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Violinist Joshua Bell Talks Viral Video Fame, New Album and Shares Exclusive Playlist [Q&A]

by Philip Trapp   Jun 26, 2016 05:00 AM EDT

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Joshua Bell performs at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas.  ( Ethan Miller/Getty Images )

Violinist Joshua Bell captured the wave of a viral video craze in 2007, performing in a Pulitzer Prize-winning social experiment for The Washington Post. Now, Bell, music director at Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, is preparing to release his new album For the Love of Brahms on Sony Classical Records. He'll also guest star on TV's Royal Pains this Wednesday evening, June 29.

Music Times spoke with Bell about the famed Post piece, his past collaborations with the likes of Sting and Kristin Chenoweth, and his upcoming collection of Johannes Brahms recordings. As a bonus for our readers, Mr. Bell has graciously shared with Music Times an exclusive Spotify playlist of some of his favorite classical music recordings. Listen below!

Music Times: You participated in columnist Gene Weingarten's feature for The Washington Post, playing violin in the subway for disinterested passersby. The humanizing think piece and accompanying video became an online phenomenon. Can you describe that experience?
Joshua Bell:
 I met with Gene Weingarten and we talked about his wanting to examine art and context. It's already eight years ago now and here I am still talking about it. It did strike a nerve with people. I've had at least 20 people say that their pastors or their rabbis or motivational speakers used that stunt as a jumping-off point for a philosophy of how we should be going through life.

As for the actual experience, I didn't take it all that seriously. In fact, it played out the way I thought it would. Because unless you're concentrating, this type of performance isn't going to mean a darn thing. That's why we go to concerts.

A Beethoven sonata is a perfect organism, a chaotic ride. You go into a concert hall, and you're inside that world, qnd it's an incredible experience. It's not something you can throw at people during rush hour; you might as well be yelling poetry at people! In the video, I didn't expect people to just magically start crowing around and listening, I just thought it was kind of fun to do.

2009's At Home with Friends found you collaborating with stars like Sting, Regina Spektor and Kristin Chenoweth, and the effort emerged from a series of informal jam sessions at your house. What can you tell us about those? Will there be a second At Home collection?
I often hold musical soirées at my home in New York. They're eclectic gatherings of musicians, actors, comics, literary figures, and others who convene for the sheer joy of sharing their art in an informal setting. With this in mind, I spent four years designing and building my home in Manhattan to accommodate an ideal stay-at-home venue.

Some of my most precious memories of childhood are the family musicales we had at home -- my sisters, my parents, my cousins, all playing music together during the holidays. Since then, I went on to have many thrilling experiences in concert halls, but I still enjoy the experience of making music with my friends and family in a small, intimate setting.

There's nothing like sitting on a pillow by the piano surrounded by passionate artists, not quite sure who's going to get up next to perform. We used that same format for my album Musical Gifts, and it's always been my hope that the recordings figuratively transport listeners into the room with us. As for another one of this nature, we shall see!

You're renowned for your Bach violin concertos, but I understand that your upcoming album will feature only selections by 19th century composer Johannes Brahms.
This is my first all-Brahms recording and it will be released by Sony Classical on September 16. It features the Double Concerto in A minor, Op. 102, performed by myself and Steven Isserlis with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Also included on the recording is the Brahms Trio in B major, Op. 8, which is considered one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music ever written. That one has myself, Jeremy Denk and Steven Isserlis. The Double Concerto was recorded in London at Cadogan Hall; the Brahms Trio in New York at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music.

With over 30 albums to your name, are there a handful you consider your best work?
Every album has made a lasting impression on my life, but what was particularly unique was the recording of Romance of the Violin and Voice of the Violin. Many consider the violin to be the instrument that is most similar to the human voice, and those albums truly felt like they encompassed that comparison.

Below, enjoy an exclusive Spotify playlist of some of Bell's personal favorite classical music, ten songs he calls his "favorites from the past and present. Pieces I love to play, see performed and listen to at home."

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