Joshua Bell grew up in Bloomington, Ind., where he and his extended family knew how to get into the holiday spirit. His mother was Jewish, and his father, a former Episcopal priest turned psychotherapist, celebrated Christmas. "So around Christmastime, we'd have these musicales, as we'd call them. And everybody would get out their instruments and play, and I associate the holidays with music and celebration of course and that's really what the album is about," Bell explains. "I wanted to do an album that was sort of a broad celebration album, not just Christmas carols. I wanted it to be something a little different. And the title 'Musical Gifts' gives it a little more leeway there."
On this new holiday recording, Joshua Bell invites some of his favorite musicians and friends to join him, including jazz pianist Chick Corea. "He's someone I've admired and I've met on many occasions," Bell says, "and we'd always say, 'Hey, let's work together sometime.' This album was the perfect opportunity to start calling all those people that you talked about someday doing something with, and well, I called him on it and he said, 'How about "Greensleeves"?' And he sent me his version for violin and piano that's different than we're used to, but it is 'Greensleeves', which is also a beautiful tune."
One of Joshua's best friends, cellist Stephen Isserlis, is also featured on this recording in a movement from a suite by the 20th-century Jewish composer, Ernest Bloch. "I did want to have some representation of the Jewish side and not just 'White Christmas' and a couple of other Christmas songs that were written by Jewish composers," Bell adds. "So one idea I've tossed around for a while was a piece from the Baal Shem Suite by Bloch. And the third movement of that is called 'Simchat Torah,' which means 'Rejoice,' which I thought would go along with the theme of the album."
Bell also made a few new discoveries as he assembled this collection of Musical Gifts, including a version of Ave Maria. "Originally, I thought I would perhaps include the Bach/Gounod version, which is often played. And I've recorded the Schubert version on another album before. But when I started talking with Steven Isserlis, my cello friend, he said, 'Do you know the Fauré Ave Maria?' It's written for two voices and organ. And I love Fauré he's one of my favorite composers and I didn't know his Ave Maria. Shame on me, but I didn't. And I listened to it and I thought, you know, the transcription is very simple because we basically play what's written for the voices, transpose a little bit here and there, but it really just worked and I thought, it's a beautiful, beautiful piece. And it's somewhat of a palate cleanser in the scope of the album, because of the way it's situated between 'O Holy Night' and 'I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas' with Renee Fleming. But it's a nice little change of pace and something that I think will be a discovery for many people if they listen to it."
Straight No Chaser, an a cappella ensemble from Bell's home state of Indiana, joins the violinist for a completely new take on a holiday classic. "And I knew I wanted 'The Nutcracker' somewhere on the album because it's something that I associate with Christmas and I thought, 'Of course it's a great classical piece' so it was a no-brainer, it had to be there. But when we talked with Straight No Chaser, they said, 'We think we can come up with something.' And they sent me a demo of just part of it, of them singing basically this whole orchestra part with human voices. And it was both hilarious and brilliant and beautiful. And of course what the human voice can do is just remarkable. I've always been a big fan of the human voice and have tried to imitate it with my instrument."
There are a few other outstanding voices on this recording, including the angelic Alison Krauss, and opera singers Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo. In fact, Joshua Bell makes his vocal debut on this recording in a wild holiday mash-up. "So I commissioned my friends, Igudesman and Joo, who are these amazing comedians, classical musicians, arrangers. They're out of Vienna and they've become very popular lately. And I asked them to make fun of this Christmas confusion and that's what they came up with. There's this one little place that requires the two violinists to sing in a falsetto-type voice. It's the only time I will ever be on tape singing. But since the whole thing is a big joke anyway, it's OK. I actually hadn't thought about it, but I am singing on the same album as Placido Domingo. That's pretty cool."
Musical Gifts is a pretty cool collection of holiday favorites, and you may make a few new discoveries, too.