Elliott Forrest, Adam Abeshouse and Joshua Bell
Photo: Cindy Ord/WireImage.com
Joshua Bell Gets Up Close & Personal In New York City
Guests of the Recording Academy New York Chapter's Up Close & Personal event with Joshua Bell experienced a rare musical and cultural moment. Not only did Bell treat the audience to a special performance and candid conversation about his latest album, Scottish Fantasy, he offered up own his home, a gorgeous penthouse in Manhattan's Flatiron District, as the intimate location for the exclusive event.
During his 30-year career as a soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, and conductor, Bell has become one of the most successful and recognizable musicians in the classical world. The GRAMMY winner has recorded more than 40 albums, been honored with countless awards and accolades, and collaborated with many musical giants, including Chick Corea, Gloria Estefan, Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo, Alison Krauss, and more. In 2011 Bell was named Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the orchestra he conducts and performs with on Scottish Fantasy.
In addition to his accomplishments as a performer, Bell has also been instrumental in the classical community for proliferating musical discovery and education. His zeal for his craft and joyful willingness to share his knowledge make it no surprise to see him right at home, literally and figuratively, during Up Close & Personal.
To kick things off, Bell brought out four talented Young Arts alumni for a performance of Leonard Bernstein's 1956 classic "Candide Overture" and "Make Our Garden Grow," which featured a new custom arrangement by none other than composer/arranger Steve Hackman. Bell introduced the piece by recalling how a dear friend of his, actress Glenn Close, had asked him to perform something from Candide at her daughter's wedding. Hackman's unusual yet entrancing arrangement sang beautifully, perfect for a walk down the aisle.
Next up on the menu, Bell called upon pianist Alessio Bax to join him for what he called "a little violin ditty," a captivating version of Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen." Bell admitted he played the piece not only during his first ever violin recital at age 12, but again on his first appearance on "The Johnny Carson Show" in 1989.
With the piece's rich history to draw from, Bell built upon the iconic melody to create something glorious by pulling, sliding and stretching across the neck of his instrument with one hand and sweeping, plucking and stabbing with the other. The piece climaxed with a series of vigorous strumming, impossible pull-offs and slapping of the bow that left some of its rosined strands dangling upon the final hit of the piece. Jaw-dropped and head-spun, the crowd cheered at Bell's ability, musicality and showmanship.
Photo: Cindy Ord/WireImage.com
But Bell had even more magic in store for the audience. Producer/director and KQXR host Elliott Forrest came to the stage to discuss Scottish Fantasy with Bell and the album's prolific GRAMMY-winning producer, Adam Abeshouse. It turns out the process of recording the album was as refreshing and innovative for Bell and as it was redemptive.
"The Bruch G-Minor Violin Concerto is probably one of the most popular pieces for the violin," said Bell. "Broch himself may not be as popular as Brahms or Beethoven today, but his violin concerto is played as much as any of the others. He was a wonderful composer, and a few gems that he did, like the concerto, is as good as anything written. And it's also the piece that most violinists record on their debut albums when they're little, and I did that as well."
Bell followed with the story of taping the piece on his 19th birthday during his first recording sessions. It turns out he initially tackled the concerto three days after making Presenting Joshua Bell, an album Bell is proud of all these years later. Exhausted from the sessions, his first attempt at "Violin Concerto No. 1 In G Minor" suffered from a lack of rehearsal and a less than ideal setup for recording his first concerto album. This time around, Bell and Abeshouse vowed to get it right, bringing the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields back after all these years to take "a mulligan," as Bell put it, on the piece.
It worked, and Ablehouse's excitement about the final product was palpable and contagious.
"Scottish Fantasy starts off, and it's funereal and it's dark," said Abeshouse. "In the span of basically three minutes, it goes from this incredibly dark place to the sun [coming] out. You hear the whole orchestra breathe. … You can feel the inhalation and exhalation, and then the sun comes out. It is four of the most amazing minutes. … When Joshua first comes in, there's this single note, and he makes it sound like he's over the hills. It's really like this piece of cinema. Auditory cinema. To have that captured and now preserved is one of the great highlights for me, and why I love this record so much. And that's just the first four minutes!"
Photo: Cindy Ord/WireImage.com
Bell and Abeshouse shed light on how they created, captured and constructed the album, focusing on the benefits of the recording in a studio as opposed to a live performance. Although he prefers the immediacy and definitiveness of a concert setting, Bell talked with great reverence at how Abeshouse used certain recording techniques, not to fabricate a moment in time, but rather to accomplish the best listening experience possible.
"I don't think that we should judge recordings as the same artform as a live performance," said Abeshouse. "The studio gives you these tools that give you the time to analyze and reflect and then redo, and then alter what you've done and keep growing with it. Those opportunities are immensely rewarding."
While Abeshouse said he'd never let an audible edit out of his studio, he articulated how editing can be a valuable tool in the studio. Bell talked about how Abeshouse's close-micing techniques opened his mind to the possibility that the studio can yield a listening experience beyond what a concert hall can offer. He was especially invigorated by the way he and Ableshouse worked together during the album's post-production process, which is not a topic often addressed in the world of classical recording.
"Getting in the studio is still not something I look forward to. I love performing where you've just got one shot at it," said Bell. "But what I've learned after making 40 or 50 recordings is that you can actually use [the studio] to your advantage. … I've learned how to use the recording process to make it hopefully an even better product."
The evening concluded with a lively reception, giving guests a chance to speak personally with Bell, Abeshouse and Elliott. Speaking with Bell afterwards, he was grateful to see many new and familiar faces, including some of the students and teachers he's inspired through his continued work with music education organizations such as Education Through Music.
Ablehouse made mention of his own charitable initiative, the Classical Recording Foundation. He founded the organization in 2002 to support artists and record labels of merit in their classical recording projects in the wake of diminishing funding from major labels, a worthy cause indeed.
Throwing gatherings like this seemed to come quite naturally to the Bell, who named watching sports — especially the World Cup and NFL Football — and experiencing different foods as two of his main passions outside of music.
"I enjoy food a lot," Bell told me after the action. "I've done several events [here] with amazing chefs. I've had David Bouley and Thomas Keller and others come into the house, usually in the name of a charity, and we do music and food. I love eating out, going restaurants in New York and on the road."
Bell also teased that he dreams of opening his own restaurant someday, not a bad backup plan in case this whole violinist thing doesn't work out.