Joshua Bell to play with Chinese orchestra

Joshua Bell first met Singapore Chinese Orchestra music director Yeh Tsung in 1989.
Joshua Bell first met Singapore Chinese Orchestra music director Yeh Tsung in 1989.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SINGAPORE CHINESE ORCHESTRA

The award-winning American violinist says he likes to work with different music stars and loves the sound of Chinese instruments

Grammy-winning violinist Joshua Bell has conquered stages big and small, played for presidents and royalty, and won himself some mass appeal with his appearances on Sesame Street and in films such as the Meryl Streep vehicle Music Of The Heart (1999).

But Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) music director Yeh Tsung, who first worked with him in 1989, fondly calls Indiana-born Bell - the man lauded as one of the world's greatest violinists - a "hoosier".

"It's what we call people from Indiana. He has this hoosier quality: very down-to-earth, very easy to approach," says Yeh, 65.

"Even though he now lives in New York, I feel Josh still has all the qualities of a man from Indiana. He has a wonderful personality and I think the SCO and the audience will love him."

A new challenge awaits Bell, 48, when he swings into town on April 9. He will be playing with a Chinese orchestra for the first time.

Shanghai-born Yeh, who has been with the SCO for 14 years now, says: "I feel very honoured that his debut concert with a Chinese orchestra will be with the SCO.

  • BOOK IT /SCO 20TH ANNIVERSARY GALA CONCERT: JOSHUA BELL AND SCO

  • WHERE: 1 Esplanade Drive, Esplanade Concert Hall

    WHEN: April 9, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $35 to $110 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

"And this is, I feel, also an achievement for the orchestra because over the last decade, we have worked very hard to make our repertoire and our performance world-class, and Josh recognises that. That's why he has chosen us to be his debut Chinese orchestra."

Bell, who last performed here in 2010 with the Academy Of St Martin In The Fields, tells The Straits Times in an e-mail that he has heard "wonderful things" about the orchestra and has always loved the sound of Chinese instruments.

"The colour is just so different, it's got this soulful quality, very beautiful."

He adds: "I'm always interested in collaborating with different artists and different music genres, so I decided to do the concert."

If anyone can free classical music from its strait-laced reputation, it is Bell, with the floppy brown hair of a pop idol, the deft fingers of a violin prodigy and a bold approach to music. He is constantly exploring the boundaries of classical music, weaving in a rich tapestry of instruments and styles. Over the years, he has performed with bluegrass musicians, Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar and Cuban band Tiempo Libre.

Bell is one of the rare child prodigies who have grown into the spotlight. He picked up the violin at age five and when he was 14, burst onto the scene, performing with the famed Philadelphia Orchestra.

Since then, he has amassed a list of awards and, in 2007, famously took up The Washington Post on its challenge to busk anonymously, wearing a black baseball cap, in a metro station as more than 1,000 people passed him by.

It will be a reunion concert for Bell and Yeh, who first performed together in 1989, just after Yeh's appointment as music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in Indiana. Bell, Yeh remembers, was the soloist for one of his very first concerts.

"I remember we had great fun together. At the time, Josh was still very early on in his career, but he already showed such masterful skill and incredible musicianship. He just shone," says Yeh.

With the violinist's help, a mixed programme has been lined up for the special evening to "give concertgoers triple pleasure".

This, says Yeh, is along three dimensions: a mix of Chinese and Western music; pieces where the orchestra accompanies Bell's violin solos as well as those played purely by the orchestra, with no solos; and an assortment of styles ranging from baroque and classical to romantic and folk music.

The audience will hear Western classics such as Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi's La Primavera, as well as works by Chinese composers such as Mao Yuan.

"The programme offers different windows for you to see violin virtuoso Joshua Bell. He'll show you completely different styles, with dazzling technique and mature artistry," says Yeh.

The concert, too, will showcase the flexibility of the orchestra, as well as how East and West can play together. Yeh says there has been a great thirst from audiences in cities such as New York, Paris and London for "refreshing Asian music" on their stages.

Bell, too, sees music as a way to connect people, regardless of country and culture.

"Not long ago, I performed at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, where there are literally thousands of musical artefacts from all over the world, illustrating mankind's need and desire to make music," he says.

"Music is what makes us human and is something which can definitely unite cultures, for no words are needed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'Joshua Bell to play with Chinese orchestra'. Print Edition | Subscribe