April 18 2012 12:00 AM

Joshua Bell becomes conductor of Academy of St. Martin in the Fields


Joe Cronin, Hall of Fame player-manager of the Boston Red Sox in the 1940s, joked about sending himself up to pinch-hit whenever the wind was blowing away from home plate.

There hasn’t been a player-manager in baseball since Pete Rose in the 1980s, but the breed is far from extinct. Classical violinist Joshua Bell, already destined for the Fiddle Hall of Fame, will both solo with and conduct the fabled Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in a meaty all-Beethoven program at the Wharton Center Saturday. 

In a phone interview last month, Bell, still boyish at 44, cracked wise about his punishing new gig.

“Normally, on tour with an orchestra, I’ll play a concerto, and I can already start eating my dinner during the second half of the concert,” he said. “This is more work.”

But it’s clearly a dream job for an incandescent artist with musical ideas to burn.

“Doing it this way has forced me to really get inside the orchestra and get inside the score of the piece, beyond my part,” he said.

“In a way, it’s getting rid of the middle man. It actually becomes more organic with the orchestra.”

Bell immediately backtracked, perhaps picturing the epic scowl on Herbert von Karajan’s or Georg Solti’s faces at being called a “middle man.” 

“Of course, playing with a great conductor can be very inspiring. But not having a conductor feels very natural to me.”

The mop-haired Indiana kid earned his new stripes the hard way. Last fall, after many acclaimed gigs with Britain’s venerable chamber ensemble, he was the first American to be named its music director, by vote of the musicians, with the blessing of its famous founder, Sir Neville Marriner. Bell is only the second man, after Marriner, to be named director.

For Bell’s first tour with the Academy as leader, he didn’t wait for the wind to blow from home plate. For starters, he’s tackling Beethoven’s epic violin concerto without a maestro.

“I’ll be standing up and playing it, as I would normally, except there won’t be a conductor, an in-between,” he said. (There he goes again. Cover your ears, Toscanini.) “During the parts where I don’t play, I’ll turn around and be a conductor. It’s a bit of a juggling act.”

Far from bifurcating his brain, Bell finds that double duty forces him to focus harder. “I have to be very aware of everything going on, every instrument at every time, but that’s really something every soloist should do anyway,” he said.

It’s one thing to play and conduct baroque masters like Bach or Vivaldi while sitting a chair as first among equals, as Bell and other guests have done many times with the Academy. It’s another thing to multi-task while navigating storm fronts of Beethoven.

“I know the piece better,” he said. “I feel like I play my own part better because of my forced understanding of every part because I’m leading everybody.”

The player-conductor learning curve cuts both ways, making demands on the orchestra, too. When Bell and the band play Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony to close Saturday’s concert, Bell will sit down, like a concertmaster, projecting his will with the expressive face and torso moves that have become his trademark. If Bell’s violin bow gets too busy, some other part of his anatomy — usually his bouncing hair — takes over.

“It’s something I started to develop, figuring out the language of how to cue and inspire every musician on stage with my vision of the piece,” he said.

The result is a symphony-turned-chamber-music, an orchestral super-brain crackling with cross-connections, instead of a top-down operation.

“Everyone really has to take charge in a way they don’t have to when there’s a conductor with a baton in front,” Bell said. “But that adds to the musical experience. It becomes more visceral, more engaged from every single player.”

Bell isn’t only seen in Beethoven’s company these days. He played an all-star gig March 28 with an eclectic roster that included Emmylou Harris, Carole King and Merle Haggard at the opening of Las Vegas’ Smith Center.

“I love doing those kinds of things,” he said. “I shared a dressing room with (jazz trumpeter) Arturo Sandoval.”

Shortly before, he got the call to play a Feb. 14 soiree for Vice President Joseph Biden and his guest, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping.

Bell just returned from a March tour of China after laying down the soundtrack for Zhang Yimou’s epic film “Flowers of War.”

“I don’t think (Jinping) knows much about classical music, but he was very impressed the Chinese had chosen me to play for their film,” he said.

Bell has often ventured beyond classical music, including the 1999 album, “Short Trip Home,” a fine foray into bluegrass with bassist Edgar Meyer. Bell says he has no wish to be pigeonholed.

“If I go to Europe, they say, ‘You’re American, play Samuel Barber,’” he lamented.

“If I did that over and over, I would start to be the guy that plays the American music. So I try to keep people guessing by playing a lot of things. As a modern-day classical musician, you wear many hats already. To try to get inside the style of bluegrass or jazz is not so strange.”

The Academy gig takes Bell’s career back to the classics, only with deeper involvement and more opportunities than a hired-gun soloist.

“With the Academy I’m able to explore the symphonic repertoire,” he said. “These are works I’ve known my whole life as an appreciator, but now I get to put my stamp on it.”

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Joshua Bell,

director and violin

8 p.m. Saturday, April 21

Wharton Center