To understand the excitement of this day, you should know that Kristina and I had originally discussed the possibility of it back in August when we were here last. At the time, we weren't sure how it would pan out, and we didn't even solidify our plans for it until just last week. However, our goal for the day was this: fight jet-lag and stay awake long enough to hear Joshua Bell play Max Bruch's First Violin Concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Bell, 43-years-old, is one of the preeminent violinists of this era, having jumped into the spotlight at age 14 when he soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I saw him live two years ago, and was eagerly anticipating this performance with one of the world's best orchestras (the RCO was actually named the top orchestra in the world by Gramophone Magazine in 2008).
When we arrived in Amsterdam, it was about 3:30, so we had quite a bit of time to kill before the 8:15 performance.
We started at Centraal Station (on the northern end of the city), and worked our way down through the streets and alleys to the Concertgebouw (on the southern end of the city).
|One of the famous "I amsterdam" signs.|
|The Christmas tree in Dam Square. I promise I was happy to be there, but it was just so cold and windy outside that managing to look excited was exceedingly difficult.|
|Why, hello there!|
|How to ice skate.|
|There was nobody around the "I amsterdam" sign by the Rijksmuseum. Perfect for pictures.|
|Kristina hopped in the "d" and I took the picture backward to make it a "b" for her last name (Bauch).|
|Kristina's great photo of the highly venerated Concertgebouw.|
When we arrived at the Concertgebouw Café, it was about 6:15. This wasn't an issue per se, except that we were jet-lagged, had just walked through Amsterdam for about three hours, and were about to sit down to eat dinner for two more hours until the performance...
I have never wanted so badly to use my plate as a pillow.
|Inside the beautiful Concertgebouw Café.|
...and here's what we actually looked like:
It was a miracle when 7:45 rolled around and we headed into the auditorium. In fact, sitting down in our seats provided a much needed second (or more likely, third) wind...because that's just what naturally happens when you're seated in the first row at the Concertgebouw.
|Directly in front of (and above) us. That empty seat belongs to the Concertmaster (the violinist who leads the orchestra and sits closest to the conductor).|
|When Joshua Bell performed, he stood in between the Concertmaster (who is now seated on the left) and the conductor's podium (on the right), so he was only about 10 feet away.|
However, from a violinist's point of view (pun intended), this was an amazing opportunity to not only hear, but also see, one of the greats.
For me, Bell is unique in the classical world in that he carries a stage presence many soloists seem to lack. When he walks on stage, Bell commands your attention...you just can't not watch him.
And yet, for a brief moment, we also witnessed his fallibility. As Bell arrived in his spot and looked into the hall, there was a distinct look of panic on his face before his bow. It was as though he fully realized the gravity of the night at that very moment. This was not just any concerto performance: this was the first performance with the RCO in the Concertgebouw in front of a full house.
But when he began playing, any doubts that he, or I, or any other audience member had immediately disappeared. From the front row, we observed the quietest endings and beginnings of notes, the smallest, most intimate aspects of Bell's performance. All of the musical nuance that is normally lost when you're far away in a big hall was audible; the subtle and refined nature of his playing, the stuff that makes Bell that much more extraordinary than the best of violinists, was all heard.
Bell was absolutely stunning.
As I write this post a handful of days later, I'm still awed by the night. It's not only difficult just to wrap my mind around the entirety of what I experienced, but also to attempt accurately and succinctly capturing it in words. There's something reaffirming, in a strange way, about having seen Bell's worry. As a performer, you're always supposed to be comforted knowing "everyone gets nervous," but to personally witness it on the face of one of the greats makes it more undeniably significant.
It was easily one of the most unbelievable and surprisingly insightful musical experiences I've had.
Take nine minutes to hear Bell perform the 2nd movement of Bruch's First Violin Concerto. It will make your day better.