How We Met: Steven Isserlis and Joshua Bell

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The Independent Culture
The cellist Steven Isserlis, 34, is a leading musician of his generation, giving recitals and playing chamber music (in particular with Joshua Bell and Olli Mustonen) all over the world. He lives in London with his wife, Pauline, who teaches flute, and their young son, Gabriel (above). Joshua Bell, 26, was born in Indiana and is internationally renowned as a violinist. He will be appearing with Isserlis and Mustonen on December 3, at the Wigmore Hall, and will be performing Walton's Violin Concerto at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on December 7 and 8. He lives in New York.

JOSHUA BELL: In 1987 I had no idea who Steven Isserlis was. We met at the Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, South Carolina. It was originally just an Italian summer festival, but for the past 14 years there's also been a spring festival in America. Steven was invited to play chamber music. He was 28, I was 19. I remember hearing someone with an obvious English accent being incredibly rude to other musicians. He was almost insulting and I thought, who the hell is this? Do I really want to play chamber music with this guy?

As we rehearsed and performed, I got to know him and realised that the rudeness was just Steven's way of being affectionate. You have to understand his fairly black humour. As friends, we just clicked. Musically, too, we felt very comfortable togther. If we were both violinists I suppose there'd always be that tension about who plays first and who plays second.

After Charleston, when we went to Italy, Steven heard that I was making my London debut later in the year. He said I should stay with him and Pauline. They've been together for years, and the biggest mistake of their lives was that invitation. Now they can't get rid of me. They're my second family. Steven stays in my apartment when he's in New York, but I don't have the space or home comforts they give me in London.

Over the years I've seen how being a soloist and having a family can really work. Steven makes a big effort to get home after concerts so he can be with Pauline and Gabriel, so it's very important to me that they get on with my 'significant other'. Eventually, I want to have a family, and there's no way I could ever marry someone Steven and Pauline didn't like. There are some friends of mine Steven can't stand, but that's different.

We share insecurities. Neither of us has a particularly big sound. Steven's playing tends to draw people into the music rather than bombard them with sound, so when we're playing together in a big concert hall, we worry that the audience can't hear us. This summer, at the Hollywood Bowl, we were doing the Brahms Double when a sound technician came out to check the balance. There was a very tense moment as he started to move the microphone. Was he going to put the mike next to me or next to Steven? I have to say it was incredibly satisfying when he put it next to Steven.

Another hangup is about not being famous enough. That's OK - Mozart was very insecure. He thought people wouldn't appreciate him. Steven and I out-do each other in neuroses.

Both of us tend to be late for everything but Steven is the only person I know who is even later than me. Sometimes, just before we go out on stage, I look round and realise he hasn't even taken his cello out of the case. That really drives me mad. We argue quite a lot and once we had a real fight in front of an orchestra. Steven is very stubborn. He can be adamant about the way something should be played. He's one of my closest friends but sometimes he annoys me more than anyone I know.

Olli Mustonen, the Finnish pianist, is also one of Steven's closest friends. When the three of us started playing chamber music, I felt there was tremendous pressure for me to get on with Olli. At first it was quite odd because they had this shared history which was nothing to do with me. Half the time they would be talking in a crazy language which was mostly jokes from the film Spinal Tap which they've seen 17 times. Fortunately, my friendship with Steven was strong enough so that I didn't feel left out, but the first few times we were together were fairly tense. Olli and I bonded immediately because he shares my passion for maths games.

There was a time, early on in my career, when it was very important for me to be liked by everyone. It meant that I was musically less honest with myself. I'd rather please someone else than do what I really believed in. Steven has never compromised. He always tells me exactly what he thinks. I respect his opinion because he's completely honest.

Apart from Pauline and Gabriel, music is Steven's entire life. I have a lot of other interests - sports and maths games. He can't understand how I could possibly enjoy them. I tend to be much more positive than he is and always think things will work out. I've rarely seen Steven come off stage saying he'd given a great performance. He's very hard on himself.

