Joshua Bell on Commissioning "The Elements" from 5 American Composers
Bell commissioned Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery to create the new work
An exciting 37-minute new violin concerto, "The Elements," recently had its US premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center with American violinist Joshua Bell, conductor Jaap van Zweden, and the New York Philharmonic. Commissioned by Joshua Bell, he wished to base the piece on the elements — earth, water, fire, air, and space, in the vein of Vivaldi and Piazzolla's "Four Seasons" and Holst's "Planets."
Bell asked five prominent American composers to each write a movement around an element. Composers Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer, Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery delivered.
We sat down with Joshua Bell to gain some insight into commissioning a work from a group of composers and what he's most excited about.
What was the inspiration for commissioning this piece?
During the pandemic, I had some time on my hands to think about what I wanted to do next once the world started going again. I thought it was time to have a new concerto that could be written by someone I'd been wanting to commission from.
At the same time, I was toying with the idea of a thematic piece. We all love the four seasons of Vivaldi or Piazzolla. We all love Holst's Planets, and I thought why not have something for the violin? I thought about the elements, the ancient categories of earth, air, fire, and water. Sometimes you hear of a fifth element of ether or space, so we ended up including space as our fifth element here.
I thought this could be an opportunity to commission five composers all at once and end up with five pieces that I could also perform on their own (which comes in very handy sometimes).
Since the elements are each very different, I thought it could support the idea of five very unique voices. A lot of people were skeptical about five different voices and musical languages put together under one roof, so to speak. But surprisingly, the suite is working very well! I wanted five composers who had contrasting styles but also shared some of the musical ideals that I look for in composers like melody and tonality. All five of these composers share that and as it turns out, all admire each other as well. I think it's going to be very exciting for the audience.
How did you pick the five composers?
Some of the composers I knew very well. Edgar Meyer, the double bass player and fantastic composer, I've known since I was 13 years old. We went to Indiana University together and we've done a lot of things together. I've commissioned pieces from him for myself and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, plus a Double Concerto with him for bass and violin. It was a sure thing that I wanted to ask him because of our history.
Kevin Puts, I'd gotten to know well through my friends at Time for Three, this great group that just won a Grammy with his piece, "Contact". I went and heard a piece of his with the National Symphony around the time I was considering this idea of the Elements and I was blown away. It was a piece about Georgia O'Keeffe with Renée Fleming singing and I was so moved by it. I went backstage and said 'You got to be on my elements project.' He was gracious enough to be a part of it.
Jessie Montgomery, Jake Heggie, and Jennifer Higdon, I've admired from afar for a long time and I've gotten to know them. It has really been a fun journey.
Can you tell us about the 5th element?
Originally I just had too many composers that I wanted to include in the project. Many people mentioned the fifth element of ether, which is really nothing and everything. I thought it might be a little bit difficult to portray for music, so I decided to broaden it into space. I thought it'd be fun after the four elements which are earthly elements, earth, wind or air, fire, and water, to go to space at the end.
After doing that, there was the question of how we were going to end the piece. What's going to bring it all together? That's where I felt none of the individual pieces felt right to end the whole thing. So I asked Kevin Puts, who starts with Earth, to come back to Earth and conclude the piece — kind of a journey out to space and back to Earth at the end. I'm very proud of that idea, I think it's working very well.
Did you work closely with each of the composers during the compositional process?
Part of the fun is working with the composers. I did this with John Corigliano when we did The Red Violin film, and then I commissioned him to write a concerto for me. The best part for me is working alongside the composers as they send me things so that I can give my two cents here and there. I'm sort of a wannabe composer; I write my own cadenzas for the major repertoire and I do a lot of arranging. I kind of enjoy the process of saying 'How about we do this here? This there?'
Particularly Jake Heggie said, 'Take the violin part and make it what you want. Make it more virtuosic and if you want, go up an octave or ornament here and there.' So I took that to town in his fire movement and he's been very amenable to what I suggested.
Historically there is a precedent for that. Not to put myself on the level of Joachim, but with the music of Brahms, you can see in his manuscript all the changes from Joachim. I do think, even though Joachim wasn't as great a composer as Brahms, that he was the violinist and he made the piece better. Since I know the instrument very well, I love that aspect of contributing here and there, but not too much.
Do you have a favorite element?
Of course, I am not going to say if I have a favorite element (or favorite child for that matter because in a way it's the same thing). I love them all for different reasons. When everyone listens to the piece, they will have their own favorite elements.
The beginning of Earth for me is unbelievably special. Of course, music is abstract and everyone has a different idea, but for me, the opening starts with this ostinato figure that's just very quiet and hypnotic. It reminds me of the horizon — like the sun just rising over it. There's something very special about that opening.
Edgar's Water is immediately very appealing. He really captured this idea of running water and torrents.
Fire is probably the most fun because it captures a sort of rambunctiousness. Jake Heggie’s idea of fire was a kind of mischievous figure, almost scherzo-like movement.
Jennifer's Air is sort of needed after Fire. It cleans the palate and gives us a little time to breathe after the craziness of fire.
Space has an eerie quality and I think Jessie also greatly captures the vastness of space.
How difficult, technically and interpretively, is the work as a whole for the soloist?
The piece is still changing from day to day, with little details here and there. In its final form, it won't be incredibly technically demanding. It won't be like Schoenberg's violin concerto or Bartok or something like that. It's rather accessible. It has its moments that are difficult but I think everything fits the instrument pretty well. But you know, is there really something easy for the violin?
How does it feel to see such a large-scale project come to life?
I was in rehearsal this morning and it's very gratifying to see all five composers sitting there in the audience. After they put so much into it, they put much more into it than I have. I mean, I learned to play it. But to create something from nothing like this, I have the greatest admiration for the composers.
To see them all together and feel somewhat responsible for getting them together, was very very gratifying.
You first see the piece on paper, you practice it, and you imagine what the orchestra will sound like while listening to a MIDI file. Then, to hear it orchestrated and hear a great orchestra like the New York Philharmonic play it, it’s pretty awesome.