August 6, 2023: Joshua Bell + Mahler 1

May 26, 2023

The Elements
Suite for Violin and Orchestra

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, ether, 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.

“Ether” 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.

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, “Titan”

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler famously argued that a symphony should encompass the entire world, and, in many respects, the Symphony No. 1 in D Major makes good on this premise. But this early work, completed in 1888 when Mahler was 28, is also autobiographical, using themes connected to the aftermath of his ill-fated love affair with a soprano named Johanna Richter. Of particular interest are two melodies that Mahler draws from his 1884-85 song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), which concerns a jilted lover — that being Mahler — who seeks release from his misery through solitary wandering.

But while the Wayfarer cycle ends in despair and resignation, the symphony takes a long view on the relationship, suggesting that Mahler’s romantic hero has finally emerged from his doldrums to recognize the beauty and grandeur of the world around him. “The symphony begins where the love affair ends,” Mahler told the critic Max Marschalk in 1896. “It is based on the affair which preceded the symphony in the emotional life of the composer.” And yet, Mahler had also moved past the Richter affair, becoming romantically involved with Marion von Weber at the time of composition.

Mahler went back and forth on whether to give the First Symphony an explanatory program, and even whether to call it a symphony or a symphonic poem. Its 1889 premiere by the Budapest Philharmonic drew a cool response, with some critics hostile to the fact that Mahler had not furnished the audience with a programmatic guide. In 1893, he titled the symphony “Titan,” after Jean Paul Richter’s 1803 novel of the same name. But this name never entirely stuck, and early movement descriptions were later dropped (as was an entire fifth movement, the Andante known as “Blumine”).

The first movement begins with a spacious, almost cosmic depiction of dawn, filled with the rustlings of nature and a cuckoo call that contains the melodic kernel of the entire composition. The shimmering main theme is drawn from the second of the Wayfarer songs, “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld” (“I Went This Morning over the Field”).

The second movement Scherzo suggests a rustic peasant dance, as seen by Mahler’s wayfarer. The third movement is what most upset the Budapest audience, a minor-key parody of “Frère Jacques” framing a dream-like middle section based on the Wayfarer song “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (“The Two Blue Eyes of my Beloved”). With its allusions to street performers and klezmer music, the movement was said to be inspired by a satirical woodcut showing a hunter’s funeral procession led by forest animals.

The symphony’s creative struggle reaches its apogee in the tumultuous finale, whose opening gesture that Mahler compared to a bolt of lightning (“the sudden explosion of despair coming from a deeply wounded heart”). Earlier themes are recycled before a hymn-like coda that is as glorious and heroic as anything Mahler would write in the nine symphonies to follow.

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