, as well. And also, there's sort of no middleman this way. They follow directly what I'm doing, and sometimes, somehow it feels even more natural."

On conducting rehearsals

"So many times, I've seen conductors that every time they have a thought, they stop the orchestra and say it and I can see the orchestra rolling their eyes and saying, 'Oh, God, he stopped again.' So there's a technique to rehearsing. You know, you try to store up the things you want to say, try to remember what they are so you can say them all at once at the end.

"And ... you shouldn't have to speak everything. You should be able to show with your hands, you know, if you want something to become more legato. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a conductor say, 'Play softer,' as they're waving their hands in huge gestures. You know, they say, 'Now, softer here, softer here' ... There's so much you can show with your hands ... That's what we should strive for, not having to say so much and showing it through the hands."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. One-time prodigy Joshua Bell recently took the helm of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the famed chamber orchestra led for so many years by Sir Neville Mariner. On his first tour as its musical director and conductor, Bell conducts from the concert master's chair and signals the other players with gestures and his violin bow. We'd like to hear from musicians today about what makes a good conductor or a bad one. But a reminder, this is a rebroadcast. We're not going to be able to take any new calls in the program. Of course, Joshua Bell continues to perform and just released a new CD with longtime collaborator Jeremy Denk called "French Impressions."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO")

CONAN: An excerpt from Maurice Ravel's "Sonata for Violin and Piano" from the new CD "French Impressions." Joshua Bell joins us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for coming in today.

JOSHUA BELL: Oh, thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I wondered whether the communication that you developed with a partner in a duet can translate to what you need to do as a player-conductor in a much larger setting.

BELL: Well, there's a lot in common, really. I've - the way you communicate with the pianist, let's say on this album, through gestures and also in the rehearsal, of course, the discussions that go on in rehearsal, discussing the concepts of the piece that you're performing. It's similar when I get in front of the orchestra now with the Academy and discuss how my version of my concept of the "Beethoven 7th Symphony," for instance.

And then when I conduct this orchestra, I do lead from the concert master chair, which is something a little different for some people who haven't seen it done that way. But it really does work very well. And this orchestra really knows how to read those sort of cues. They're very good at that.

CONAN: Sort of a player-manager in baseball. Been a while since I've seen one.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: A little bit, yeah.

CONAN: You've worked under so many batons now. I wondered what you think makes a good conductor. And, for example, you worked under Sir Neville Mariner.

BELL: I did. Actually, the first recording I ever made, first concerto recording I did was with Sir Neville Mariner. I don't know if he was a sir at that point yet, but it was with Neville Mariner at that time with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. That was 25 years ago. And so I've kind of gone full circle here. But he's a wonderful conductor. And he started actually leading that orchestra from the violin as well. So this orchestra, their roots came from being directed from the chair, not from the - with a stick. But naturally, I have worked with, I think, probably thousands of conductors by now, and I've learned a lot from the bad ones as well as the good ones.

CONAN: Without naming names...

BELL: I'll just say the bad ones then, OK?

CONAN: OK, yeah.

BELL: No, I'm just kidding.

CONAN: Without naming names, what makes a bad conductor?

BELL: Well.

CONAN: Or conductors having a bad day.

BELL: No. Well, I mean, you see, there are so many things that make, let's say, a good conductor. A bad conductor: Someone who can actually get in the way of the music. I mean, the great secret is that an orchestra can actually play without a conductor at all. Of course, a great conductor will have a concept and will help them play together and unify them. But there are conductors that actually inhibit the players from playing with each other properly.

And, of course, there's interpretive things. There are conductors that - I cringe, you know, when I see the way they don't follow the score or they don't - they're giving cues that are contrary to what's intuitive for a musician for - who's trying to follow them. There are so many things that make, you know, that one can do wrong. I'm still learning myself, you know, as - what works, what can help create the excitement and what - where I should just not give a cue and just let them play. And then when you do that, when you're not giving a beating every single beat and showing every single thing that you have on your mind, when you don't do that then when you do show something, it makes so much more of an impact. So I'm still learning all those things myself.

CONAN: Can you hear - taking a familiar orchestra and saying, oh, well, that's clearly Tilson Thomas at the helm there? I mean, can you hear the difference, the signature of different conductors?

BELL: Well, sometimes I certainly can. I mean, certainly some of the older, you know, when you listen to Herbert von Karajan or Bernstein or the - I can often guess who is the conductor just based on their tempi and the way they - the rubato, where they take time and the - and one can do that. I can't always tell. But it certainly, I mean, a good conductor makes a real difference. And I was talking to Alan Gilbert, one of my favorite conductors, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He actually came to our show in London with the Academy, and he was sitting in the second row. It was kind of intimidating...

