Recently appointed director of the venerable Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Joshua Bell is trying to make classical music accessible to younger audiences without dumbing it down.
Joshua Bell: I’m having a blast being the music director at the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. It certainly is challenging for me but I love challenges. I think as an artist, it’s very important to continue to be challenged and feel challenged all the time. So that’s - it’s easy in my field as if you become well known as a soloist and successful enough, you could probably get away with playing the same ten big pieces over and over again and get paid pretty well for it and have a very nice career. But I think it’s really important to always kind of stretch your boundaries and your limits and get out of your comfort zone. And for me, that’s very important. So the role of being of directing and conducting something I’d felt a territory I really wanted to move into and it’s been a kind of gradual process that’s felt very organic.
But, so my role as music director as title is rather new. But I’ve had a relationship with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields for, not counting my very first recording 25 years ago with Sir Neville Marriner and the orchestra. The last ten years I’ve been touring with them as a director, guest director, conductor, and getting to know them and increasing the repertoire from the numbers in the orchestra from smaller string things to bigger things with winds and finally into the big Beethoven symphonies and that’s where we are now.
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields established itself with, I mean, amazing reputation over the years. I think they’re the most recorded orchestra in history. Mostly because Neville Marriner was incredibly prolific with his repertoire and would go in the recording studio with that orchestra almost every two weeks or three weeks and make a recording. I think they have a thousand recordings in their catalog.
So if you turn on the classical station, very likely you’re going to hear one of those - within an hour you’ll hear something with the Academy of St. Martin in the Field. So they have this great reputation. I – and as a very classy orchestra and they’ve a wonderful sound. I guess, I kind of want to bring them into something - I want them to have this reputation of being, I guess a little bit younger in attitude and very exciting and visceral. And I think that’s something that when we play together that’s something very special that happens, our chemistry. And the fact that I direct them from the violin so I sit in the concertmaster chair and I direct -I conduct, I play. It feels like a big chamber music like big string quartet but with more people, that kind of feeling where everybody on the edge of their seats rather than the way, unfortunately, the way a lot of people perceive orchestras as being somewhat calmer, you know.
So the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has such a great reputation as a classy organization and so you - one doesn't need to play concerts at the Acropolis or whatever to, you know, necessarily to differentiate itself. But there’s still attracting young listeners is something so important to me and to all of us. The next generation of listeners and sometimes that means playing in venues that are a little bit different. Or even our attire, you know, I am trying to work on maybe just getting rid of some of the white-tie entails, which really has nothing to do with the music. I’ve got rid of it for myself a long time ago. That really has nothing to do with music and it sometimes stands in the way. It makes, it only supports the cliché, you know, that classical music is somehow old and stuffy, which it doesn’t have to be. But playing in venues and maybe, you know, experimenting with midnight concerts or jeans concerts or kids concerts, I think it’s all stuff we’re all talking about and visiting and I think it’s extremely important.
Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd