Violinist praises Shanghai audiences

Music is nothing without listeners, says Grammy Award winner Joshua Bell, and he was delighted with the attention paid to his music at a recent concert in Shanghai.

Joshua Bell enjoys playing with fellow musicians more than performing solo.

Ti Gong

Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell enjoyed his visit to Shanghai last week with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. 

“The audience listened very well. I was happy to see many young people and even children so well-behaved,” the 51-year-old says of a program which included Bach’s “Violin Concerto in A minor,” Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C major” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

Since his Carnegie Hall debut at 17 with the St Louis Symphony, Bell has performed with many of the world’s major orchestras and conductors.

He performed the solo part on John Corigliano’s Oscar-winning soundtrack for “The Red Violin” and also the soundtrack for Chinese movie “The Flowers of War” in 2011.

In addition to gracing some of the world’s finest concert halls, Bell also likes to play outdoors and even performed in a Washington DC subway station.

He played Bach on his 300-year-old Stradivarius violin for 45 minutes at the station as people rushed past. He earned US$32, while a ticket for his concert at the Boston Theater two days before cost US$200.

“It was just something I did for fun 10 years ago, though some social media made it into something more than it was,” says Bell. 

Music needs audiences who are listening, says Bell. Otherwise, it does not mean anything.

“If I play on the stage while the audiences are looking at their phones, the music is meaningless. What makes it special is that audiences turn off their phones, listen and concentrate, just as we experienced in Shanghai,” he says.

Compared with playing solo, Bell feels it more challenging and rewarding to collaborate with other musicians in chamber pieces. In 2011, he was named the new music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Before that, he had already been a good friend of the orchestra since their first collaboration in Bruch’s “Violin Concerto in G Minor” when he was just 19.

Ti Gong

Joshua Bell in his role as musical director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

When orchestra founder Sir Neville Marriner cut back his involvement for health reasons, Bell became the best choice as agreed by all the orchestra members who insisted keeping their original look as a chamber orchestra without conductor.

Bell says the invitation came just as he was exploring more repertoire and new challenges. He accepted it without hesitation.

“It just feels great working with the family-like orchestra,” says Bell. “All the orchestra members have good sense of humor, and everybody feels comfortable to joke, ask and do anything. And after the concerts, we always share beers, rather than locking ourselves in rooms.”

Once in a live concert, something went wrong with Bell’s violin. He turned to Harvey de Souza, the principal violinist, grabbed his instrument and continued playing. Souza, on the other hand, had nothing to do but fixed Bell’s violin on stage. After the concert, some people asked Souza why he was praying during the concert, which made everybody laugh.

Every orchestra member loves food and shopping, which makes China one of their favorite destinations, says Bell. The members enjoyed dumplings in Shanghai and Peking duck in Beijing. And Bell bought numerous gifts from tea pots to Chinese board game.

In September, Bell will record with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra on works such as “Butterfly Lovers” and is hoping that some day he can perform live on the Great Wall of China. 

He says he has been coming to China more regular over the past 10 years and hopes to visit as often as possible in the future. 

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