There are four elements, right? Not so at the last week of the Colorado Music Festival, where there are five

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Courtesy Geremy Kornreich/Colorado Music Festival
Joshua Bell, left, performs Bruch’s First Violin Concerto with Colorado Music Festival leader Peter Oundjian conducting.

A couple of years ago, world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell had an idea for a new piece. But to pull it off, he needed five composers.

“Usually you pick a composer and you say, ‘Can you write me this or that?’” Bell said, pondering what would work thematically with the number of people he wanted to include on the project. “I said, ‘How about the elements, the classical elements of earth, wind, fire, and water? [But] that's only four.”

So Bell thought harder, and a solution presented itself.

“I was greedy and I thought, ‘Well, and I kept reading about the fifth element, which was in ancient times and many cultures Ether or Space …. And then I broadened it to just call it Space, because I thought ‘That'd be fun challenge for our fifth composer.’”

And so born was “Elements,” a new work featuring movements written by Kevin Puts for Earth, Edgar Meyer for Water, Jennifer Higdon composing Air, Jake Heggie taking on Fire, and Jessie Montgomery for Space.

Higdon said even though she already knew Bell, it was a surprise to get his call to participate in “Elements.” 

“I've always admired his playing [and] his tone and It was exciting that he wanted to put together something that was creating new works because I'm, as you can imagine, as a composer, I'm a big believer in that,” Higdon said. “And I thought, well, if there are five composers writing works, I bet a lot of people will be writing fast music and a lot of notes, which I certainly have done a lot for the violin in other pieces. So I thought I'd write something slow and lyrical because I figured this element would probably be in the middle and it might be a nice respite from the frenzied activity.”

“It's looking very, very exciting. And the music each [has] different styles, but each element has its own composer and different kind of musical language,” Bell said. “But somehow it's gonna work.”

Bell says the works are as flexible as they are diverse. He can play them together or he can play them separately. Eventually, he says there might even be a multimedia aspect to “Elements.”

Jake Heggie is composing fire.

“I've known Joshua since he was about 18 years old …. But we never had worked together before. And I've never written a violin concerto,” Heggie said. “I was thrilled because the thing I love about it is that [the] immediate thought of fire is something that we always seek to contain or hold. And yet you can't hold fire, but it can consume you. And that's true if you're thinking on a metaphorical level or on a physical level.”

Fire also means rebirth, Heggie said.

“I've had a fire all my life to create, to write music, and it feels like I can't contain that fire. It just has to be allowed to burn,” he said. “So you know, and fire is essential for life. We need it. We fear it.” 

“Elements” is being presented in a two-part performance August 3 and 6 to mark the end of the Colorado Music Festival. For Bell, bringing it to the festival is a casual way to try out new work among serious and professional musicians.

“It's a godsend because I have to then do it a few weeks later: The official premiere is in Hamburg and then in Hong Kong, and then New York Philharmonic,” Bell said. “And the [CMF] audience gets to be the first to hear it.”

Editor's note: The Colorado Music Festival is a financial supporter of CPR News, but has no editorial influence.