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Alumni in Action: Working With Joshua Bell – Part 2

This is part 2 of the “Alumni in Action” series about our young musicians working with YoungArts and Joshua Bell for an HBO Documentary. Read part 1 here.

Before we get to our young musicians’ experiences with Joshua Bell in London, there was one more in New York that made the record books. Here is how it went.

A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE FOR PRESIDENT AND MRS. OBAMA

While in New York City, an unexpected part of the young musicians’ itinerary with Mr. Bell was when they were called on to perform at a reception sponsored by President and Mrs. Obama, following the President’s talk on climate change at the UN General Assembly. The elegant Waldorf Astoria was the setting.

“I think Michelle Obama asked Mr. Bell if he wanted to perform,” said FTT alum Kelly Talim. “So he brought us with him and we ended up getting to meet the Obamas! It was amazing!”

From the Top alumni performers included violist Leah Ferguson, violinist Kevin Hu, violinist Sirena Huang, cellist Anna Litvinenko, and violinist Kelly Talim. After the show, the musicians and Mr. Bell were given a private meeting with the President and First Lady along with the opportunity to meet them and shake their hands.

“Oh my gosh, Michelle was so beautiful in her black dress and they were both so much taller than I thought!” declared Kelly.

Kevin Hu shared his enthusiasm as well.

“After what was already an amazing experience working with Joshua Bell and the other incredibly talented students, performing for the President and First Lady was so emotional. Even with lots of preparation under our belts, we were pretty nervous and excited over how huge an honor it was. Our performance, the evening, and every moment was magical, and I will remember and be inspired by it for the rest of my life!”

The musicians standing with the President and First Lady

The musicians standing with the President and First Lady

From left to right: Anna Litvinenko (Show 156), Kelly Talim (Show 246), Zachary Ostroff, Leah Ferguson (Show 220), Bradley Parrimore, Michelle Obama, Joshua Bell, Barack Obama, Bihn Park (Show 246 and Show 298), Sirena Huang (Show 188), Kevin Hu (Show 166), Mariella Haubs, and Paul T. Lehr (President of YoungArts)

Meanwhile…

LONDON

“Now that was an experience!” exclaimed Anna.

In London, Bell and his cadre played at a large well-known musical venue called The 100 Club in the Soho area of London. Opened in 1942, the club attained legendary status in modern British popular music having been host to a large variety of performers including the Rolling Stones, The Who, BB King, Muddy Waters, and Paul McCartney. Bell and his young musicians performed as part of Limelight, a series of classical music club nights started in 2009 which take place there regularly, and tries to broaden the appeal of classical music by presenting performers in a club atmosphere. This is an attempt to change conventional ideas that classical music needs to be heard in a formal concert hall in order to be enjoyed.

“It was definitely a very different atmosphere from the one that classical musicians are used to performing in,” said Anna of the performance. “It was so refreshing to play there because it felt like we were making a statement: showing that classical music is meant for everybody, and was not intended solely for concert halls where you can’t eat, drink, laugh, or show reactions.”

When the group arrived, there was a green room for Mr. Bell, but not for the young musicians who were quite jet lagged from the trip over.

“Later, while we were waiting for Mr. Bell to arrive, we wanted to rehearse on our own,” said Kelly. “We were trying to get to know the performance space because it’s a rock and roll club and they use amplifiers, which we’re not used to. The acoustics were so different than a concert hall and because of that it was hard to hear one another. We were all very nervous about that.”

Any fears they initially felt were unfounded during the performance, which again included Mendelsohn’s Octet and the Bach violin concerto.

“I will never forget the energy we had,” said Kelly. “We totally blended and were so tuned in with each other. It was a performance in which we all felt in sync. We just knew; we didn’t even have to say it afterwards.”

The walls backstage at The 100 Club are covered with notes and signatures of a multitude of performers who appeared there throughout the years.

Kelly explained,“Because there were so much graffiti, there was hardly any place to write our own signatures. So we took matters into our own hands and found a big huge place on the ceiling with a green sharpie. It was the only place open so we had to climb up to get there. I stood on the couch on tiptoe to do it, but we signed! And then we had Mr. Bell sign it, too, and hopefully it will be there the next time we go!”

Graffiti at the 100 Club

Graffiti at the 100 Club

The rest of the trip was much looser, and the students even got to do some sight seeing. They walked around Big Ben and across Tower Bridge all with Josh Bell, and walked across Abby Road recreating the famous Beatles album cover for a photo shoot.

Joshua Bell and Anna Litvienko overlooking London.

Joshua Bell and Anna Litvienko overlooking London.

While in London, Bell was recording for a new cd, and the musicians were able to watch his recording session, which they found fascinating.

“Seeing him record part of his newest album was nerve-racking yet so informative,” commented cellist Brannon Cho. “It made me nervous for my future because recordings are always so grueling and tedious, yet Josh was able to record for many hours while maintaining his incredibly high level of playing at every moment. Seeing this process and also seeing how booked he is every year made be realize that the top classical soloists must be somewhat superhuman.”

The musicians listening in on Joshua Bell's recording session

The musicians listening in on Joshua Bell’s recording session

Anna felt it was important to stress that the experience with YoungArts was especially great because they got to work on chamber music.

 “It was not just a master class, where the master teacher simply critiques you on your solo playing. For me, chamber music is one of the best ways to learn music. I feel you learn the most from collaboration – not only because you learn from your colleagues, but also, because it really makes you listen. It teaches you to converse, to react, to make it like a normal human experience said through sounds.”

Anna added, “Though we were serious about what we were doing, it was so much fun! We felt very connected, and we were so happy to be performing together and just hanging out with Joshua Bell. It seemed surreal that we were doing this!”

And there’s that word again – “surreal” – the word that kept surfacing for so many of the performers. In truth it was quite real and an experience that these mature and talented From the Top alumni will never forget.

Thank you to YoungArts, HBO Documentary Series, and Joshua Bell for collaborating on this great project.