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: ...watch, you know, sort of my debut as music director and - but afterwards he was telling me, I heard you say in an interview that you like playing concertos without conductor, that you much prefer it. And he said he was really pissed off of me about - he wasn't really. We're good friends.

But I also enjoyed playing, like, the Beethoven concerto on this tour with the Academy. We're in the middle of it right now, you know, playing the Beethoven concerto without a conductor, where I'm playing the solo and then directing the two Ts. And somehow it makes the players - this way, they sort of - they have to sit on the edge of their seat. They can't get away with kind of sitting back and following. They have to lead themselves and - as well. And also, there's sort of no middleman this way. They follow directly what I'm doing and there's - sometimes - somehow it feels even more natural but although - yeah.

CONAN: There's no moment when you want to jump up and leave your role as the violinist just to make sure you get that section coming in at the right moment?

BELL: Well, it's sometimes frustrating when I'm doing one thing in the orchestra, I have to do something very, you know, interrupt something very contrary that I can't cue and have the atmosphere that I want from my part. And so I have to really - we have to plan out in advance and say, really, you guys just - you lead it, and you just interrupt me there. And a lot of that has to be decided ahead of time. But what I think what a conductor does, really, I'd say 90 percent of what a conductor does, their job is done in the rehearsal. On stage, that's the last bit of inspiration and the moment is, of course, is very important. But what you do in the rehearsal, how you lay out your interpretation and how you rehearse the orchestra is really - that's the most - once you've done that job, you could - you should be able to almost let them play on their own.

CONAN: We're talking with Joshua Bell, music director and conductor of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the famous chamber orchestra. We're also talking to him about his new CD, "French Impressions." We want to hear from musicians to say about the role of the conductor. What makes a good one or a bad one? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Clayton. Clayton with us on the line from Phoenix.

CLAYTON: Hi. I would like to say that when a conductor walks in, being a musician, there's a certain air of - when a great conductor walks in, everybody goes silent, and they listen to what they have to say. And I've been in so many rehearsals with conductors who let attention fly and not be centered on what's really happening with - so that's what I feel like a great conductor can really do to a group.

BELL: I agree with that. It's - you have to - it's kind of a little bit of chicken and the egg there. You have to earn their respect first to get them to listen to you as well, and to do that, you have to be a good conductor. But it's a little bit like, I guess, it - sometimes it might sound silly because it's almost like a teacher in a classroom, you know? You have to be a psychologist as well, and know how to get people's attention. You have to be - you have to juggle being a friend with them and being - and you have to joke. You have to be able have fun, and yet you have to lay down the law to a certain extent and earn their respect in that way. So it's always a balancing act. You don't - you can't be too chummy all the time, but then you don't want to be, you know, you don't want to be mean person and - because then they don't want to play for you either. So it's...

CONAN: There's - Clayton, thanks very much for the call. You played, as you mentioned, previously as a visitor with the St. Martin in the Fields - Academy of St. Martin in the Fields - but it's one thing to be brought in as the violinist. You're expected to play the part. You're the virtuoso. You're the music director here, and you're picking the music. And is there any backbiting? Well, of course, he picked a violin concerto.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: Well, certainly, when I tour, I always do something when - I always - that I can play a solo, usually a violin concerto. And I don't conduct every concert there. So they have plenty of chance during the season to play with the pianist and play orchestra programs. So they expect me - they don't want me to play the piano.

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: So that's fine. It's - I've actually been touring with them for the last 10 years on occasion as a guest, and I've sort of gotten to know them very well. And somehow the chemistry - a lot of it is chemistry, by the way. I have worked with great conductors. You know, I'll play in Houston and play with a conductor, and they loved him and it get goes great. And then I'll go to the next city in Philadelphia and I say, I just worked with this great conductor. The orchestra loved him. And they'll say, oh, my God, we hated him. We, you know, from the second he walk on the podium, it was just as - there was no chemistry at all. And so it's - so somehow I feel this orchestra and I, we had - at least I thought we had a good chemistry, and then they did asked me to be their music director, so I guess that they felt the same way.

CONAN: Must have felt the same. I was surprised when I was first in London to see St. Martin in the Fields, and it's a relatively small, little church tucked away in a major city square. Do you guys play a lot of home games?

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: Well, you know, the funny thing about this orchestra, they've - I mean, they've made probably at least 1,000 recordings, maybe more than any other orchestra at all. I mean, they're very famous for their recordings. Around the world, they've got a, you know, very big name. They don't play a lot in London, and that's something I want to change now. I want to play more home games. There are very - they do tour just so much. And the St. Martin in the Fields itself is a small place, and it's not conducive to big symphonic things, but it's nice for some smaller chamber things, which they continue to do.