There are relatively few people that you know you're going to have as a friend for your entire life. Steven is definitely one of them.

STEVEN ISSERLIS: When I went to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival in 1987, everyone was talking about Joshua Bell. He was this wunderkind violinist. I was very cynical about all the hype and convinced I wouldn't like him, but as soon as we met, we clicked. We shared a similar sense of humour. What impressed me most was how incredibly sharp he was. He wasn't going to be taken in by anyone.

The first piece we played together was the Ravel Trio with the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Immediately, there was a certain musical empathy between us, but I can't say I was all that crazy about his playing. It was obviously of a very high level but I didn't feel there was a strong enough character there.

I was sufficiently intrigued to keep on listening. When he played his debut concerto in London, I was really impressed. By the time he did Prokofiev with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Festival Hall, I was over the moon.

We tend to be quite mean after each other's performances so if I'm very enthusiastic he knows it must have been pretty special. I've watched Josh's musical character develop into something quite exceptional.

Olli Mustonen is another of my closest friends and it was really important to me that he and Josh got on. Once they discovered that they had maths as well as music in common, everything was fine between them.

Musically, I can be quite stubborn. I'm not closed-minded but when we're discussing arrangements it's not unknown to part company in the middle of a row. The next time we speak on the phone - usually pretty frequently - we've forgotten all about it.

When we met in Charleston it was May and very steamy. I didn't know any of the other musicians terribly well, but Josh seemed to know lots of people. On the last night we cemented our friendship by pushing the festival organiser into the swimming pool. Ever since, we seem to have been feeding each other's neuroses and enjoying all sorts of musical gossip.

About four weeks before I was due to leave for the summer festival in Italy, I remember feeling miserable, so I wrote him a really insulting letter. He was obviously pleased to hear from me because he wrote back something equally insulting. It was a sign of our affection for each other. I suppose it all sounds a bit weird but Josh is much weirder than he seems and I'm much more normal than people think.

This summer we went to stay with him and his parents in Indiana. It felt very familiar. Basically, the two of us are from close Jewish families and we each have two sisters.

Our friendship developed in Italy. I guessed he probably didn't know many people in London so we offered him a bed when he came for his debut concert. The first time he stayed, he was incredibly shy. It was obvious he desperately didn't want to be a nuisance. All that's changed. He stays here so much he treats it like home and certainly doesn't need to be entertained. He just fits in. Josh always takes us out for a meal. He's also generous with presents. For my birthday he gave me a signed picture of Elgar - next time, what I'd really love is a signed picture of my hero, Schumann. For Gabriel's birthday, Josh drew him a violinist and faxed it over.

He's very much more in control of his career than when we first met. Nobody in his record company or management can tell him what he should do. He also works much harder than he did six years ago. He takes it much more seriously. In the constellation of young violinists, he's one of the brightest, and, to my mind, someone with a unique sense of beauty.

All musicians are nervous before a performance but Josh doesn't suffer from nerves as much as I do. I remember once sitting with him in a taxi on our way to the Festival Hall. He had a concert starting at 7.30 and we were stuck in a terrible traffic jam. I think there was a 15-minute overture scheduled before Josh was due to play. He just sat there gossiping about Spoleto, absolutely cool and calm.

It's quite amusing that Josh has this image as the all-American boy-next-

door. Like most images, it's very misleading, although I've seen him just turn on the charm machine. After most of his concerts there's a group of teenage girls who hang around backstage, gawping. There's usually one who waits that bit too long for him.

One of the things I hate about Josh is the fact that he travels all the time and never suffers from jet lag. He'll come here from America, sleep for a couple of hours, go out and then sleep perfectly all through the night. I need at least three days before a performance and then another week to recover. It's also really annoys me that he's so incredibly good-looking, talented, and successful. I always said Josh was born under a lucky star.

(Photograph omitted)

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