Violinist Joshua Bell has stacks of compositions at home just waiting to be played. "It's a big source of guilt for me because I can't get to them all," Bell explains.
Recently, Joshua Bell was able to relieve his guilty conscience by making the premiere recording of John Corigliano's "Red Violin Concerto," with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This work has been evolving since 1998 when Corigliano asked Joshua Bell to be the voice of the violin in the film, "The Red Violin."
While the movie was being filmed, Corigliano composed a stand-alone concert piece based on the themes in the movie. That Chaconne became the first movement of the full-length concerto.
"I had no idea the score would evolve into a concert piece and then a full concerto," Bell confesses. "In that way the music has taken on a life of its own and will continue through people playing this piece. I really believe this will remain in the repertoire. It's exciting to be part of the birth of this concerto."
"It's a special responsibility, in a way, making the first recording," Bell explains."You have nothing to go by and you've never heard it before. And in a way it's very freeing because you have no history of hearing other recordings. You're unbiased."
It's also a little easier to get to the heart of the piece because you can communicate directly with the composer. Bell really found that to be valuable when he revisited Corigliano's early Violin Sonata which appears on this recording, in a performance with pianist Jeremy Denk.
Joshua Bell first played this piece as a teenager, some 20 years before meeting the composer. After working with Corigliano on the new concerto, Bell had a better sense of the composer's language.
Bell only recently performed this piece for the composer. He admits it was a bit terrifying, "It's absolutely nerve-racking to play a piece for the composer. It's their baby. Having him in the studio when you're recording it is daunting as well. Corigliano is meticulous and demanding, which makes it scarier, but I know he will ask for what he wants, and he's not going to sit there cringing even though he hates something I'm doing, so that's a good feeling. When he does say he likes something I know it's the truth. It's a nice relationship."
As far as Joshua Bell is concerned, Corigliano's "Red Violin Concerto," is a masterpiece.
One of the effects the composer uses in the third movement is the "flautando." Joshua Bell explains how it's achieved, "It's an effect where you use the bow over the finger board closer to your left hand which creates a different sort of sound, almost sort of a floating quality." Corigliano wanted to experiment with that and take it a step further by having the violinist place the bow even closer to the left hand to create an eery flute-like sound. He couples that with a flute, so we hear a little duet between the two.
In the final movement, Corigliano was looking for a very specific sound in this movement. "I had to figure out a way to do it so it sounded like what he had in mind, which was a crunch that had no pitch but had a percussive sound to it," he says.
The violin wasn't designed to make such a sound, so Bell was hesitant that it might sound gimmicky. "But as I discovered it was really an integral part of that movement, and totally enhances the movement. I can't imagine it without it now."
A piece of music doesn't fully come to life until it's played. Joshua Bell believes this new concerto will be performed for many years to come by other talented violinists. It's one less composition sitting in his stacks waiting to be born.
With one down, there are plenty more waiting to come to life, including one Bell commissioned from 15-year-old composer Jay Greenberg. Bell has set aside the next month to learn that new violin concerto for its world premiere at Carnegie Hall on October 28.