August 3, 2023: Joshua Bell + Debussy’s La Mer

May 26, 2023

The Elements
Suite for Violin and Orchestra

Kevin Puts (b. 1972)
Jake Heggie (b. 1961)
Edgar Meyer (b. 1960)

I’m so excited to have the opportunity to premiere my new commissions project, The Elements. The idea for this unique endeavor was born during the early moments of the pandemic, and the work consists of five distinct pieces, each written by composers I greatly admire–Jake Heggie (“Fire”), Jennifer Higdon (“Air”), Edgar Meyer (“Water”), Jessie Montgomery (“Space”) and Kevin Puts (“Earth,” “Earth (reprise and finale)”). The process of working with such an incredible collection of talent has been extremely rewarding, and to have them all represented in one epic opus will be truly historic. I am thrilled to have the chance to share this collective work celebrating the beauty of our natural world and look forward to seeing you at an upcoming performance of The Elements!

– Joshua Bell

“Earth” and “Earth (Reprise and Finale)”

Earth and Earth (Reprise and Finale) are my contributions to the Elements project. The piece begins on solid ground, with a repeating four-note ostinato over which the solo violin and the orchestral violins trade lyrical phrases. This opening idea was drawn from my Violin Concerto (2006) but takes a different journey here, eventually “taking flight” for a brief period. The “Reprise and Finale” flows seamlessly from the end of Jessie Montgomery’s Space, resuming the development of ideas begun at the suite’s opening and reaching grander heights here. Beyond the fundamental sense of stability and endurance the element Earth suggested to me, I hope the music also conveys a more spiritual reverence for the planet Earth itself and, in some minute way, might inspire its protection.

– Kevin Puts


This movement deals with both a gentler side of water and a more forceful side. Music early in the movement is non-specific and maybe evocative of a gentle rain. The music later in the movement comes from a specific vision. I thought of being a particle of water in a high South American waterfall, hurled in seconds down into the swirling silt and sludge at the bottom, and onward from there. I’m not sure if it’s what I would see if I heard this music for the first time, but it certainly is what I saw when I wrote it.

– Edgar Meyer


My score for “Fire” begins with a spark. Something possibly beautiful and essential emerges, fascinating and elusive. We cannot hold fire, but it can consume us. It is essential for life but can also be the cause of immense destruction. And then, miraculously, for rebirth. We need it. We fear it. We try to tame and contain it, but it can quickly run out of control. I wanted to explore both physical and metaphysical fire: the passion, the flame that is essential to our spirits – to all spirituality. Where will that initial spark lead? We may never know. And that is part of a beautiful, inexplicable chaos.

– Jake Heggie

Between concerto appearances, chamber music, film projects, and conducting, Joshua Bell has periodically found time in his wide-ranging career for science projects. Early on, he collaborated with physicists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a computer-enhanced Hyperviolin. He has since worked with Sony on a virtual reality presentation called the “Joshua Bell VR Experience” and has performed multimedia concerts at the World Science Festival in New York.

In 2017 a reporter at The Guardian asked Bell if he ever considered a career outside of music. “I love science, particularly physics, and I am also fascinated with molecular biology,” he said. “I can imagine being some sort of scientist or medical researcher, and I’d crave something that involves discovery and invention. Luckily for me, music, in its own way, has both of those things.”

With The Elements, Bell pays tribute not to leading-edge technology but to the ancient human understanding of nature and matter. The project began in 2019, when the violinist had the idea to commission a group of preeminent American composers on a joint work for violin and orchestra. Out of this emerged a five-part suite, with each component devoted to a different classical element: fire, air, water, space, and earth. After the composers were selected and had divvied up the elements, they met several times with Bell to exchange ideas to see how each piece could relate to another.

In the final plan, “Fire” went to Jake Heggie, the composer of celebrated operas including Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, and Its A Wonderful Life. “Air” was taken up by Jennifer Higdon, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner known for her many concertos and other symphonic works. “Water” was chosen by Edgar Meyer, a longtime collaborator with Bell; together they have premiered Meyer’s Double Concerto for Bass and Violin and Meyer’s Overture for Violin and Orchestra.

“Space” would highlight Jessie Montgomery, a violinist and composer based who is currently the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence. And “Earth” went to Kevin Puts, the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his debut opera Silent Night, and whose latest opera The Hours was recently introduced at the Metropolitan Opera.

After these two Colorado Music Festival performances, Bell will perform the suite in concerts with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert; the Hong Kong Philharmonic, led by Jaap van Zweden; the New York Philharmonic, also with van Zweden; the Philadelphia Orchestra (conductor TBD); Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Juraj Valčuha; and National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Yet ultimately, flexibility is the goal, with each piece able to stand on its own. Below, the composers discuss their respective works.

La Mer

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Debussy was not above a certain artistic license when telling his life story. Before finishing La Mer, he informed his publisher Jacques Durand, “The sea has been very good to me. She has shown me all her moods.” At another point, he told the conductor André Messager that he was “destined for a sailor’s life and that it was quite by chance that fate led me in another direction. But I have always retailed passionate love for the sea.” In fact, Debussy’s marine experience was confined to two crossings of the English Channel, one of which left him seasick. But it’s worth noting that Debussy’s father was a sailor who regaled his family with tales about life on the high seas, and the composer took further inspiration from visual art, including seascapes by the English painter Turner and the Japanese artist Hokusai.

Debussy embarked on La Mer in the summer of 1904 while vacationing in the hills of Burgundy. It was a tumultuous period. He and his wife Lilly parted ways on Bastille Day after it emerged that the composer was having an affair with the wife of a Parisian banker (who was pregnant with Debussy’s child). This set the stage for an ugly, highly public divorce. Though it’s impossible to gauge the effect of his personal troubles on La Mer, the score’s completion was delayed until the following summer, when he settled in the English resort town of Eastbourne. Some commentators hear a turn towards a thicker, more polyphonic language amid this upheaval, though the shift may be coincidental.

More than ever, Debussy uses sonority — musical color — for its own sake in this three-movement canvas. The first movement, “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea,” opens with low, sustained strings, including harps, evoking the slow churn of the sea at dawn. Rippling figures, led by the trumpet and English horn, emerge like surface wavelets or wisps of foam. Eventually, the depths of the sea are set in motion with a stately brass chorale, which will return in the third movement.

The second movement, “The Play of the Waves,” is more animated, as rapid, irregular figures suggest splashing waves and fountains of spray. The final movement, “Dialogue of the Wind and Sea,” opens with a foreboding cast, as building lower strings suggest an approaching storm. The full resources of the orchestra are deployed and a siren-like melody is traded between the oboe, English horn, and bassoon until finally, the first-movement chorale returns and the music surges to an exultant climax.


Program notes by Brian Wise

Plan Your Festival Visit


Visiting Boulder

The Festival performs in beautiful Boulder, Colorado — a breathtaking location full of nature, culture, cuisine, art, and more.

Learn About Our Educational Programs


Festival Fellows

Meet the Festival Fellows: eight aspiring professional musicians who receive coaching and performance opportunities through the Festival and its guest artists.

Center for Musical Arts

This excellent community music school is also the educational arm of our organization.