Largely dormant this summer due to the pandemic, Saratoga Performing Arts Center kicks off its virtual concert series Saturday night with a private performance by world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. WAMC’s Jesse King has a preview.
If you were hoping to catch Joshua Bell in Saratoga this summer, you just missed him. Fear not, his concert at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center was recorded and will be released online alongside an exclusive Q&A session for the new “SPAC @ Home Concert Series.” While the coronavirus pandemic has silenced many of the country’s concert venues, Bell tells WAMC the gears at SPAC are still turning, and audiences can look forward to some familiar sounds.
“This is a Beethoven year, I was supposed to be playing a lot of Beethoven all summer long, because this would have been [the] 250th anniversary of his birth. So we started with the Spring Sonata, one of his famous pastoral pieces, wonderful pieces," says Bell. "And then I did a little more virtuosic, fun pieces for violin and piano.”
Bell normally plays more than 200 concerts a year. When the pandemic took hold in March, he’d just wrapped a U.S. tour with London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, and was gearing up for a summer appearance at SPAC with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Like many musicians, however, he’s been stuck at home the past six months. On his new album and PBS special, At Home With Music, Bell toys with Beethoven and Broadway alike alongside his wife, opera singer Larisa Martinez, and pianists like Peter Dugan — not from the classical stage, but from what looks to be his living room.
“Well, yes, I really miss the crowds...People do claim that I close my eyes a lot when I play anyway, so maybe it shouldn’t make a lot of difference," Bell laughs. "But when you’re playing with someone, like in this case with a pianist, you feed off of each other’s energy and you really try to use that instead of the audience.”
Dugan accompanies Bell for the SPAC concert as well — one of just a few stage appearances Bell has made over the past month. He says he’s always had a soft spot for Saratoga Springs, and would like to come back for an in-person recital once the circumstances allow. When that will happen, of course, remains up in the air. Bell says the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields still has a European tour on the books for this January, but it’s too soon to tell when venues will reopen — or if audiences will return.
Put him down as “cautiously optimistic.”
“This time has given us all moments for introspection [to] realize what’s really important in our lives, and the arts, I think, is something that we all miss, and we’re gonna want it back with a vengeance," Bell explains. "So I’m hoping all these venues like SPAC — I hope that they will really thrive after this.”
Until then, musicians and venues alike are doing what they can. Bell says some of his peers have picked up teaching during the pandemic, helping the rest of us navigate our quarantine projects and hobbies over Zoom. Bell’s been using the time to develop new arrangements for violin, some of which appear on At Home With Music.
While he’s careful not to dwell on his own experience, given the hardship faced by much of the industry right now, Bell says there are definitely aspects to the break that he’s thankful for.
“I’m learning how to cook, and playing a lot of basketball — it’s just been great to see my family and my kids, who I’m always leaving to go on the road. Now I see them a lot more, and that’s been really, really rewarding," he notes. "I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to go back to the crazy schedule I had before, even if I wanted to, because I’m really appreciating the time at home.”
Joshua Bell is the music director for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and an award-winning violinist with over 40 albums for SONY Classical records. His performance for the “SPAC @ Home Concert Series” premieres on an exclusive webstream this Saturday at 8 p.m., with tickets available on the SPAC website. It’ll remain open for repeat viewing through September 19.