CONAN: We're talking with Joshua Bell. Again, his new CD with longtime collaborator Jeremy Denk is called "French Impressions." He's also the new conductor and musical director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk with Alan(ph). Alan with us from Ferndale in Michigan.

ALAN: Hi. I just want to say, first of all, I was at your concert on Sunday at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, and it was absolutely breathtaking, so thank you for that performance, Mr. Bell.

BELL: Oh, thanks. Thank you so much. I love Ann Arbor and I love - that auditorium is one the most amazing places to play. We - that we - we all really had a blast that night.

ALAN: Yeah, absolutely. But anyway, I'm a public school music teacher, band director. And as a conductor, I notice a lot of people in my profession, you know, just rely on the rehearsal only to get the musical things that they want from their ensemble. You know, how do I get my students to visually communicate with me is something I struggle with on a daily basis so that we can make music without verbal cues and more rely on my gesture as opposed to stopping and rehearsing, you know? It's something - we have a lot more rehearsal time, so it's possible in public education, rather in the professional world. But how do I get my visual cues to help my students understand the music better?

BELL: Well, you know, really, the whole thing is it's a kind of code, isn't it? I mean, what - those gestures, they're sort of abstract. But it is a code, and so it's sort of - it's training. In the rehearsal, once you train them to say, you know, when I do this, this is how - first of all, these cues should be sort of also logical and instinctive. They should be able to pick that up. But it's - when we're talking about bad conductors, that's something that I've noticed as a soloist over the years. So many times I've seen conductors that every time they have a thought, they stop the orchestra and say it and I can see...

ALAN: Right.

BELL: ...the orchestra rolling their eyes and saying, oh, God, he stopped again. So there's a technique to rehearsing. You know, you try to store up the things you want to say, try to remember what they are, so you can say them all at once at the end. And also not to be - have to - like you're saying, you shouldn't have to speak everything. You should be able to show with your hands, you know, if you want something to become more legato. There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a conductor say, play softer, as they're waving their hands huge gestures, you know, they say, now, softer here, softer here.

You know, it has to correlate to what they're doing. And there's so much you can show with your hands and that - you're right. That's what we should strive for, not having to say so much and showing it through the hands and...

ALAN: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Good luck, Alan.

ALAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we get Michael in. Michael calling us from Broad Brook in Connecticut.

MICHAEL: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

MICHAEL: I spent my six years in the Army band, so we ended up seeing everything, you know, from guys that were just learning to very, very experienced band masters. And one of the best guys we had was this guy named Charles Moore down at Fort Hood, Texas. And he was a real quiet guy, but he was amazingly intense and amazingly knowledgeable. And he conducted in the smallest patterns of any conductor that I ever worked for. And I continue to play professionally now.

And he just - his patterns were so small, and the difference between a fortissimo and a pianissimo was really not that much. But everybody understood. It seemed like he had a line in the air to everybody in the band. And he got - and he ended up leaving, and we got another band master, who was very good, but just never quite seemed to have the communication. And it didn't come from gestures, you know? Of course, he ran a, you know, beautiful rehearsal. He had a great concept for everything that we played and, I mean, it's just wonderful. But just one more funny thing about a conductor.

CONAN: Quickly, if you could.

MICHAEL: I'm a memorizer, and I memorize long passages of music. And so when the conductor is conducting, I tend to really, really watch the conductor and not look at the music. And I had a conductor a few years back came after rehearsal. He came and he said, would you do me a favor, Mike? And I said, what? And he goes, would you stop staring at me?

(LAUGHTER)

BELL: You can't win. You can't.

CONAN: You can't win.

BELL: Now, first, they're not paying attention, then they're staring...

MICHAEL: But thanks very much. I love your work.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

BELL: Thanks. It's funny about the gestures, you know, that there are some conductors - and you see some 95-year-old conductors. That's one of the reasons why I want to get into conducting more because I think you live longer. So you see a 95-year-old conductor who doesn't have the flexibility and the strength to move around a lot, and yet they can show with a small gesture a kind of power that an orchestra can feel, and they can get this amazing sound out of an orchestra without huge gestures. And so it's an amazing thing what the conductor's role is. It's something sort of magical about it that when it works, it's something really amazing.

CONAN: Well, Joshua Bell, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it, and good luck with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

BELL: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And we'll end where we started, with some of the Maurice Ravel's "Sonata for Violin and Piano," from the new CD by Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk called "French Impressions."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONATA FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO")

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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