“The Man with the Violin” (Illustration credit: Dušan Petričić)
‘The magic that happens’ — Star violinist Joshua Bell brings his talents and story to the NAC
By Megan Gillis
Decemeber 15, 2017
When famed U.S. violinist Joshua Bell busked anonymously at a Washington D.C. Metro stop a decade ago as a kind of musical experiment, more than 1,000 people rushed past him, most without a second look.
But the multimedia concert based on Bell’s experience that day as seen through the eyes of a child – kids were among the few who turned to look – sold out Washington’s Kennedy Centre and had a crowd of 2,200 cheering.
That show — called “The Man With the Violin” — will make its Canadian premiere this week at the National Arts Centre. The concert, a co-commission by the two capital-city orchestras, features music by Grammy-winning composer Anne Dudley.
Based on a children’s book by Canadian Kathy Stinson, and with Dušan Petričić’s illustrations turned into vivid video animation, the concert is the headliner of a night of Christmas magic for all ages that also includes unexpected pre-show buskers around the newly renovated NAC and choral classics sung by the Choirs of Christ Church Cathedral.
In the edited interview below, Bell discussed what he learned from busking in the subway, how he chooses repertoire and why the father-of-three wants to play for kids and families.
Q: That day when you busked in the subway, why do you think kids could hear you when adults couldn’t?
A: I wouldn’t want to over-sentimentalize this thing and say that the kids were interested in art and the adults were not. I think the difference is that the children were aware that something was different. This was not a place where people busk. Kids are curious … Kids say, ‘Who’s this guy?’ I was there with my Stradivarius making a fair amount of noise, but people are so in their own worlds these days with their headphones and their social media.
I think part of what the stunt was supposed to reveal, or at least what many people took away from it, is that we don’t even pay attention to our surroundings … I was not surprised by how it played out. I think music needs space. It needs full concentration where one can really contemplate what’s happening. It doesn’t mean a lot if it’s being thrown at you on the fly. I didn’t expect everyone to suddenly stop and listen
Q: Yet, your experience has become a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper feature, an award-winning children’s book and, now, this show.
A: Somehow it seemed to touch on something that a lot of people were moved by, in some way by. I’ve got so many emails from pastors, and rabbis, teachers who say they use it as a sort of a teaching tool. It’s kind of funny, over the last 10 years, the amount of references I get to this experiment.
A lot of fun things came out of it and one of them was this children’s story … It’s a very nice story when it’s put through the eyes of a young child and the music by Anne Dudley … is very descriptive and a lot of fun. It works very well.
Q: What have you, yourself, taken away from the busking event?
A: For me, personally, I feel like in our day and age we’re just very rushed. Technology is great, but everything is faster, everything is documented with photos, but not a lot of people are really actually present and taking it in. It kind of reinforced that in my head — the philosophy of just being present wherever you are and noticing things. The opening line of the piece is, the little boy, he’s a boy that notices things.
Also, it made me appreciate just the context, the difference between playing in that situation and playing for an audience whose eyes and ears are 100-per-cent focussed on the experience and the magic that happens in that space. It just made me appreciate it that much more when that happens.
Q: People may be surprised to see a violinist of your stature playing a family concert. Why do you want to play for kids and families?
A: One of the most fun parts of my job is being around kids and music. I love kids. I have three of them myself. My associations with being a child and music are so positive and wonderful that one of my main missions of life is to help the cause of making sure kids have music. I’m involved in several organizations, Turnaround Arts and Education Through Music, whose purpose is getting music in schools, which is something I really, really believe very strongly about. Also, I think orchestras as institutions, their work reaching out to young people is very, very important. So I’m happy to be a part of it.
Q: Tell me more about Anne Dudley and her music.
A: I chose Anne Dudley as the composer because I thought she would be good at it and I liked her work before … Sure enough, she came up with something that’s just a lot of fun and her music is very accessible to everyone. It has to be for this kind of story. In general, I’m very careful about what I agree to do because there’s nothing worse than playing notes that you don’t feel you have something to say about … If I, myself, am I not moved by it, it’s like being asked to tell a joke that you don’t even know why it’s supposed to be funny. It’s not going to make anyone laugh … I like to play something where you feel like every note means something to you personally, you know exactly what you want to say through the music. That’s just the way it should be.
The Man with the Violin: Suite for Violin and Orchestra
NAC Orchestra with Joshua Bell
When: Wednesday, December 20, 2017 at 7pm
Where: National Arts Centre, Southam Hall, Ottawa, ON
Tickets: Starting at $25 at nac-cna.ca and the NAC box office
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