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An orchestra performing on stage as viewed from the audience.

Joshua Bell brings life or death virtuosity to the Sydney Opera House

with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Angus McPherson

Fireworks are guaranteed when the Academy of St Martin in the Fields meets the thrilling vitality of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bach and more in three exciting programmes led by the Academy’s Music Director, Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell, as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 50th Birthday Festival.

Bell has often described playing music as ‘life or death’ – and you can hear that energy and intensity every time he picks up his violin. When the American violinist was last in Sydney, touring with the Academy in 2017, their performances were dubbed ‘breathless and breathtaking’ by the Sydney Morning Herald and ‘invigorating’ by Limelight, winning two Helpmann Awards that year. There’s no doubt Bell will bring the same exhilarating power to the three programmes he performs with the Academy when they return to the Sydney Opera House in October.

A teen prodigy born in Bloomington, Indiana, Bell was touring with the world’s great orchestras before he was 20. He became a household name in 2007 when a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Washington Post detailed his experiences busking – with his multimillion-dollar 1713 Stradivari violin – in the D.C. subway at peak hour. Now he has more than 40 albums under his belt, his television appearances span late-night talk shows to Sesame Street and Mozart in the Jungle, and he’s only the second musician to lead the acclaimed Academy of St Martin in the Fields, taking over from the orchestra’s founder, the legendary Sir Neville Marriner, in 2011.

When Bell came to Sydney in 2017, it was his first tour to Australia with the Academy since taking the helm – but his relationship with the ensemble began much earlier. The first CD the young violinist bought was the Academy’s recording of Mozart’s Requiem and he made his own first recording with Marriner and the Academy in 1986, playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, which he performs on this tour.

Since Marriner formed the ensemble in London in 1958, the Academy has become renowned for its punchy interpretations of classical favourites, the tight-knit chamber orchestra famous for its brilliant, gripping performances without a conductor. The Academy has released more than 500 recordings – including the soundtrack to the 1984 film Amadeus – and toured the world many times over.

An orchestra performing on stage in the Concert Hall as viewed from the back of the Hall.

In October 2023, in the refurbished Concert Hall, Bell and the Academy present three compelling programmes, featuring some of classical music’s best-loved violin concertos and greatest symphonies. The first sees Bell and the Academy return to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, one of the Romantic Period’s great violin masterpieces and Mendelssohn’s final major work before his death in 1847. Bell then leads the Academy in Mendelssohn’s brooding ‘Scottish’ Symphony No.3, inspired by the German composer’s visit to Scotland as a young man in 1829. The concert opens with the Russian Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, a dazzling 20th-century work that pays tribute to the Classical elegance of Haydn and Mozart.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental Violin Concerto is the centrepiece of the second programme. Written in 1806 while the famous Fifth Symphony was still under construction, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is a radiant work by a composer best-known for his stormy disposition. The concert opens and closes with Mozart, beginning with the bubbly Overture to his wildly popular opera The Marriage of Figaro, written in 1786 when Mozart was at the height of his powers. Bell and the Academy performed Mozart’s ‘little’ G minor Symphony – No.25 – in Sydney in 2017, but this time around they’re playing the ‘big’ one, Symphony No.40 in G minor. The second of Mozart’s incredible final ‘trilogy’ of symphonies written in 1788, it begins with one of his most recognisable tunes.

An orchestra performing on stage as viewed from the audience. A violinist is standing centre stage.

Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro kicks off the final programme with a bang, before Bell pairs the beautiful, interweaving lines of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach’s beloved Violin Concerto in A minor with the fiery passion and virtuosity of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Spanish-flavoured Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. The concert comes to a blazing close with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, inspired by the sun and sights of Italy he experienced as a young composer on his Grand Tour of Europe.

Between the vibrant ‘life or death’ virtuosity of Joshua Bell and the stunning musical mastery of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, these unmissable concerts promise classical masterpieces like you’ve never heard them before.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields perform in the renewed Concert Hall from 7 – 9 October 2023 as part of our 50th Birthday Festival celebrations.

Find more about Classical Music at the Opera House