Karl Henning | 17 JUL 2023
Billy Joel once sang, “There’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine.” The present review of violinist Joshua Bell’s new album, Butterfly Lovers, exemplifies that caution.
For this album, Bell collaborates with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Tsung Yeh.
The Chinese Orchestra is an ensemble that at once has roots extending as far back as the 1100s B.C.E. and embraces the model of both instrumental and repertory overlap with the Western Orchestra. The four choirs of the Chinese Orchestra are bowed strings (inclusive of Western celli and double basses), plucked strings, woodwinds, and percussion. The Western concert harp is often included in the plucked string section, and the percussion generally includes both indigenous and Western instruments.
Bell is the featured soloist for the seven-movement titular concerto, composed by Zhanhao He and Chen Gang. Bell does not simply play “straight Western violin” but often employs gestures (portamento, e.g.) and reticence of vibrato in imitation of the Chinese erhu.
Overall, the novelty for the ears of the Westerner not of Chinese descent will be the colors of the Chinese instruments joining in a full-throated orchestral richness. The composers’ ear for color is always artful and clever. Wind passages in the first and seventh movements (both marked “Adagio cantabile”) delightfully suggest organ stops in a way truer to organ craft than many such a passage in Western literature. There are vigorous rhythmic passages such as in the fourth movement (“Pesante–duramente”) for which the nearest point of reference in the established Western literature may be the Dance Suite, etc. of Béla Bartók (not coincidentally a composer famous for his pioneering ethnomusicology).
There are no doubt fans of the violinist who will come to this recording to enjoy Bell as a sort of musical chameleon. But charming as his performance is, the real star of this endeavor is the collaborating ensemble. The disc is filled out with three straightforward violin-and-orchestra bonbons by way of encores if you please: the Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et rondo capriccioso in a minor, Opus 28, Massenet’s “Méditation” from Thaïs, and Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Opus 20. ■
- Joshua Bell: joshuabell.com
- Singapore Chinese Orchestra (新加坡华乐团): sco.com.sg/en
- Tsung Yeh: sco.com.sg/en/orchestra/musical-leadership/conductor-emeritus.html