by Mike Telin
On Tuesday evening February 2, the Tuesday Musical Association of Akron will present violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall. This performance marks the beginning of a five-week, 20-concert tour of the US. A second performance at Oberlin on Wednesday, February 3 is sold out.
We were curious to know how two musicians handle the rigors of being on the road for extended periods of time, as well as the musical decisions that go into programming and performing an intense series of recitals, which is different from being the guest soloist with an orchestra. We reached each artist separately by phone.
Mike Telin: We are looking forward to your two performances in Northeast Ohio next week
Joshua Bell: Yes, I’m really looking forward to starting my tour there. That will be the beginning of a five-week recital tour around the country so. We’ll be starting out in Akron and then in Oberlin the next night.
MT: Yes, I was looking at your schedule, and although this tour in the States is only five weeks, you seem to be very busy until the end of May.
JB: That’s right, but for me, basically it doesn’t stop because the beginning of June I go to Asia, and then the summer tour starts. So basically it never stops. In December I try to take a month off, although this year it’s not working out either. I love to tour, and I particularly like playing recitals. I love playing chamber music, like on this tour. Every year I carve out about a month to five weeks for recitals without any orchestral stuff. This is always the most intense month of the year. Playing a two hour recital every night, and not just being a soloist with an orchestra or being the guest artist, it a very different story. For me, playing a recital is very rewarding but quite tiring.
MT: With a schedule like this, how do you stay sane?
JB: Yes. I try to find the right balance, I mean I do have breaks; I try to allow for time off. After a tour like this, I try to have about ten days off where I have nothing to do so I can regroup, and take at least four or five days without touching my violin. Then I try to keep distracted with other things, just getting away from music whenever I can, you know, indulging in other hobbies and so far I haven’t gone insane.
MT: Speaking of your hobbies, I understand that you are an avid tennis player? Do you take your racket on tour?
JB: I sometimes have. Although one of my new years resolutions is to get back into tennis, because I used to be a very avid tennis player, although it has kind of fallen by the wayside in the past five years. So I would like to get back into bringing my racket with me. I have been playing a lot more ping-pong lately. Table tennis is probably a little bit safer for the arms and hands.
MT: You have a very interesting program for the two performances next week, how did you choose the pieces?
JB: Well there were a couple of things. First of all I wanted to try to find a program that was going to fit together, and give enough of a sample of different things to the audience. Some of the repertoire was dictated by the fact that I am planning to record some of the 19th century romantic sonatas with Jeremy Denk after the tour, so I wanted to get a chance to play them a lot, such as the Saint-Saens, the Schumann and the Grieg. I don’t believe I will be doing the Grieg in Ohio. I am alternating between the Grieg and the Saint-Saens throughout the tour. I always try to introduce at least one piece that I haven’t done before, and in this case it’s the Bach sonata for violin and keyboard. You can’t do everything on a recital, and in this case there is no new commission and or living composer, and some people may harp on me for that, But I think this program gives a nice little journey.
MT: I agree, I think it is a beautiful program, and I was very happy to see that you had programmed the Bach.
JB: Yes, you don’t actually hear them that often, and for violinists these days, that sort of music has sort of become the property of the baroque specialists. You have to be daring to even do it without opening yourself to criticism for not using an original instrument. In this case neither of us are using original instruments. My philosophy is that the music so transcends the instrument that it should be played by both. I certainly have and do listen to a lot of the early music movement, and have been influenced by it. My approach is a combination of those influences and influences from my own modern, romantic tradition. I think you just have to find your own way with it.
MT: I am looking forward to hearing the piece. You do a lot of performing with Jeremy. How long have the two of you been working together?
JB: I think this is our 5th or 6th tour together, and we both carve out about a month every year to work together. It has been a really great partnership. He went to Indiana University as well as I did, although we were not there at the same time. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the physical chemistry, but it really works. His solo career is really taking off and he’s a really dynamic performer, so going on a tour like this is great because he puts so much energy out there on stage. He always keeps me on my toes, and after 25 recitals, it’s good to have someone who keeps doing that. He is also someone who is very interesting to rehearse with. He is a very thoughtful musician. For people who don’t know him, they should check out his blog. He has a very wide following of his thoughts on music. He’s a very interesting guy, so I’ve been lucky.
MT: What I find interesting in looking at you and Jeremy’s backgrounds, is the strong connection to the Midwest. You grew up and went to school in Bloomington, and Jeremy also went to IU, but did his undergraduate studies at Oberlin.
JB: Yes, of course he did. Come to think of it, two of my most prominent musical partners went to Oberlin, Jeremy Denk as well as the cellist Steven Isserlis, who I play with more then anyone. And of course my teacher, Joseph Ginglold was the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra for years and years under George Szell, so I feel like I’m sort of tied to the Midwest from many sides.
MT: You have chosen to do some interesting projects during your career and the most recent is your latest CD “At home with friends” How do you feel about potentially being called a crossover artist?
JB: Well first of all I’m not even sure what crossover means. I mean I’m just playing music, and 90% of what I do is the core classical repertoire. I don’t even think of it as anything other then playing music that I enjoy, and working with artists. You know “At home with friends” is basically a chamber music album, you know I got to arrange music which is a big passion of mine, and learn from different kinds of musicians. Whenever you get to be with a musician who thinks of things differently, or comes from a different genre, you learn a lot. For me doing these projects actually serves many purposes, mostly because I enjoy it, but also the learning experience from the different kinds of musicians. Then there is the benefit that it can reach audiences that normally wouldn’t buy one of my CD’s or come to a classical concert. Believe it or not it really does work, I mean I get people constantly coming to me and saying they had never heard of me, and never bought a classical album, but they heard me with Josh Grobin or Sting and they went out and bought Beethoven CD’s. So it really does happen, and it’s very gratifying.
