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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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BLOCK: Call it the musical answer to a midlife crisis or simply a calling to experience music in a whole new, exciting way.

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BLOCK: The renowned violinist Joshua Bell, at age 45, is now a conductor.

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JOSHUA BELL: Certainly, there are many times I've wanted to grab the stick out of conductors' hands and say I - this - come on, you have to show this here. They need a rhythmic impulse here or they need - don't tell them to play softer and then give this huge gesture. You know, that's saying exactly the opposite of what you're saying verbally. You know, there are times like that where I think, I want to give this a try.

BLOCK: And so he is. We're listening to Joshua Bell's first recording as music director with the British chamber orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Beethoven's "Fourth" and "Seventh" symphonies. And picture this: Joshua Bell leads the orchestra from the concertmaster's chair, the leader of the first violins. In other words, he plays with the orchestra and conducts it at the same time.

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BELL: I do basically what a conductor does with a baton, except I also play along with the orchestra. So I have to juggle the roles of playing the concertmaster. Sometimes I drop the violin and wave my arms.

BLOCK: You don't literally drop the violin. You put it down.

BELL: Not literally. No.

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BELL: I feel very connected to the orchestra in a way that a conductor sometimes does not feel. I'm within the group. I'm making the sounds along with them. And so when I draw my bow, the - it's something very natural watching the way one attacks the instrument with a bow. They can feel it in a way that's not always so easy when one is waving a stick at an imaginary downbeat.

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BLOCK: When you're conducting from the concertmaster's chair, are you - do you find yourself moving more? Are you conscious that your - you need to gesture more and to use your body more than...

BELL: Well, I - I've been accused my whole life of moving too much.

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BLOCK: So it comes naturally.

BELL: So when I play concertos, the conductor often - you know, after (unintelligible) says, who - which one of us just conducted, you know?

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BELL: Because I tend to - so this is actually now - I'm using this to my advantage. And yes, I move a lot. And I have to gesture a lot. I sit on a chair. It's a little bit higher, and I've almost poked the eye out of my stand partner many a time.

But I'm learning the whole language. I think we have our kind of - a language now that I really feel if I want something, I can show it. I know how to show it, and they know what it means when I make a gesture.

BLOCK: Let's talk about Beethoven's "Fourth Symphony," one of two on your new CD. And I love the description from Robert Schumann. He called it: A slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants, referring to the "Third" - the "Eroica" symphony - and the "Fifth." How would you describe the "Fourth?" And do you think it's overlooked?

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BELL: The only problem the "Fourth" has is its location between the "Third" and the "Fifth" as far as it being overlooked.

BLOCK: Pretty powerful neighbors.

BELL: And it shouldn't be compared. I mean, that's the whole thing. Sometimes, people say: Well, it's not as great as the "Fifth" or the "Third." It is what it is. And what it is is something incredibly special, and you wouldn't want to change a single note of it.

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BELL: It starts out with the mysterious opening which sort of psyches you out. You think it's going to go into that dark Beethoven, and it turns into the most glorious, joyful piece that I can think of.

BLOCK: Yeah, very dancey and vivacious in the first movement.

BELL: Absolutely.

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BELL: The recapitulation in the first movement, the way it builds, I mean, nobody could do it like Beethoven. The way the instruments start layering on top of each other and building, it just bursts into this incredible joy when it recaps.

BLOCK: I'm not going to try to sing it, but what you're talking about when the theme comes back. Can you sing that part?

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BELL: No, I can't sing.

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BELL: (Singing) Barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump, barump para, and everybody starts joining until finally it bursts into this just - anyway, it's better to listen to it.

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BLOCK: How would you describe the evolution of Beethoven as a composer between the "Fourth Symphony," which he wrote in 1806, and then the "Seventh," which he wrote six years later? What's happened in between?

BELL: Oh, jeez. Well, the "Fifth" and the "Sixth" are - happened - I mean, the "Fifth," of course, being the one that we all know, I mean, Beethoven shaking his fists at the world - and that's the kind of classic Beethoven that we think of. The "Sixth" being, I think, maybe the most beautiful of all the nine and really profound.

BLOCK: And then you come to the "Seventh." What defines the "Seventh?"

BELL: "Seventh" is, I would say, is heroic. First of all, I hate sort of encapsulate a whole symphony, you know, in just eight words. It just sounds stupid. And I'm regretting...

BLOCK: You're taking it back already.

BELL: ...saying it.

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BELL: But the "Seventh" is - I find the triumph of the human spirit, really. I mean, which is a common theme to, I think, a lot Beethoven. But he pulls it off, I think, incredibly well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

BELL: He was a tortured composer, very rarely happy. But I think he actually felt that he had created something really special. The slow movement, of course, of the "Seventh," is usually on everyone's top 10 lists of desert island pieces. The slow movement is in contrast to that, is somehow very dark and full of lament.

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BELL: But it has to be done just right because if you take it too slowly, for instance, it can become too sentimental. It has to have this rhythmic pulse. And you play it at a true allegretto, not at a, you know, not andante. It's more than just singing beautiful tune. It's got this element that just goes right to the heart of the emotion.

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BLOCK: Joshua Bell, this is your first recording with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields as music director - these two symphonies, the "Fourth" and the "Seventh" of Beethoven - did you wonder, you know, aren't there enough Beethoven symphonies out there? Is this really where I want to make my first impression?

BELL: Well, gosh, I would have to give up my career as a classical musician if I worried about there being - because there's - they've been done before. And you have to have enough confidence in what you're doing that you feel you have something to say. Otherwise, you should not be doing it. But I guess I'm conceited enough to think that there's something new here to say, without trying to be new.

I think that's a mistake if you think, OK, there's 100 recordings. And I need to be doing something different, so let's just do this extra fast or this extra loud or, you know? I mean, that's not the way to approach it. But there are just so many ways to approach these pieces that I think there is room. And I'm very proud to have it. I hope people will buy it. But if not, at least I have this for my legacy for my grandchildren someday.

BLOCK: Well, Joshua Bell, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

BELL: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Joshua Bell conducts Beethoven symphonies "Four" and "Seven" in the new recordings from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

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