An interview with Joshua Bell
We meet the violinist ahead of his performance at Festival Napa Valley, where he is playing the soundtrack to The Red Violin
Francois Girard's The Red Violin was released in 1998, starring Samuel L Jackson, Carlo Cecchi and Sylvia Chang. The film tells the story of one violin and its owners over a period of four hundred years, from 17th-century Italy to 20th-century Montreal. Joshua Bell recorded the solo violin parts for the film.
You’re performing the world premiere of the live soundtrack to The Red Violin at this year’s Festival Napa Valley. How did this come about?
The film came out in 1998 and I recorded the soundtrack for it. The film then won an Oscar for Original Score for its composer John Corigliano, which was very exciting to have been part of. Many things spun off from that: a suite for violin and orchestra which I performed in concert and later a full-blown violin concerto by Corigliano loosely based on The Red Violin, which I think is one of the great pieces of modern repertoire for the instrument.
20 years later, the idea of playing the full score to the film live is very exciting – I’ve never done it before. It’s scheduled for several different festivals and concerts this summer, but Napa will be the premiere.
What is the process of performing with a film like?
I know the music very well, but am nervous about matching the screen during the live action scenes. We are given visual cues in our scores, and some of it will be trial and error until I feel the nuances – the music is never metronomic. The conductor (Michael Stern) will be the same in each performance, and he happens to be one of my best friends, so it’ll be fun to get in the groove with him.
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Why do you think the phenomenon of films being accompanied by live orchestras is having such a moment?
Music on film has always been hugely popular, and often people’s way into orchestral music is through soundtracks. It works so well with films where the music really drives the action, particularly John Williams’s scores. In the case of The Red Violin they are taking it one step further, because there is live violin-playing in the film itself. There’s a lot of music being made on screen, so there’s much more to consider than just the background music.
What’s the process of recording a film soundtrack like?
It’s really interesting to work not only with a conductor and an orchestra but also the film’s director, because they have their own unique vision. They’re there to tell you what emotions they want, which adds a whole new dimension.
It’s a lot more ‘bitty’ to record, and in that way it’s easier than doing a concerto recording where you have to be thinking about the bigger picture all the time.
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Have you played on any other film soundtracks?
I’ve done several films since, but The Red Violin was definitely the biggest challenge as it was the most amount of live music. I was also a body double in the film for the violinist, which was a whole new experience. There are several places in the film where you can see me playing from behind wearing a wig.
The film’s soundtrack is being premiered at Festival Napa Valley, where you’ve performed a number of times previously. What is it about the festival you particularly like?
It’s a wonderful place. I particularly like it because it brings together three of my great passions – music, food and wine! Napa Valley has great food and is also where all the great wines of America are from. There are lots of events at the festivals that take place at wineries – concerts and parties. It’s always fun to go back.
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Are there any other performances at the festival that you’ll be attending?
I’m staying for a few days, and a few days after The Red Violin performance my girlfriend is playing Maria in West Side Story. Lots of my other friends will be performing there as well, so I’ll try and see them. I’ll also make time to go to the French Laundry, one of my favourite restaurants too.
Where are you taking The Red Violin after Napa Valley?
Throughout the summer we are performing at various places: Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Philharmonic and with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga and a few other places. We’ll hopefully bring it to London next June.
Joshua Bell performs the soundtrack to The Red Violin at Festival Napa Valley on Thursday 26 July. Tickets available here.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.