Joshua Bell Plays His Strad for Scarlett Johansson

Joshua Bell met me in his Flatiron studio, surrounded by books, music and a collection of composer autographs.

With lustrous wood floors, minimalist art and a grand piano, it’s a reflection of his relaxed elegance -- he gutted the space and designed the interior himself to create the perfect spot for private concerts.

The superstar violinist has also taken up conducting, and is now music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Lundborg: As you were playing with various conductors did you say to yourself, “I can do better than that?”

Bell: Many, many times. There are those inspiring conductors who make me want to be like that, and then there are those where I feel I can actually do better.

I’ve probably played with hundreds of conductors and I’ve learned from the bad ones and the good ones.

Lundborg: When was the first time you conducted?

Bell: It grew out of playing. With the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, I started leading them with just strings, and then it started building.

Recording Beethoven

Lundborg: Your first album with the group is Beethoven Symphonies 4 and 7. There is already so much recorded Beethoven, so is this a safe choice or a daring choice?

Bell: It’s a little more on the daring side because it’s like going in with your first job as an actor doing Hamlet.

I wanted to make a statement with this new kind of sound of the orchestra, very visceral, with energy that I don’t see very often.

Lundborg: How do you know when you have the audience?

Bell: When you hear extraneous noise, they are bored in some way so it makes me upset. Even coughing I find is passive aggressive usually.

Musical silences are as important as the noise in the music -- that’s when you really feel the audience is hanging on what you are doing.

Lundborg: The Stradivarius you play is not your first?

Bell: It’s actually my third one -- I got my first Strad when I was 19. It was relatively inexpensive; it’s still like buying a house, but not like buying a mansion.

Big Payoff

It was my first big investment and it paid off tremendously because I sold it for three times as much four years later. That put a down payment on the next one.

Lundborg: You now play a Strad called the “Gibson ex-Huberman.” How did you acquire it?

Bell: The violin was stolen twice from Bronislaw Huberman, who was a hero, a great violinist who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust by getting them visas to leave Germany.

The first time it was recovered quickly, but the second time the insurance was paid out. On his deathbed 50 years later, the thief confessed to his wife.

I bought it for nearly $4 million from the violinist who acquired it from the insurance company.

Lundborg: What attracted you to that one?

Bell: It’s like someone being happy with his wife, and then just falling head over heels for someone else.

I’m in a dilemma because I just found a Guarneri, and I’m trying to find a way to keep them both.

Scarlett Sings

Lundborg: You played on a Scarlett Johansson song -- so you don’t mind crossover?

Bell: A friend of mine, J. Ralph Feat, wrote the song, “Before My Time” -- it was nominated for an Oscar -- and asked me to play.

It’s music -- I really don’t think of it as crossover.

Lundborg: So, you’d do other projects?

Bell: Sure. I was in Miami with the Cleveland Orchestra, but during the day I went to the studio of Gloria Estefan -- they wanted me to do this duet on the new album.

Lundborg: You are such a road warrior -- what do you do when you get to the next place on your tour?

Bell: I immediately find out the Wi-Fi code at the hotel, plug in my laptop and Skype with my kids, and then I get on Facebook to find my friends in that city.

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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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