Joshua Bell with the Tulsa Symphony, and Maestro Dan Hege
This past Saturday Joshua Bell performed at the Tulsa Symphony Gala event. I can tell you that at least EVERY violinist in the orchestra was excited for his performance not to mention all of the music lovers of Tulsa and the surrounding area.
A little background:
Joshua Bell was a child prodigy – as in he’s been performing as a soloist since roughly Middle School age. Some people in the orchestra remember his early performances, when he was just a young boy. My teacher, Sally O’Reilly, remembers seeing him perform in Josef Gingold’s studio class at Indiana University when he was just a child.
On a more personal note, his was the first real violin CD I ever owned. I used to listen to it over and over again when I was around 9 years old. It was my first introduction to some of the standard virtuosic violin repertoire and obviously it had a lasting effect (hello – I still play the violin)
Since then Joshua Bell has just gotten bigger and better. I’m pretty sure he’s done just about everything you can think to do as a soloist.
When I lived in Minnesota, I worked where the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played. My time there overlapped with Bell’s time as an artistic partner meaning I was fortunate enough to watch him perform 3 or 4 times every season. He even signed that very first CD for me. My boss, knowing that I was a violinist, used to schedule me to sell CDs for him (at his signing table!!!) at those events and I can’t even describe how excited I used to get. This was pretty much as close as I thought I would ever come to him. He was always nice to everyone and it was interesting to see the same people come through his line night after night (typically 3 times per weekend). He would greet them so graciously and sometimes remembered other recent performances they had attended (aka he knew who his stalkers were and was still nice to them – a feat I’m sure).
That was about 8-10 years ago and I was content to assume this would be as close to ‘working with Joshua Bell’ as I would ever get. I never EVER would have hoped to share the stage with him. I mean, obviously every violinists wants to be employed and hear great music, and be involved from time to time but it comes with the understanding of how competitive this gig is and how high the odds are stacked against you. I always hoped to see him perform again but never from my front row seat.
When the Tulsa Symphony announced his performance I think we all jumped for joy! It is not often we get guest artists of that caliber in this area. And a violinist – Woohoo!
Bell played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major: One of ‘the big ones’ in violin repertoire. Being the general badass that he is he couldn’t make it to Tulsa until the morning of the performance (a performance in Lubbock, Texas the night before had him a bit held up it seems). When he arrived at the dress rehearsal it was a different beast. We all sat up a little straighter, watched the Maestro a little closer, and took much more detailed notes. He arrived on our scene as a demanding musical force. I wasn’t ready for it. Part of me just wanted to sit back and watch in blind amazement and the other part wanted to dive in and make some music.
It is pretty amazing how expressive he is both physically and musically. His body language portrays exactly what he wants the orchestra to do, where he wants the music to follow him, what notes he wants to emphasize, and the excitement he wants to instill in the music. I guess his time as a music director, artistic partner (he often ‘conducted’ the SPCO from the concertmaster’s seat), soloist, and chamber musician really taught him how to use his entire body as a tool for expression. When he wanted something different he was very courteous and polite with both the conductor and orchestra. His feedback and requests were more about the mood and feel he wanted to conjure and the articulation he found worked best.
After rehearsal many of us lined up to take photos and greet him. I always get so nervous to talk to famous people I admire (I was also a wreck with the famous runner, Bart Yasso) and have all of these things I probably SHOULD say –if only for my own sake- but never end up saying it because I get so flustered and self-conscious standing in line with other fans whom also want to share a special moment with the star. I didn’t even introduce myself – he had to ask for my name. Whoops! – add photo-
Anyways, he was so gracious and kind to each of us, waiting patiently for each of us to take photos, listening to us gush about our admiration for him, catching up with orchestra members he knew previously, and chatting with kids. It was nice enough of him to show up for a rehearsal and blow our musical brains but he’s kind, respectful, approachable, and funny. Who is this guy!? He certainly was under no pressure to be a real person – we were all content to stand awkwardly with a non-human superstar!
The concert began with a pre concert performance by the Harmony Project. I just started working with this afterschool program and am a huge fan of what they do. These kids are so cute and enthusiastic! They came to rehearsal and saw Joshua Bell play and were totally blown away. What a great way to conjure enthusiasm in young students! Their little bios can now include ‘performed on the same concert as Joshua Bell’ – not bad for just a few years of training! It took me decades (literally) to cross this off my bucket list.
