By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
“It’s an idea that I’ve tossed around in my head for some years,” says Joshua Bell when asked about the inspiration for Elements, his newly commissioned six-movement suite for violin and orchestra. “I wanted to commission something about the natural world, something new that would be fun for the audience. I thought about commissioning a new version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but that’s been done a lot, and you have Holst’s Planets. I thought about the ancient elements of earth, fire, water, and air, and I thought that would be a fun thing to base a piece on.”
During the Covid lockdown, when Bell isolated with his family in his rural upstate New York home, the celebrated soloist, recitalist, chamber musician, conductor, and music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields took a long pause in his whirlwind career and started thinking about nature. He ultimately added “space” to the mix and enlisted several composers to bring his vision to life. Some of his favorite Pulitzer- and Grammy Award–winning composers agreed to collaborate on the project: Jake Heggie (“Fire”), Jennifer Higdon (“Air”), Edgar Meyer (“Water”), Jessie Montgomery (“Space”), and Kevin Puts (“Earth,” “Earth, reprise and finale”).
“I wanted each of these movements to work on its own as well,” Bell adds, “so I could find an eight- or nine-minute piece to pair with the Barber Concerto or Bruch Concerto.”
At press time, the completed suite, which has been workshopped over recent months, was scheduled to receive its premiere September 1 and 2 with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under Alan Gilbert in Hamburg, Germany [Bell is artist-in-residence with the NDR this season]. Additional performances were scheduled with the Hong Kong Philharmonic (September 8 and 9) and the New York Philharmonic September 29, 30, and October 1). The work also will see performances next year with Juraj Valčuha conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the week of June 10; Peter Oundjian conducting the Seattle Symphony the week of June 17; and Gianandrea Noseda conducting the National Symphony Orchestra on October 21, 2024.
Strings spoke to Bell on his cell phone two weeks before the Hamburg premiere as he was riding through Manhattan on his way to the airport.
How did you settle on these particular composers?
Their styles are so different, but they all have something in common: They all have a tendency toward tonality and melody, which I like. I’ve never been one for extremely atonal music. I rarely gravitate toward that. [Double bassist] Edgar Meyer is someone with whom I have the longest association. I’ve known him since I was 13 years old. He wrote a ten-minute overture for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and he’s written a double concerto that I played with him. I’ve also worked with him on various bluegrass-oriented things [including 1999’s Short Trip Home album]. I’ve always admired his musical language—it’s unique. [Pulitzer-winning opera composer] Kevin Puts is someone I have admired from afar. He wrote a beautiful concerto for the Time for Three trio, which won a Grammy. I traveled to Washington, D.C., [in 2019] to hear his song cycle based on Georgia O’Keefe, which was performed by the National Symphony with Renée Fleming. It had a multimedia component, which I would like to include in Elements, if it can be done tastefully. A visual element would be a nice companion, not for the first performances, but going forward.
How did you bring cohesion to a suite that has five composers?
We did workshop this a lot. We workshopped it [this summer] with Peter Oundjian at the Colorado Music Festival—he’s an old friend and will be doing the piece with me and the Atlanta Symphony at the end of the season. We’re still doing a postmortem to see if there is any place we want to tailor the music a tiny bit. Getting the order of the movements was important. We had meetings with all of the composers together—I wanted all the composers on the same page, so that they weren’t writing all slow pieces or all fast pieces. Everyone got a gist of what the others were doing. In the end, I found that the suite needed something to draw the piece to a conclusion rather than just ending with Jessie Montgomery’s “Space.” The five movements are epic, and I thought it needed an ending. So I asked Kevin Puts, who wrote “Earth,” the beautiful ostinato that starts the piece with hypnotic beginning-of-time feel, to create a reprise, a coda that brings us back to Earth at the end. I am very pleased with how that’s turning out.
Are there cadenzas?
There are moments, but there are no huge cadenzas, so there are no places for me to write my own, which I like to do. There were enough people contributing to the piece; I didn’t need to add myself [laughs]. I did work with Jake Heggie [“Fire”], who is not a violinist and who said, “Feel free to change things around if you want to go to town.” And it was fun to work with him spicing up the violin parts in various ways.
How do you feel about the results overall?
I’m very pleased with it. I was surprised how well the compositions all worked together. And even harmonically, where they segue from one movement to the next, once we got the order right, they fit together very well. The audience [in Colorado] seemed to enjoy it. So, yeah, I’m very happy with it. And it even works as individual works—various folks have asked for one or two of the pieces. In Atlanta, I will be performing “Earth,” “Fire,” and “Water”—because I’m doing the Bruch Concerto as well—and it works as a mini-suite.
What are the rewards of working with living composers?
It’s extremely gratifying to be part of the process. The birth of a new piece is very rewarding. Finding the composers with whom I am simpatico is important to me. I want to fall in love with every note of the piece. I want that feeling, and I have had that feeling—I had it with the Red Violin Concerto by John Corigliano. That was a very organic experience. I did the film with him 20 years ago, and I loved the experience so much I asked him to write the concerto. I loved being a part of that. And while I don’t like the word “duty,” our generation does need to help find the next big concertos in the repertoire. The Red Violin Concerto has stayed in the repertoire—it’s still being performed by violinists. And I love that.
Any plans to record Elements?
Eventually. Once we feel that it’s nailed down the way we want it to be, I’m sure I will want to record it. I just haven’t figured out where or how.