The superstar line-up of classical musicians coming to Orange County on May 9 is enough to impress even the most jaded fan: violinst Joshua Bell is joined by cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk in a Philharmonic Society concert that includes the work of Mendelsohn, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff and Ravel.
In the ongoing debate over the health of classical music, some like to point to such events as a sign of weakness; even top-tier talents like Bell need an additional draw to fill concert halls, the argument goes.
Bell disagrees. He sees marketing concepts such as the all-star concert as a sign that his profession is simply keeping up with the times. Think of it as the Avengers approach to classical music.
Bell thinks the industry is doing just fine at the moment, surviving and even thriving despite the profound technological and cultural shifts of the last decade or so.
“I’m encouraged by the state of classical music,” Bell said. “I think people have sort of talked about its demise for decades at least. But the audiences seem to keep coming. I was having a discussion with a friend yesterday about this. We came to the conclusion that classical music isn’t in a bad place right now. There are a lot of young people playing at a very high level. There are thousands of young musicians performing in really great concerts on the Internet.”
The way classical music is consumed has changed radically in the last decade, and Bell thinks his profession has rolled with the punches in that arena, too. Fans seem just as familiar with his recordings now as they did when he started his career in 1985. Nevertheless, Bell admits he sometimes misses those bygone days when the CD and, before that, the LP were the recording industry’s standard.
“Technology has certainly changed the recording industry and how we work as recording artists. I’m still making records but I don’t know how much longer that will last. People don’t buy records anymore. Most young people, if I buy them a CD as a gift they’ll say, ‘Thank you, but I don’t have anything to play this on.’ I lament the loss of that. LPs were even better. They were large and came with this beautiful piece of artwork on the cover.”
Bell chuckled. “Maybe it’s just sentiment. Now your iPad is full of thousands of hours of music. I love having access to six different versions of all nine Beethoven symphonies. Or something really obscure — I can find it on YouTube in a second.”
He Was No Hit at a Subway Station
Bell, 51, has always been a trailblazer, and his career achievements as one of the world’s most celebrated solo violinists have been paralleled by his willingness to experiment and probe the edges of his art’s appeal like few of his colleagues ever do. A little over a decade ago he participated in an experiment set up by the Washington Post, playing anonymously in a Washington, D.C. metro station on his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin during rush hour to see how people would react.
It was part of a social experiment about perception, taste and peoples’ priorities. Bell was curious about some basic questions: How and when do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize exceptional talent when it’s placed in an unexpected context?
Not surprisingly, few people stopped to listen to Bell during his 45-minute concert (children seemed more interested than adults).
“You can draw all kinds of conclusions from that,” Bell said. “I don’t think it proved anything or said anything negative about classical music or the state of classical music. What it really showed to me is what I always knew, which is that classical music or anything that requires thought on the part of the listener isn’t going to succeed in the middle of rush hour. Some people say to me, ‘I read about the time that nobody recognized you.’ It wasn’t about what people didn’t recognize. I think the duty of classical music in live performance is to create an atmosphere of reverence. Every note has a purpose, and the silence is just as important as the music. That’s the first thing. In the wrong environment, it just doesn’t work as well. You have to pay it some respect.”
On the other hand, Bell thinks that in the right moment, classical music has the ability to bring people together in ways that simple conversation never could.
“I played recently at a State Department dinner with Nancy Pelosi on one side, Neil Gorsuch on the other. They’re all there chatting and getting along and celebrating music. That’s a beautiful thing. Any opportunity to play in these environments I jump at. Music is an excellent way of bringing us together.”
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.