Anoushka Shankar – 'I bet I could kick Joshua Bell's ass if we swapped instruments'

Anoushka Shankar – 'I bet I could kick his ass if we swapped instruments'

Credit: Jamie-James Medina

Classical music buddies Anoushka Shankar and Joshua Bell bring their stringed skills to the Edinburgh International Festival

Old pals Anoushka Shankar and Joshua Bell first performed together in 2007. This August, they both land in Edinburgh for some very special performances. We caught up with the two musicians separately and asked them both about violins, sitars and their fantasy dinner party...

What are your first musical memories?
Joshua Bell: I can hardly remember NOT playing music. My first musical memories are of my mother playing the piano when I was growing up. At the age of three I started collecting elastic bands and stretching them across my dresser drawers to make different pitches, attempting to play the melodies I heard. My parents subsequently got me a proper instrument, and my life as a violinist began.

Anoushka Shankar: Dancing around the living room with my mum to my dad's music and going to loads of Indian dance and music concerts.

Which instrument would you like to be able to play better than you can?
JB: The violin of course! I'm still trying to figure this instrument out! I also regret not learning to play the piano as a child.

AS: Piano. I've always loved it and used to study as a teenager. I'd love to still be able to play properly.

You're planning a fantasy dinner party and can invite three musicians (alive or dead): who would they be?
JB: I guess I'd go for the dead ones if I had the chance! One of my initial choices would be Beethoven, but since this is a dinner party, he might not make for great dinner conversation if he's in a grumpy mood. Instead I might invite Robert Schumann, as he's one of my favourite composers, and judging from his writings as a music critic, he would have so many interesting things to say about the other great musicians of his day. Perhaps Bach could come along (Schumann would love that too), and maybe I could invite Albert Einstein for a little variety. He did love music and played the violin. A shame I can only invite three. My dining-room table could also fit Paganini (I want to hear him play!), Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms.

AS: Björk because I just love her and have always wished to know her. Patti Smith, who is one of the most inspiring female artists of our time. My sister Norah Jones would round off the coven of women. I'd have there because we always have a good laugh together.

Joshua Bell / credit Chris Lee
If you hadn't been a professional musician, what would you have been?
JB: I've always loved science, particularly physics, hence the Einstein reference earlier. Any area of scientific research would surely be satisfying. However, I do feel that I found my calling in music, and I can't imagine any other profession (if you can call it that: it's more of a way of life) that would suit all the aspects of my personality in such a complete way. I am extremely lucky.

AS: Probably a writer of some kind. I like the direct quality of expression as opposed to more abstract expression of instrumental music.

There's great footage of you playing together at Switzerland's Verbier Festival in 2007. What do you remember about that show?
JB: I loved playing with Anoushka. She is a fabulous musician and wonderful person. That concert in Verbier was both frightening and thrilling. The music we played was not exactly in my comfort zone, but I love NOT being in my comfort zone! I learn a lot from musicians that come from different musical backgrounds. Getting to play with Anoushka (and also being coached by her legendary father Ravi Shankar) was an amazing experience.

AS: That was my first time playing at or even being at Verbier, so I have really beautiful memories of that atmosphere. Performing with Josh was incredible because we'd been friends for years before that and I had always wanted to perform with him. Furthermore, getting to perform my father's piece from India for the first time was incredible too. So it felt like many elements coming together to create a really special experience.

When did you first meet and then play music together?
JB: I met Anoushka and her family a decade and a half ago through some mutual friends. We got along really well and immediately started talking about working together. Her father then wrote us a piece to play together, and we also performed a piece that Ravi had played with Yehudi Menuhin many years ago. I have beautiful memories of visiting their home in California and spending the day rehearsing with Anoushka and her dad, and eating the best Indian food of my life which was cooked by her mother!

AS: I first came across Josh on the soundtrack to The Red Violin and was totally blown away by his playing; from there I went back and discovered more of his music. We shared the same management company at the time and after he came to see my show in 2000 we continued to visit each other's shows, predominantly in New York and became friends from there.

What are your skills on each other's instruments?
JB: Not only would I be unable to play a note on the sitar, I'm not even sure I'm flexible enough to sit on the floor and hold the instrument properly!

AS: I bet I could kick his ass if we swapped instruments!

What are your expectations of visiting and performing in Edinburgh?
JB: I have many fond memories of the Edinburgh International Festival, dating back to my first chamber music concerts at the Queen's Hall in the early 1990s with Steven Isserlis and friends. This year is particularly special for me, because not only will I be returning to the International Festival with Mr Isserlis, I'll also be bringing the incomparable Academy of St Martin in the Fields for a great programme of Beethoven's 'Symphony No 6' and Bruch's 'Scottish Fantasy'. Rounding out my week will be a recital with the wonderful Dénes Várjon at the piano. I love the festival for its great audiences and lovely concert halls, and of course the gorgeous setting in Edinburgh is inspiring. Surely this week will be the highlight of my summer!

AS: Naturally I'm excited. It's such an iconic festival and I look forward to sharing my music in such an environment.

Anoushka Shankar, Usher Hall, 16 Aug, 7.30pm, £14–£34; Joshua Bell & Dénes Várjon, Queen's Hall, 21 Aug, 11am, £9–£32.50; Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis & Dénes Várjon, Queen's Hall, 26 Aug, 11am, £9–£32.50; Joshua Bell Plays Bruch, Usher Hall, 24 Aug, 8pm, £13–£47; Call 0131 473 2000 for tickets.

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