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Joshua Bell on "The Butterfly Lovers" Concerto

 Violinist Joshua Bell in a white shirt, facing the camera, seated, and holding his violin in front of him
Philip Knott
Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell has been an international violin soloist since he performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Muti at the age of 14. He signed his first recording contract four years later, in the same year he was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant. That blazing start to a career in music led, naturally, to recordings of most of the major violin concertos, and many other works as well.

Bell’s newest recording is something different, though. The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto is only on the fringes of the concert repertoire in the U.S., but in its country where it was written, China, it’s not only well-known. It also reveals, through the story of its creation, a wrenching chapter in Chinese history.

For his recording of the piece, Joshua Bell teamed up with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and conductor Tsung Yeh. The sonic palette is remarkable, especially as compared to Western symphony orchestras. Made up of traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu, the pipa, the gaohu, and many others, along with Western cellos and double basses, the ensemble and Bell’s violin reach an uncommon synthesis, one that reflects a blend of traditions even more distinctly than the concerto’s creators may have originally envisioned.

To hear my conversation with Joshua Bell about this new recording, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

The Butterfly Lovers concerto is known in China as Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yintai, a more direct reference to the legend the music depicts. The story begins as a girl, Zhu Yintai, disguised as a boy, becomes friends with a boy named Liang Shanbo while they’re at a boarding school. Eventually, after Zhu leaves to return home, Liang misses his friend and travels to Zhu’s home. He finds that not only is his friend a girl, she’s already pledged to a husband in an arranged marriage. Liang dies of a broken heart. Zhu visits Liang’s grave and begs for it to be opened. At the sound of a thunderclap, it does open, she leaps in, and the two lovers emerge as butterflies and fly away.

In 1959, during the heart of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, students at the Shanghai Conservatory, used that story as the basis for a piece that, they hoped, would bring together the Western music their largely Russian-trained professors were teaching them and the music they would hear on the streets of the city. The premiere, performed by soloist Yu Lina and the Shanghai Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, was an absolute sensation.

Not long afterwards, though, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, and The Butterfly Lovers was shunned. It wasn’t until the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution, that the piece emerged, partly on the strength of Yu Lina’s recording of the piece, which had been circulating among musicians in secret during the dark years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the years since, it has become an essential part of classical music culture in China.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at WCRB with Joshua Bell, who has released a brand-new recording of a piece that doesn't get played maybe enough in this part of the world but maybe a lot in another part of the world: The Butterfly Lovers concerto. Joshua, thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Joshua Bell Thank you. Thanks. Nice to be here. It's The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto.


Brian McCreath I want to ask first, before we talk about the concerto itself, about your own experiences in China. When did you first travel to China and get to know that part of the world at all?

Joshua Bell Wow. I first went to, well, when I was 18 years old, I did my first Asia trip, concert trip. I actually played with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in Hong Kong when I was 18 years old . . .

Brian McCreath Wow.

Joshua Bell Ironically, now, I'm the music director [of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields], I couldn't have imagined it back then. But I remember I brought my sister, Toby. She came with me to Japan and Hong Kong when I was 18. She was my companion and that was—we have fond memories of that. And even when we were in Hong Kong, this would have been in the '80s so things have changed a lot even since then, but I remember just taking a trip across the border from Hong Kong into one of the mainland Chinese towns and being fascinated by it.

But that was my first experience then, and then in the last, you know, 20 years or so, I go regularly to Beijing and Shanghai and Gwangju and some other places. And there's a, you know, big appreciation for classical music. Now the conservatories here in America are filled with Chinese musicians. That's changed over the last 30 years. You know, when I was growing up in the '80s at music school, it was from the Far East, it was many Koreans and some Japanese and not as many Chinese musicians at that time.

And now it seems to be a just a huge love of classical music in China. So there's a demand to go there, which I always enjoy. And for years going there, often I'd get a question from someone coming up to me after a concert [saying], "Do you play The Butterfly Lovers concerto?" And I didn't know what that was for a long time. I just kept hearing people ask me that. They would say "It's one of our favorite pieces in China." So eventually I did a little research and listened to it and looked at the score and thought, wow, this really is something I could dig into, like it affected me in a way that made me want to play it. And that's how this sort of led to doing it with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which is based in Singapore, actually.