MT: For me, I really love the album, and I think that you have a wonderful way of bringing classical music with integrity to a very wide audience.
JB: Thank you, and that’s certainly the way I would like it to be viewed. I don’t think classical music needs to be dumbed down for anybody. I just think there is a very big audience out there that is not getting exposed to something that they could really enjoy. Sometimes all they need is an entry way, just a movie like the Red Violin, or Amadeus. It’s all about getting hooked.
Mike Telin: First of all, congratulations on all of your recent successes.
Jeremy Denk: Thank you.
MT: You have quite a schedule coming up, not only your own solo appearances, but you also have a fairly extensive tour coming up with Joshua Bell
JD: Yes it is extensive. When we do these tours it’s pretty wild.
MT: When you are on the road this much, how do you stay sane?
JD: How do you stay sane, well (laughing) you watch a lot of videos on the plane, practice calmly, have good food, but good distractions and entertainment on the plane is great. I always try to meet friends after the concert and make it fun.
MT: Reading your blog, it sounds as though you have had fairly good luck having fun along the way?
JD: Well, I always try.
MT: You will be doing two performances in Northeast Ohio, on Tuesday, at the Tuesday Musical Association, and at your undergraduate alma mater, Oberlin on Wednesday. Being an Obie myself, I always fell a little nervous every time I go back, so what are you feeling about performing in Finney Chapel.
JD: I haven’t back in quite a while, but you’re right, I am feeling kind of an emotional pull to that place and I’m sure it will affect my playing in some way, and I hope for the best. I do remember it is a beautiful place to play, that’s for sure.
MT: Did you work with Joshua to choose the program?
JD: Yes to some extent. There is the idea that we will record a number or the romantic sonatas that we have done in the past, so we are doing some of those. The Grieg, Schumann, and the Saint-Saens. I sort of threw out the idea of the Bach sonata, because that is one of my very favorite pieces of all time. We never have done Bach together, so that’s going to be a nice adventure.
MT: I was very happy to see the Bach on the program, because I love the accompanied sonatas, and I don’t think they are performed enough.
JD: I totally agree with you. The c minor is performed the most, but the f minor is very beautiful; more unusual maybe. I do think the slow movement of the c minor that we are performing is one of the most beautiful of all Bach, and that’s a pretty high standard.
MT: Regarding the playing of Bach, and the historical performance movement in general, I am wondering what your thoughts are about the profound effect it has had on the way we all approach the playing of early music?
JD: I think it is great, they are interested in unearthing some of the secrets of that time that may have been obscured. I think Josh and I in some way may appear superficial, me playing on a modern piano and him on a modern violin, but I think for a lot of modern performers we have learned a lot from the historical performance practices. One of them is the rhythmic vitality of Bach. I think we have all taken some wonderful insights from that, you know, the lightening and understanding the rhythmic energy, also certain elements of phrasing and releasing. The romantic notion of the sustained may or may not be such a great idea, but it’s what ever brings Bach alive.
MT: You are getting quite a bit of praise for you blog, Think Denk. In fact I was just reading your entry on Chopin.
JD: Well I think I might have overstated the case a little, but I just think it is so wrong to consider him to be a mindless composer. I have performed programs of Ives, and the Beethoven Hammerklavier, and to some people Chopin doesn’t seem to fit in with that. I don’t see it that way.
MT: Well I that the entry was great, but perhaps I’m also mindless.
JD: Know some of Chopin’s early pieces can be kind or frothy, and based around finger technique. Although, certainly by opus 10 it didn’t take him long to be thinking more profoundly about harmonies.
MT: You are being taken very seriously as a writer; this past week in the Washington Post, Anne Midgette, said that Think Denk gives more insights into music and its practices then most professionals writing about the field.
JD: I was so grateful to her for saying that. It was very sweet of her.
MT: You were also featured in the January/February 2010 article on musician bloggers in Symphony Magazine.
JD: Yes, it was a good feature. You know the blog started out as something for symphony insiders and administrators and now it has caught on in a weird so of way. It’s good because I love it and I love being able to express some of these thoughts about music that comes to me when I am practicing. Certainly thoughts that don’t really fit into program notes or pre-concert talks, but nonetheless are the really important thoughts that come to you about the essence of a piece. It is a great place to put these thoughts. To me, it is amazing that people have a hunger to read this kind of thing. You know, trying to make this music accessible in a way without dumbing it down.
MT: Another favorite of mine was an early entry where you try to explain to members of your family why concerts are so long.
JD: Yes, but isn’t that a great question?
MT: Yes a really great question
JD: A lot of these questions that seem rather silly are actually great questions. A movie can be two hours, and very few ask why. It’s very interesting, these cultural expectations.
MT: Do you have any final thoughts about the upcoming tour?
JD: It has always been such a great experience, getting to play every night on these tours. I have certainly picked up a lot from Josh, especially understanding how he communicates to an audience night after night. Actually I have learned something from every musician I have worked with, and that’s one of the great joys of getting to play chamber music. You get to steal these things, file them and bring them out again in your own playing.
Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk perform on the Tuesday Musical Series at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron on Tuesday, February 2 at 7:30, and on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series in Finney Chapel on Wednesday, February 3 at 8. The Oberlin concert is sold out.