Some of the most advanced students from the program joined the orchestra on stage for the National Anthem. They are way cuter than we are so I think the audience and orchestra were very appreciative of their inclusion in the festivities.
I thought the musical program was excellent.
The night kicked off with Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Juan– a virtuosic piece for full orchestra jam-packed full of fireworks. If you’re a violinist you are probably a little too familiar with the first page of this piece as it is included in probably every single orchestra audition in the country.
It is hard, no doubt about it, but much more manageable as part of an ensemble than alone behind a screen with overwhelming nerves, and an intense desire to run away. The slower, romantic love themes are gorgeous and it truly shows the range and sensitivity of the ensemble. A pretty darn impressive way to start the season!
The Three Cornered Hat, Suite No.2 by Manuel De Falla was up next. It was originally composed for the ballet but was arranged for orchestral performance. The three dances in the second suite are really fun, for both the orchestra and audience, and full of Spanish flavor. They are a funny mix of ‘very difficult to play if trying to read the music exactly as written’ and ‘if you get into the groove it makes much more sense.’
After intermission it was the Joshua Bell show. Obviously we had to save the best for last.
Joshua Bell wore a simple, all black ensemble consisting of waistcoat, dress pants, and black shirt. It was tasteful and discreet and not flashy whatsoever. He even did a twirl to really show off his outfit (just kidding).
The virtuosity of the violin concerto is first hinted at in Don Juan by the entire ensemble and the Spanish feel and dancing energy of the De Falla foreshadow Tchaikovsky’s exhilarating violin concerto (interesting to note that Tchaikovsky admired Édouard Lalo’s violin concerto Symphonie Espagnole written a few year previously because of the Spanish themes and melodies. Another popular Spanish piece from around the same time is Carmen by Georges Bizet). You can hear a little bit of the every so trendy Spanish influence sprinkled throughout Tchaikovsky’s grueling violin concerto.
Back to Bell
Joshua Bell moves quite a bit but tends to stay close to the second violins. I’d like to pat myself on the back and say it is due to our flawless and musical playing but most likely because it is easier to hear the winds and see the different sections. Whatever the reason it was particularly exciting for my stand partner and I manning the front stand of the seconds. I could have sworn I locked eyes with our soloist a few times throughout the performance.
His performance was awesome. Not in the typical overused sense of the word, more in the astounding, otherworldly sense. He plays so furiously it dazzles and not a rough edge was heard in his entire performance. Nothing but a beautiful sweet sound no matter what articulation, phrasing, theme or flashy passagework was at hand. As violinists, it is easy to play too aggressively on the G string we all would have excused a crunch or two (just to cinfirm that he is in fact human) but not a single scratch, crunch, non-gorgeous sound could be found.
His first movement cadenza elicited an audible inhale of wonder from the audience when he hit the first harmonic. The cadenza was flat out fantastic and breath taking (and crazy!). What a treat to see it from so close up. I just love when a crowd of 2000+ is completely silent and totally absorbed watching a performer. The energy in the room is so alive and tangible.
The audience gave his first movement a standing ovation before they allowed him to continue with the 2nd and 3rd movements. His finale was so quick it had many of us tripping to keep up with him in rehearsal. But holy moly was it exciting! The transition from beautiful Canzonetta to Allegro Vivacissimo definitely made everyone wake up.
He closed with the theme from Ladies in Lavender, composed by Nigel Hess a film starring Dame Judy Dench and Maggie Smith. It is charming and very reminiscent of Meditation by Massenet: Tasteful and elegant (and not overplayed), beautifully melodic, nostalgic, lyrical, and lush. This relatively short piece was a great way to offer a bit more music without adding any additional fireworks to the program.
I think every musician onstage was impressed and proud of this performance. It was a great way to start the season. I feel so inspired and motivated to be a better musician and violinist. Without sounding like a cheesy #hashtag I feel pretty darn grateful for the opportunity to take part in this performance and determined to work harder and get better so I can be part of performances of this caliber more often, or dare I say it, all the time.
Leave any comments below. I hope you enjoyed this!