He's a skinny little guy, not even 50 years old. In charge of one of the most august music groups in the world Joshua Bell and his violin are not separated at the bow.
The pleasures of live classical music make one wonder how it continues to persist in an era of 24-7 multitasking. Even sleep these days sometimes feels like it’s just one more thing to squeeze on to the to-do list. Classical music, with it’s long, highly structured formats and concert hall pedigree makes many people feel like it’s music for other people. That's too bad. To listen to Bell and the extraordinary Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra behind him is to give yourself over to a singular moment, one entirely focused on the experience of listening. As I've written many times in the space, music only exists in the moment that it's being played, and yet the irony of this transitory experience has the potential effect of making all other things in your life seemingly stand still. At its most successful, music suspends time. That means music can even manage to suspend your endless to-do list.
Bell may be the perfect ambassador to this new, old world. Feisty, good looking, eschewing traditional tux and tails, he clearly delights in the exuberance of his craft, luxuriating in the profound powers he and his orchestra have cultivated like ascetics over many decades of practice and insight. There’s a reason why musicians at work don’t say they’re working. They’re playing, and Joshua Bell is clearly in his joyful element surrounded by Mendelssohn and Mozart.
Bell dances. In front of his colleagues, he practically hops from foot to foot in time with the music. On the night my family and I went to listen, he and his cohort played 200, then 300 years old pieces. It was music from a time when white European males ruled not not only the art world but everything else in the world, too. For every reason imaginable it’s time for those guys to take their place among all the many other kinds of people in the world. That, however, has nothing to do with simply acknowledging the stunning majesty of the sounds they created. The music endures, and no matter its provenance, it should.
Bell seems to understand this in his bones. As the melodies lift and propel him at the foot of the stage, the music itself temporarily dispels many meta-cultural challenges represented by the white male hegemony of its composers. Bell is simply the conduit for their most beautiful expressions. On stage there is life, preserved through time, expressed in sublime music that stops clocks long enough that not a single person in the concert hall thinks to lift a glowing handheld screen to his or her face. We listen rapturously, strangers all, together in that concert hall. We listen and the orchestra plays, and there isn’t a person checking at to-do list anywhere in sight.
That many of those strangers will leave the orchestra hall sharing a collective memory of something sublime suggests the greatest virtue of creative acts. Creative acts hold culture together. In a time when culture seems to either to teeter on the edge of fragmented, undisciplined noise or get so confused that it conflates itself with technological achievement, Bell and his orchestra remind us that the most powerful culture forces happen in crowded rooms, all of us leaning forward, feeling our souls stir at the same time.