Joshua Bell. Photo by Bill Phelps

Joshua Bell to perform Bernstein favorite at centennial celebration


“My violin is as Jewish as a violin can get,” Joshua Bell said, referring to his 1713 Stradivarius, once owned by legendary violinist Bronislaw Huberman, founder of what became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I’m not a very religious person,” added Bell, whose mother is Jewish, “but I feel strongly connected to my Jewish roots.”

Bell, 49, will be among the first soloists to kick off the anniversary celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s birth in 1918 when he appears with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, led by guest conductor Jaime Martin, at the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Sept. 30 and at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Oct. 1.

The concerts will feature Bell performing what essentially is a violin concerto: Bernstein’s Serenade for violin and string orchestra with percussion.

“It’s one of his best works,” Bell said, adding that Bernstein himself was quite proud of it. “It belongs up there with the great 20th-century pieces by Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich. It’s got beautiful melodies, lots of humor and passion, jazziness in the last movement, and there’s also a bit of ‘West Side Story.’ Bernstein was someone who transcended genres.”

Bell, who will be performing the Serenade “a fair amount” during the Bernstein centennial, said he regrets that he never met the composer, conductor, educator and pianist, who died in 1990 at age 72.

“I thought he’d be alive until his 90s, like conductors are supposed to,” Bell said. “He was such a huge life force, I couldn’t imagine him not being around. I grew up with ‘West Side Story’ and loved it so much I helped make an arrangement of the ‘West Side Story’ suite for violin and orchestra in 2000. I feel like I’ve known that piece since I was born.”

Bell called the score “one of the greatest operas ever written,” even though it’s usually classified as a musical. “It elevates the musical genre. Like Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess,’ it’s one of the iconic works of the 20th century.” 

And Bernstein was one of its iconic figures. After he died, a newspaper cartoon showed a flag planted on planet Earth that read: “Leonard Bernstein lived here.”

“As a composer, he’s one of a handful who comes along in a century who, through music, manages to remind us what we’re here for,” Bell said. “Some people are able to spin a melody like Schubert or Gershwin or Bernstein, but there aren’t many people who can do that in such a profound way.”

As the star of the New York Philharmonic’s televised “Young People’s Concerts” from 1958 to 1972, Bernstein introduced generations to classical music, enriching their understanding of other types of music along the way. Bell grew up watching videotapes of those educational concerts that were around the house, and was struck by Bernstein’s buoyantly choreographic podium manner.

“His personality was so infectious. You feel like he’s tapped into the music physically, like he’s dancing,” Bell said. “Young conductors try to copy him, but it looks contrived. When he did it, it looked honest.”

Bell said Bernstein came along at a time when the music world was largely Eurocentric. “In Vienna and Berlin, places that were traditionally snobbish about Americans, Bernstein was able to earn their respect. He broke the attitude that real music and great conductors could only come from Europe, and that made me proud as an American.”

Bernstein was just one formative influence on Bell. Josef Gingold, a Jewish Belarusian-born classical violinist and teacher at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, was another. Bell, who was sent to Gingold at age 12, called him “my musical parent.”

“His connection to an older style of playing, the use of rubato [expressive tempo changes] and the way one used time was quite different, and the expressive techniques with slides and glissandi [gliding between notes] were quite particular to his era,” Bell said. “It’s almost a lost art, but growing up with that in my ear, I feel some of it was internalized.”

Bell was 14 when he made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I bought my first car when I was 16 with money earned from playing the violin, which was pretty darn cool,” he said.

The unmarried violinist, who has a 10-year-old son, Josef, named after Gingold, and twin 7-year-old boys, said his children went to a nursery school run by Orthodox Jews. “For a while, they were more Jewish than I was,” Bell said. “They were singing songs in Hebrew.”

Bell, who travels to Israel at least once a year, said he’s taking his three boys to the country for the first time next year.

“I want them to see their family there — to see where my maternal grandfather was born, and his father, who was one of the early pioneers in Palestine and Israel,” Bell said. “I do identify myself still as being Jewish, and I want my kids to have some of that feeling.”

For tickets and information on the “Bell Plays Bernstein” concerts on Sept. 30 in Glendale and Oct. 1 in Westwood, visit laco.org.