“How to interpret eight fortes? I think maybe I should hurl my whole body at the piano as violently as possible and hope for the best. They would find my bloody corpse weeks later amid the moldy coffee cups, odiferous testament to my devotion to the composer's intent. How would eight be different from seven? Both must be so searingly loud as to be painful, a distinction between degrees of agony: if seven fortes is like being disemboweled by a wolf, then eight is like being disemboweled by a bear.”—Jeremy Denk, on Ligeti’s instructions to play eight fortes in Automne a Varsovie.
“Ligeti's deliberately written things that are going to screw with your mind in one way or another. ”—Pianist Jeremy Denk on Ligeti, Beethoven and how to play eight fortes (hint: It might involve a bloody corpse).
“Actually, this is one way to get at the French mystique, to express what makes French music French: sounds that float, hover, harmony like a scent, a perfume evaporating into air. Out of these four perfumed bars, perfectly, Franck's violin tune emerges, also gravity-free, floating over the chords, taking the motive the piano suggests and creating from it a long sinuous sentence - each phrase builds on the last, slowly reaching a fantastic climax.”—
Jeremy Denk, on Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major
124. French music - “harmony like a scent.”
FRENCH IMPRESSIONS: A CONVERSATION WITH JOSHUA BELL.
Mike Ragogna: Joshua, thanks for your time. How are
Joshua Bell: I’m great, thanks for having me here today.
MR: You have a new album, French Impressions, that you
recorded with pianist Jeremy Denk. What inspired your
recording together and the album’s theme?
JB: Well, French Impressions is just a clever little title that
brings three of the great works from the late nineteenth
century and early twentieth century French repertoire. It’s
three of the great pieces for violin and piano. Jeremy
Denk and I have been playing together for about seven
years, touring around the world for quite a while and
playing these pieces very often. After about six years of
that, we thought, “Let’s put these three together. They’ll
fit on a CD, and they’re three of the great works for the
two instruments.” We just felt ripe and ready to record it.
So, that’s how it came about.
MR: Can you give us some insight into the material and its
JB: Yes, the pieces are by Camille Saint-Saens, Cesar
Franck, and Maurice Ravel, who are the three great French
composers. Although Franck was Belgian, he was from the
French school. The Franck sonata is probably the most
beloved and one of the most popular pieces for violin and
piano. That’s sort of the centerpiece of the album, and
the Saint-Saens is this exciting and wonderful piece, and
the Ravel is in its own little world. It’s also French, but
more modern, of course, as it was written in the 1920s.
With its blues middle movement, it has its jazz influences
MR: Now, you’re no stranger to the Franck pieces, you
even learned some as a twelve-year-old.
JB: Well, yeah. I mean, these pieces are very important to
the repertoire for any violinist. But with the Franck in
particular, I believe I was twelve years old or thirteen
when I first studied it. I even recorded it once before with
Jean Yves Thibaudet, who is a French pianist, when I
was about twenty. So now, twenty years later, I’m
getting to re-record the Franck. The Franck has been in
my life for a long time. The Franck was written for the
superstar violinist of the end of the nineteenth century,
Eugene Ysaye. He was sort of a household name at that
time, and one of the great musical figures. Franck wrote it
for him as a wedding present, actually, and presented it
to him as gift. It became so popular. Ysaye ended up
teaching my teacher, Josef Gingold, which is kind of
awesome because Ysaye was living in the nineteenth
century and I’m connected to him through just one man. I
had this direct sort of connection with him that I
MR: I’d also like to ask you about your connection with
JB: Well, Jeremy and I didn’t meet until 2004 at the
Spoleto Festival in Charleston. We both had spent many
years performing at it but at different times. We also
went to school at Indiana University at different times.
He came in exactly the year after I left. We just missed
each other at so many places and had heard about each
other over the years. My mother, who lives in Indiana, kept
calling me and saying, “You’ve got to hear this Jeremy.
You’ve got to play with him. He’s the best.” Finally, we had
a chance at the Spoleto Festival in 2004. We hit it off
musically and then we spent the next seven years playing
MR: And, as you mentioned earlier, it was during one of
your recent tours that you decided it was time to record
these works together.
JB: Yeah, we had played together seven years and it’s
getting more and more difficult to get a chance to play
with him because he’s in such demand in his solo career.
I’ve also an incredibly busy schedule, so to carve out time
to get together is getting more and more difficult. But it’s
something we wanted to do. We wanted to document
something—make a record, after seven years—and we
thought, “This is the repertoire we’ve done the most and
we really feel comfortable with.” I mean, someday, I’d love
to record the ten Beethoven Sonatas with him or
something, but this is our first full album and it’s a
testament to our time together.
MR: Speaking of your busy schedule, you’re the musical
director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields now.
