10 December 2010

Breathing the music

8 December 2010: the Nobel Prize Concert, Stockholm Concert Hall.  The Nobel Prize Concert is held every year on 8 December, two days ahead of the actual prize-giving ceremony. The concert has a reputation for attracting some fabulous music talent - such as Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming - and this year was no exception.

The soloist was Joshua Bell, touted as "a young, brilliant and world famous violinist". According to his bio, he's 43, but when he comes on stage he looks more Gen Y than Gen X. The first thing you notice is that he's dressed more casually (shirt over his trousers) than the rest of the orchestra.

The next thing you notice is how he approaches his performance.
As he arrives on stage, he is quite a showman - acknowledging the applause, the conductor and the leader of the orchestra. But then, as the orchestra starts to play, Joshua appears to physically lean into the music and start to "breathe" it in, to become immersed in the music - before he starts his performance.

And what a performance! Of course the Stradivarius he plays is a fabulous instrument, but in the hands of Joshua Bell, this is a spellbinding, dramatic, totally compelling experience. And I think this is the mot juste - you don't just go to listen to Joshua Bell, you go to experience him. Here is a link to a short excerpt from Joshua Bell's performance  on Wednesday. Joshua is playing the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major - which appears to be a fiendishly difficult and challenging concerto.

Notice also the fabulous conductor and how he interacts with his orchestra and soloist. Sakari Oramo is Finnish by birth and started his musical career there. Like Joshua, he is still relatively young in the music world at 45 years of age. He has only recently returned to Scandinavia to take up the position of chief conductor and artistic advisor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (as well as maintaining a longer term role as chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) - following a 10-year stint at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which catapulted him onto the wider international scene.

Sakari's performance is also mesmerising. His energy is immense, without being overwhelming. He is, like Joshua, enmeshed in the music, without ever losing his sense of leadership and orchestral management. And he leads a performance with great artistic and creative flair, a sense that is manifested more commercially when you discover he has recently brought the RSPO to world respect with a new recording of the complete Schumann Symphonies - a recording that has brought acclaim such as "their live recording combines youthful and strong energy with elastic ease". That sums it up beautifully for me.

Back to Joshua briefly: of all the concerts he has given (and he performs a heroic number each year, around 200 or so!) the one that gained him greatest global renown took place one frosty morning in January 2007 at a subway station in Washington, where he played six pieces by JS Bach in 45 minutes. Six people stopped to listen; 20 people walked past and tossed him a coin or two without stopping, earning him a total of $32. When Joshua stopped playing, no one reacted, no one applauded. No one realised that the busker in front of them was one of the world's most virtuoso violinists, playing an instrument worth $3.5 million and who, just two days before, had played to a packed concert hall where tickets cost $100 a piece!

This unusual performance was a social experiment set up by the Washington Post: can we recognise talent in an unexpected milieu, and if not, how many other great experiences do we miss? A lesson for us all to ponder, I suspect.

1 comment:

  1. I love that piece of music! My favourite violin concerto ever. What a privilege to be there.