When Joshua Bell started thinking about commissioning a big new violin concerto, he thought about one of the most popular pieces of music ever written: the "Four Seasons."
"Whenever I play the 'Four Seasons,' everyone loves it, whether it's the Piazzolla or the Vivaldi version," Joshua told me in a phone interview Monday. "These are great pieces, but I think some of the appeal is the thematic nature - audiences really connect with that. For example, I love Holst's 'The Planets,' but if it wasn't called 'The Planets,' would it be as popular as it is? I would doubt it, if I were to be really honest. Of course, I love the piece! But having that kind of theme to grab on to - that is neat."
"So I was wondering, what else could we do in that department?" Joshua said. The Seasons - well, it's been done. "So I tossed around the idea of 'The Elements,' that ancient idea of earth, water, fire and air. And in some cultures, they talked about a fifth element, 'ether' or 'space' - so I ended up adding space."
After years in the making, Bell will present the East Coast premiere of "The Elements" this weekend, in three performances with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Jaap van Zweden. (For tickets and information, click here). After playing it last summer at the Colorado Music Festival, Bell officially premiered the work with NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in Germany earlier this month, followed by a performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Next year he will play it with the Chicago Symphony and then the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, in June 2024.
Bell's ideas for this epic project - in which he commissioned five composers, one for each element - began back in the early pandemic.
"The pandemic allowed me time to think about the things I wanted to do next, and one of them was that I wanted to commission a new concerto - something new in the repertoire. I've commissioned some little pieces, but I hadn't really done anything big in that department since the Red Violin Concerto, which was 20 years ago," Bell said. "I've been very pleased about that, it's sort of caught on, and many violinists are playing it. It was very satisfying to be part of that process. So wanted to do something like that again."
"I had been tossing around the idea of "The Elements" in the back of my head for a long time," he said.
When he started considering composers for the project, "it dawned on me, what a neat way to commission several composers and have the chance to work with them." This project would produce one big piece called "The Elements," but it also would result in five individual pieces, each six to nine minutes long. "I instructed the composers to write something that would also stand on its own, so I could also play each movement as a piece in itself. I've got a lot of ideas for that, for the future."
Bell wound up with a stellar line-up of composers: in the order of the movements of the piece: Kevin Puts (Earth), Edgar Meyer (Water), Jake Heggie (Fire), Jennifer Higdon (Air), and Jessie Montgomery (Space).
These five composers have contrasting musical styles, "yet all of them share my ideals," Bell said. "I like melody, I don't gravitate towards atonal music. And they all seem to respect each other very much. I felt that in the discussions amongst us - they all had real admiration for each other. They're all great composers, and to agree to be part of a piece that other people have written part of, it says a lot about their respect for each other."
Once he had this team assembled, it was all about assigning everyone an element, and then getting the right order for the movements.
"Earth" wound up being the first movement. "Kevin (Puts) already had an idea brewing, an ostinato figure, something that he just saw hypnotically, and then he felt it lent itself to 'Earth,'" Bell said. "I was very happy to start the piece with him."
Kevin Puts speaks about "Earth":
"I had started to become acquainted with Kevin's music from the concerto he wrote ("Contact") for Time for Three, who are my good friends," Bell said. "That concerto blew me away when I saw it, and it won the Grammy last year."
Around the time he was putting together "Elements," Bell went to hear another piece by Puts called The Brightness of Light, which was being played with the National Symphony, featuring Renee Fleming along with a multimedia presentation. "It was beautiful and moving," Bell said. "A lot of times with new music, people use the adjective 'interesting' - 'Oh, it was interesting." But when you're truly moved by a new piece of music, it's always such a great feeling. It happens often these days because there's so much good music being written. But with him, I was very moved, and I thought, "He's got to be on my 'Elements,' if he can find time!'"
"'Earth' had to be first because of the way it starts and its gravitas, no pun intended," Bell said. "It sort of anchors the beginning, and then from there, 'Water' was a natural to come next." That movement was written by Edgar Meyer.