Brian McCreath I'm not too surprised that you've found yourself back there increasingly over the years as that culture and that country have embraced Western classical music so much. But I wonder how much you sort of explored what Chinese instruments were like: the erhu, the pipa, all of these things, how much you [would] have [had] a chance. I know that on an international touring schedule you probably don't have a lot of time to just go hang out and do that kind of thing. But I wonder if that has ever been part of your exploration of that part of the world, just looking at the instruments and the way that those things are played and the sounds they make.

Joshua Bell Yeah, it's a good question because sadly it is true. There's often very little time to really explore outside of one's bubble when you're just trying to take a nap after being jetlagged and play the concert and get ready for the one the next day and the travel, you know. There's not always a lot of time to do much culturally outside of finding the best restaurant you can possibly find, [Bell laughs] which, generally, my intake of culture is through the culinary arts, even more than going to museums and such . . .

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, totally understandable, absolutely.

Joshua Bell . . .which I like to do too but, you've got to eat! So when it comes to Chinese instruments of course here and there I would hear a bit, you know, intriguing to hear. But my first real experience of being up close to Chinese instruments was probably about seven or eight years ago. A few years before I did The Butterfly Lovers, I was asked to come to the same orchestra, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. They asked me to come play a few of these pieces that I had played my whole life: the Massenet Meditation and the Zigeunerweisen of Sarasate and Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. They said, "We have arrangements with Chinese instruments. Do you have any interest?" And I'm always one to just want to try something new. And I thought it would be a kick to, you know, to try to – these pieces that I've done so many times – to try them in a new format, and I love going to Singapore. And so, I said, "Sure, I'll do it," and I went and then I was standing on stage with 85 Chinese instruments. A huge orchestra, I mean, there must have been 30 erhu players and . . .

Brian McCreath Wow. Oh my God [laughs]

Joshua Bell . . . I don't know how many pipas. And then there's these exotic wind sounds and more traditional bass instruments, the cello and more western [instruments]. But everything had a little just, you know, the flute and the wind instruments all had a different sound, and it was just it was captivating. It was really moving to see, particularly, the erhu players (it's sort of the Chinese violin, you know, but on two strings) to see the way that—first of all, there, it was inspiring to see how they, on just two strings, how they would go up and down and manage to get amazing intonation.


Joshua Bell I was definitely captivated by that and loved that experience. So, then a couple of years later, at that time, I started developing the idea. Because I had heard so many years about The Butterfly Lovers, I thought, you know, if I'm going to do it, maybe this is [the right time to] somehow collaborate with this orchestra. And it all came together when the conductor Tsung Yeh said, "We have a version of The Butterfly Lovers with Chinese instruments." And you would think that it would have been written that way, but actually it was written in the 1950s by two Chinese composers for Western instruments.

And so, it's ironic that now it's kind of reverse, since it was really written for a Chinese violinist to play with Western instruments and be able to take it to the Western orchestras. In a way, this is reversed. You know, I'm an American violinist playing the violin part, and they've reverse engineered it, you might say, to arrange it back with Chinese instruments. And it works really, really well. And so, I thought, now's my time to do The Butterfly Lovers so I can finally answer "yes" when I'm asked, "Do you play Butterfly Lovers?" So, the stars sort of aligned for it. And now I've, you know, I've done it with them, and I really have a lot of fun with this piece.


Brian McCreath It's so cool that those three other pieces, the Western pieces, are almost as much of a starting point for this project as much as The Butterfly Lovers concerto itself. And your fascination with the sounds that were coming from behind you, I mean, an orchestra that large made up of erhus and . . .

