Alumni in action: Working with Joshua Bell
46-year-old violin star Joshua Bell didn’t appear on From the Top with Host Christopher O’Riley as a kid because, well, the show hadn’t been created yet! But in 1999, and again in 2005, he did indeed perform on the show as a guest artist, which makes him an honorary alum of the show in our books.
Recently (Spring 2014) Mr. Bell conducted a two-day coaching session with young student musicians, which culminated in two major performances. The first was a parlor music performance, considered an “open rehearsal,” which took place in quite a significant location – none other than Mr. Bell’s own New York City penthouse in the Flatiron District. The second included a concert at the well known 100 Club, a large multi genre music venue in London. The entire set of experiences was filmed for an HBO documentary called Josh Bell: Young Arts Master Class 2014, which aired in October 2014.
We are proud to share that a large number of the musicians, who were chosen as alumni of the National YoungArts Foundation, included many From the Top alumni as well: Violinists Kevin Hu (Show 166), Sirena Huang (Show 188) and Kelly Talim (Show 246), Violist Leah Ferguson (Show 220), and Cellists Brannon Cho (Show 231) and Anna Litvinenko (Show 156).
ARRIVING IN NEW YORK
From the Top spoke with several of our alumni, all of whom cherished this profound opportunity.
“The selection process began from a pool of YoungArts alumni with the final decisions being made by Joshua Bell,” recalled cellist Anna Litvinenko.
Two pieces of music chosen: the Mendelssohn Octet in E Flat minor and Bach’s A Minor Violin Concerto. The students received their practice parts in advance.
“Since a few of us were in New York, we decided to put together a group to read through the Mendelssohn Octet,” Anna said. “We were all kind of nervous for our first meeting with Joshua (at least I was!).”
Violinist Kelly Talim chimed in,
“I think we all practiced it before the filming and made sure to listen to the recordings! Of course, it’s such a famous piece that we knew what it sounded like, but it was a new experience to listen to it with your part in mind and a whole new experience altogether to finally get together with everyone to play!”
YoungArts flew the musicians, all currently students in various locations, to New York City to begin the master class work. The entirety of it was filmed.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into it,” said Kelly Talim. “Our days were totally jam-packed. We were together 24-7, from the moment we set down in New York City. Our hotel rooms were next to each other and that was great!”
Brannon Cho elaborated on the whirlwind experience.
“The rehearsals were so intense. [Joshua Bell’s] energy immediately channeled through to us like an electric current, and really never left. Exploring monumental works like the Octet and the Concerto with him was a thrill because he helped us visualize many parts. He imagined the transition from the development to the recap in the first movement of the Octet as a pot of water slowly beginning to boil. At first, you can see small bubbles lingering at the bottom of the pot, and then gradually, the bubbles start to go crazy and rise to the top. This imagery was so vivid to us that it’s probably what we always think about when we get to that section.”
The musicians even got the opportunity to do some sightseeing and hanging out with their famous mentor.
“The day of the rehearsal we all went to eat at this Italian restaurant,” continued Kelly. “But the day of the performance Josh was craving lunch from Shake Shack.” So the whole crew was transported there. “There was a long line at Shake Shack, including the film crew with all of their lights. It was funny seeing the faces of the crowd as Mr. Bell politely cut to the front of the line and ordered for us. He’s so famous that he has this kind of aura around him.”
ARRIVING AT JOSHUA BELL’S APARTMENT IN THE FLATIRON DISTRICT
In explaining the performance at Bell’s New York Flatiron district penthouse, everyone seemed to express the same sentiment:
“It was surreal!”
When they arrived Bell began by giving them a tour. Kelly Talim explains:
“He has such a beautiful place! He told us that when he bought it, he tore the whole place down and designed it modeled on the various shapes of a violin down to every detail. I didn’t notice it at first but our bass player noticed it and then Josh confirmed it.”
For example, there was black siding reminiscent of the violin’s fingerboard as well as other integrated designs reflecting the violin’s scroll, curves, and colors throughout the apartment.
“The whole place is so open!” Kelly declared. “Downstairs they saw a wine rack with bottles of wine named after him. And of course he has lots of performance photos with himself and famous musicians. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to in New York, and I’ll never forget it!”
Bell allowed them to go up the loft area and explore without him.
For the performance, the young musicians wore black tops and khaki pants.
“We even got to go into a special room downstairs and have our makeup done – the guys too!” explained Kelly. “Mr. Bell wanted us to call him Josh, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t expect him to be so down to earth. He’s such a nice guy, so funny and so relatable.”
THE NEW YORK PERFORMANCE
Soon, the guests began to arrive.
“Mr. Bell’s apartment was packed,” explained Anna, “and filled with famous people like cellist Steven Isserlis, singer Josh Groban, and the classically-trained comedy duo Igudesman and Joo.”
“Even though there were over 100 people there, the performance was very intimate. The audience was all around us. We performed in the living room and behind us were stairs going up to the loft. People were lined up on the stairs and there were more people standing right behind us. It was kind of scary, with so many famous people watching us in such a close setting.”
“For me as a cellist, having Steven Isserlis watch the performance right above us on the staircase was definitely not easy! House performances show a level of connection between the performers and the audience that is often lost between in a big concert hall setting,” said Anna.
Kelly summed up the performance.
“Josh held us together and it really was so much fun. We didn’t have that much time to rehearse – just a couple of hours. Usually in a master class the teacher teaches you how to play and you work on things like synchronizing and bowing. But with Mr. Bell as such a big time artist, it was more about being in the present and just listening to each other, which was so eye-opening. We just had to look at each at each other’s faces and smile at each other, and just enjoy communicating and being in the moment.”
Click here to read the second half of this grand adventure – in London!