Edgar Meyer speaks about "Water":
"Edgar Meyer is the composer I've known the longest," said Bell, who not only commissioned a piece from Meyer in his capacity as Music Director of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but also, well before that, commissioned his Concerto for Violin, Bass and Orchestra, which the two of them performed. "I knew that his musical language would be different from from anyone else, and I immediately thought of "Water" for him," Bell said. "He liked the idea." Being such an accomplished bassist himself, Meyer's music sits well on the instrument, and for those who think it might be "bluegrassy," it's not. "Edgar's is probably most heady of all of them - the most mathematically complex."
Jake Heggie's "Fire" follows, and it is perhaps the most virtuosic of all the movements, Bell said.
Jake Heggie speaks about "Fire":
"Jake Heggie's version of fire is at times very 'fiery' the way we would imagine it, but he also sees fire as being this kind of mischievous child, playfully spreading itself here and there. And the 'Fire' movement is almost like a scherzo, with its energy."
After "Fire" is "Air" - a breather! "After the fire, you're ready for something more contemplative - and 'airy,'" Bell said. "There are many ways to look at Jennifer Higdon's 'Air.' It's about air, but she also saw it in terms of a double-meaning: an 'air' like the old-country 'aria' type of air."
Jennifer Higdon speaks about "Air":
"From 'Air' we go into (Jessie Montgomery's) 'Space,' which has a fiery a bit in the middle of it - of course space has all kinds of stuff in it!" Bell said.
Jessie Montgomery, speaks about "Space":
None of the movements felt like they would work for ending the entire set, Bell said, "so I had the idea to ask Kevin Puts, who wrote 'Earth' at the beginning: What if we had 'Space' at the end, and then came back to Earth from Space?"
So the ethereal, outer-space-like ending of Montgomery's "Space" was written with that idea in mind - "she actually connected with Kevin to end it in a way that he could then return to this ostinato figure at the beginning of 'Earth,' which is very hypnotic and beautiful," Bell said. "It reminds me of the sunset over the earth, or sunrise coming up over the earth. This very profound figure. He brings us back to that, after 'Space,' but with a twist, and it starts leading towards a conclusion - a big, bombastic epic conclusion that felt fitting for the entire piece as a whole. I was very happy with the way that worked out, those bookends bring it all together."
"I didn't know if it would work, to have five different musical languages," Bell said, "and they really are all very different! But so are the elements themselves. That's why they're elements, they're very different from each other and yet together, they form our natural world. I'm very pleased with the way these movements proceed, one after another. It's really neat for the audience, and for us to play."
"The fun part of working with new composers is the fact that it's not set in stone when it's done," Bell said. "It's still a work in progress. I'm now practicing it again after doing other things, and I'm still thinking of new things to ask the composers, 'Hey, do you mind if we throw in this, put in an octave here, or take it up an octave here...' I love that part of it, being part of the process. I did that a bit with John Corigliano for the film music, and in particular for this, Jake Heggie's movement is the most virtuosic so he said, 'Please go to town, if you want to embellish it.' So I took some liberties and ran several ideas by him. I love that - I write my own cadenzas and I do a lot of arrangements and I'm kind of a wannabe, wish-it-be composer. (he laughs) So getting to do this, doing it with them and being part of it - is really, really fun for me."
For Bell, one of the most poignant reactions to "The Elements" came from his sister Rachel, who watched a video of one of the first performances.
"My little sister is not a musician. She said that she started crying from the opening notes of 'Earth' to the end - she felt very moved," Bell said. "She's very much about conservation, and she's an environmentalist. She told me she was crying, thinking about the beauty of the Earth, the torment in the middle, then coming back at the end. She had her own interpretation: of the Earth being destroyed in the middle, and of humanity gone, then the beauty of Earth coming back at the end - without us!"
"But you see, that is the beauty of music," Bell said. "It is so abstract that you can come up with your own story."
You might also like:
* * *
Enjoying Violinist.com? Click here to sign up for our free, bi-weekly email newsletter. And if you've already signed up, please invite your friends! Thank you.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.