Joshua Bell Yeah, it's pretty amazing

Brian McCreath . . . and pipas, yeah. Well, and so I guess that begs the question to me, when this piece that was, as you say, written with a Western orchestra in mind, I mean, the cultural history of this concerto is as fascinating to me as the music itself because of what China went through in the fifties and sixties and what these composers were trying to do in sort of merging some of the sounds that they grew up with the Western orchestral template. And so, I guess that what it begs the question is, when you began really grappling with The Butterfly Lovers concerto and you knew it would be with this amazing group from Singapore, did it affect the way that you approach your own instrument, how you play the phrases of this piece in order to bring an authenticity to it of the origin of the piece itself?

Joshua Bell Yeah, authenticity is an interesting word. It's loaded with a lot of things in classical music.

Brian McCreath [laughs] That's right, probably too tricky a word, yeah.

Joshua Bell In classical music, it's a word we throw around a lot, whether it's playing Bach, you know, "Are you playing it authentically?" And I've had very strong feelings about that idea for a long time. Whatever it is, Bach or Mozart or whatever, how do I want to approach it? Let's just take Bach, for instance. How do I approach a Bach sonata that was written in the Baroque era, you know, with a very different style of playing and a differently set up instrument? And I've always felt that authenticity, musical authenticity, has to come from something that far transcends the stylistic authenticity, which means it has to feel authentic to your, first of all, your own way of playing, your own technique, your own soul, the way you hear the music. I think that trumps authenticity in a way. It's kind of like, you know, if you're going to hear a Shakespeare play, is the most important thing that they speak with the perfect British accent of the time? Do you want to be aware that the actor is trying to make a great, perfect accent, or do you want the actor to really believe that he's Hamlet himself, you know, and with whatever accent he's got, you know what I mean?

So it's that same sort of things we struggle with as classical musicians. And in the end, I try to find somewhere in between. I try to be influenced, like in Bach, by all the early music movement that I've been exposed to and all the things I love about it and the tempos and the bow strokes, etc., without feeling like I'm copying something and so concerned about style. So hopefully the style kind of seeps into your own way of looking at music.

Sorry, that's a long-winded way of getting back to Butterfly Lovers, but it's the same sort of experience I had playing with bluegrass players or jazz players that I've done. I can't begin to be an authentic jazz violinist or bluegrass musician, but I can let their styles and the people I play with sort of infiltrate my way of thinking. But when I play, it has to feel authentic to myself. And so that's the way I kind of approach this. If one listens to it cynically, one might say, "Oh, he doesn't sound like a Chinese erhu player on the violin," or one could just let the music hit you in the way that it hits you. And so, it's an interesting question that you pose, and in the end, I don't want to feel like an imposter. I want to feel like myself. And that's the way I approached it unabashedly.

Brian McCreath That is such a beautiful way of saying . . . I mean, everything you just said makes so much sense, especially if I think about the way that this recording sounds, because there's no sense to me of any disingenuousness or imitation or anything like that. It sounds very much like, there you were with this group of musicians, and organically the style developed through the interaction. And so, I think it's very, very beautifully done.

And I love the way that you're framing the whole question here that we're talking about. The authenticity really comes internally from you and your personality. But in this recording, you know, my own perception of it is that it absolutely, you know, is appropriate to the piece. And maybe that's a loaded term, too. I don't mean to make it that way, but it is successful in conveying what I believe that the composers were hoping for with this piece of music. It's very beautifully done. And your way of playing it seems to really come from exactly the point that it should, which is a combination of, as you say, your own musical personality and that of the collaborators that you're working with, so that's wonderful.

Joshua Bell Thank you. That's, I mean, that's what I would hope for. The piece itself is such an interesting mix between West and East that I think it lends itself to many ways of interpreting it and all can be valid. And so, I'm hoping it is along the lines of the vision of what the composers meant to get out of it the same way, that when I listen to Glenn Gould or Andras Schiff playing Bach on a modern piano, some people would say, "Oh, it's not meant to be on a modern piano." And then you hear them playing it, and those two I mentioned would play completely differently, but both validly. And you might say, you know what, I think they captured the essence of what Bach had in mind, which far transcends what instrument they were playing on.

And so, in the end, what I have learned is that you cannot please everybody. [laughs] And I will refrain from looking at any YouTube comments or things like that [laughs]. But in the end, you just have to do what you do and make music and hope that people are drawn into the music the way I was.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.