JB: That’s true. That’s another sort of venture I’m doing,
another sort of chapter I’m heading into, which I’m very
excited about. It’s a band—or orchestra or whatever you
want to call it—that I’ve known for several years as a
guest. I would sort of tour with them or play with them,
and they asked me to be their new music director, which
is very exciting. So, I get to explore other areas of
repertoire with them, play with and direct them, and even
record Beethoven symphonies starting this Spring with
them. It’s a whole new area of repertoire for me.
MR: And you also worked on the Flowers Of War
JB: Flowers Of War is something that just came up rather
recently. It’s a film that’s coming out that I think is the
hugest-budget Chinese film in history. It stars Christian
Bale and is this sort of epic Chinese film. They asked me
to play on the soundtrack. There’s a violin melody
throughout the film that they asked me to play. It’s
always fun to be part of films. My first big experience
with film was with The Red Violin back in 1999, and John
Corigliano, the composer of that score, won the Oscar. It
was such a great experience for me. I’m always looking for
films here and there to be a part of because I love that
MR: And the score was composed by Quigang Chen.
JB: He’s a very respected Chinese composer and a very
clever guy. Actually, they came out to San Francisco,
where I was playing concerts because I had no time to fly
to them. They just came and set up a studio and had me
record these melodies for them. I just saw it on DVD two
nights ago for the first time, so I’m looking forward to
seeing it on the big screen.
MR: What is the biggest growth that you’ve had as an
JB: Well, since I’ve started, I’ve grown about five and a
half feet. (laughs) I did start when I was very young. I was
four years old and being a musician and a violinist is a
constant growth process. You’re always learning. It’s hard
to answer that question. I mean, I still feel I’m going in the
right direction. Each year, I feel I’m still getting better and
finding more insight into the music. The Franck that I just
recorded, for instance, I recorded twenty years ago. I
think I would have a hard time listening to it because I’ve
experience so much in between, in music and in life in
general. Your whole approach changes as you get older,
and I have a better violin now. I have a wonderful, many-
million-dollar Stradivarius violin that was made in 1713.
One sound changes over the years and you refine it. It’s a
fun job because you’re always evolving and learning. I’m
very privileged to be in this business.
MR: One of the great things about watching you in
concert is that you perform with a lot of passion, even
utilizing your body much of the time.
JB: Well, thank you. If the music calls for it, then I hope
that’s the case. Certainly, I believe that when you play
music, you have to feel like it’s the most important thing
on earth—almost life or death—and I think that affect
the audience. You can’t be blasé about what you’re doing.
(laughs) If that seems passionate to you, I guess that’s a
good thing. Thank you for saying that.
MR: You’re very welcome. Joshua, what advice might you
have for new artists, now that we’ve talked a bit about
your own history?
JB: Well, there’s no blanket advice except for that you
have to follow the music that you love. That can be a
different journey for every single person. I’ve been
accused or praised for doing or choosing repertoire
outside of the classical field. I’ve been accused or praised
for not tackling certain repertoire of modern atonal music,
for instance, because I didn’t connect with it. But you
have to forget about what people say or demand of you.
You have to follow your own path. That’s the most
important thing, and you have to do it for the right
reasons. If fame and success come, that’s great, but it’s
not why we’re musicians. We’re musicians because it’s the
greatest thing on earth, to be able to make music and be
MR: Beautiful. What’s on the horizon for Joshua Bell?
JB: Well, my schedule is pretty much set in stone for the
next three years. They book things so far ahead of time,
so God willing, I’ll be continuing my hundred-and-forty-
concerts-a-year schedule, which is kind of crazy but
exciting for me. Directing the Academy of St. Martin in the
Fields is now taking up a lot of that time, which is going to
be interesting for me. And the new album, French
Impressions with Jeremy Denk, is coming out in January. I
don’t know what’s next, but that’s alright. The fire is
stoking. We’ll see what happens.
MR: Joshua, again, thank you very much for your time. All
the best with French Impressions and everything in the
JB: It was nice talking with you, thank you.
1. Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 75;
2. Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 75;
3. Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 75;
4. Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in D minor, Op. 75;
5. Violin Sonata in A Major (1886); Allegretto ben
6. Violin Sonata in A Major (1886); Allegro
7. Violin Sonata in A Major (1886); Recitativo - Fantasia:
ben moderato - molto lento
8. Violin Sonata in A Major (1886); Allegretto poco mosso
9. Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927); Allegretto
10. Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927); Blues: Moderato
11. Sonata for Violin and Piano (1927); Perpetuum Mobile:
“Prior to a 1985 recital at IU's Musical Arts Center, Sebők looked back on his concert at age 14, and drew a connection between that event and his teaching philosophy. "During the third movement I made some mistakes," he recalled, "but I didn't feel guilty about it because I felt I had done my best. We had a neighbor, a music lover, who said to my grandfather about my performance, 'Oh, that was wonderful, but in the third movement something went wrong.' My grandfather became very angry and him and said, 'I don't care, because the sun has spots, too.' That was a beautiful thing for my grandfather to say, I think, and sometimes I remember that: Even the sun has spots.”—
Want to know more about Sebők after reading about him in this NYer essay.