top of page

'I will be sitting in the concertmaster's chair and leading from there.' Q&A with Joshua Bell

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields is coming to Columbus to open its 2022 Tour with Joshua Bell. The tour will debut at RiverCenter for the Performing Arts on February 22, 2022 at 7:30 PM.

One of the world's finest chamber orchestras, the Academy is famous for their unmatched skill performing without a traditional conductor. Formed by Sir Neville Marriner in 1958, the Academy debuted with a live performance in its namesake church in November 1959. Now more than seven decades later, the ensemble boasts a vast collection of more than 500 recordings, numerous awards across the music and film industries, and a demanding annual schedule of live performances.

A decade ago, the Academy named virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell as their Music Director. Bell's career as a solo performer spans more than four decades and has taken him all over the globe - including multiple tours with the Academy as a guest soloist long before taking the helm.

So, how did Bell connect with The Academy? What's it like to lead a conductor-less orchestra? Did he really play in a New York City subway for strangers just to see what would happen? And what should our Columbus audience expect from this week's tour debut?

Read on to learn the answers to all of the questions above and more!

Image by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Q: It goes without saying you've had a remarkable international career. You could pick anybody to work with. What do you love about Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in particular, and how did you connect?

A: Well, I first worked with them in the 1980s when I was a teenager. My first album, a concerto album, was recorded with them under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner. Then, at the beginning of the 21st century, I started performing with them as a guest soloist or guest director.

This allowed me to get my feet wet with the whole idea of not having another conductor there. A mark of Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is that the ensemble does not perform with a conductor. This means that the guest performer leads the orchestra, which, was really rewarding for me because they're an incredible group of musicians who are used to being led that way.

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is an an orchestra, but they play as if they were a chamber group. The way they listen, the way they play with each other, it's unlike traditional orchestras that have a conductor waving a stick in front of them. That's not to say there aren't good orchestras and outstanding conductors! But there's something very special about the way the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performs. There is an incredible connection in an orchestra like this.

So I started performing with them as a guest every year or two. I'd come and do a little mini tour or a concert here and there.

As I started to get to know the orchestra and eventually the repertoire, my appearances with them started getting more and more elaborate. We went from Bach and Vivaldi to Mozart symphonies and then I directed my first Beethoven Symphony with them, which for me, was a revelation. I mean, just an amazing experience. At this point I've done eight of the nine symphonies with them.

Q: What brought the transition to you being their music director?

A: Ten years ago, their longtime conductor retired and they were looking for a figurehead or music director and they asked me. Since they already felt like family, it was a very natural thing for me. I've been their music director ever since. But over the last two years we've only performed once together due to the pandemic. We did a concert this summer at the Royal Albert Hall, but I haven't done a tour with them since mid-March of 2020.

Q: You were on tour when the pandemic hit?

A: We basically finished our tour - a huge US tour with a Brahms symphony. It was an incredible experience. We ended the 19 city tour, which was done in 21 days or something crazy like that. We finished literally the week that the country shut down. Thankfully, we managed to get everyone home to London before international travel stopped completely.

Q: Wow. So this is your first tour back together, then?

A: It is, and I am very, very excited to dive into Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, and just to be on tour with musical family again. Actually, our tour starts in Columbus.

Q: How lucky we are to see the first performance for this tour! That's very exciting.

A: Thanks. I think it'll be a good program. It's a pretty accessible, but a rich and big program that we're doing on this tour. I think the audience will enjoy it.

Q: You have a very extensive performance schedule. What is it like to be on the road? You just said your last year was 19 cities in 21 days? How do you maintain a lifestyle that enables you to perform to the best of your ability?

A: Well, I mean, I've been performing professionally since I was 14 years old, and touring probably since I was 18 or 19. For decades, I've been carrying a schedule of a hundred or more concerts per year, which involves even more days of travel. It's just what I know. And yes, it's a lot of mental pressure and physical pressure and all of those things. But I've been doing it for so long, and I mean, somehow I'm just cut out for it.

I seem to thrive on a demanding schedule. I like it. I think a lot of people would find it just, um, awful to be on the road so much - to put yourself through that kind of pressure and stress. But I love it. I put a lot of pressure on myself at every concert. Every concert for me is like life or death.

It's the same for the orchestra, too. They really play. They never phone it in. There is never any sense of them just showing up and doing their job. They are absolutely incredible musicians. You know? And that's how I approach music as well. So I don't know if that answers your question, but but somehow I just seem to have the constitution for it.

Except, you know, when the pandemic hit. I had more than a year of not performing. It was a very interesting time for me.

In retrospect, a well-needed rest. I felt very rejuvenated after that year, and I feel like now I'm ready for the rest of my life. It's kind of a silver lining of the whole thing. It was a terrible event, but it gave me time to regroup and think about music in different ways. In different ways without having to be under pressure. It was actually very useful to me. So yeah, I feel like I kind of have a whole new lease on life now, musically. I'm excited to get back on tour again.

Q: Your New York City subway experiment was fascinating. What lessons did that offer you? And will you ever do it again?

A: Well, it didn't really offer me much as far as lessons. The outcome didn't surprise me. I've always known that music and especially classical music really requires audience participation. I mean, that's what's so great about classical music is that you have to be an involved listener. It's an experience. Like theater. You have to have an active, participating mind as a listener when you go to classical concerts. I mean, you can go in an elevator if you want to hear classical music. But if you want to really be participating in the experience, it requires active listening. So, you know, throwing music at people while they're rushing to work is not going to be interesting for me or them. It somehow captured the imagination of people because it became sort of viral. And that's fine, but as far as the lesson, for me? It just only reinforced the idea of the importance of the live concert experience. It really increased my appreciation for the live concert experience, where people are sitting on the edge of their seat and listening actively. And that's what we do it for.

Q: What would you like our audience to know before you get here?

A: For those who have gone to orchestral concerts, I think will be a new and different experience. Seeing the way we work with this orchestra, particularly with a symphony, is very unique. Typically, you would normally have a conductor in front of the orchestra who is not playing. But you know, in this case, I will be sitting in the concertmaster's chair and leading from there.

I think it's more captivating for an audience in a lot of ways. It's more visceral and this way of playing engages every member of the orchestra to listen in an even more active way because they don't have a conductor in the traditional sense. I think people might find it interesting and enjoyable. And of course, you know, the music is just wonderful. Dvorak and Beethoven and Bach. You can't get any greater music. ◾️

If You Go:

What: Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell

Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

When: February 22, 7:30 PM

Get tickets here!

Other articles by Carrie Beth Wallace...


bottom of page