Violinist Joshua Bell is music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.

(Photo: Courtesy Bravo! Vail)

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra doesn’t look like your typical ensemble when it rehearses.

There’s no conductor waving a baton.  Instead, violinist Joshua Bell directs the musicians while he plays solos on his Stradivarius.

“They understand my signals. Even while I’m playing I can give them all kinds of direction and signals that I think only they would understand at this point,” Bell said during a break in rehearsals at Vail this week. “They know by every little dip in my violin, or raise in my eyebrow, or the way I draw the bow. They know the sound I’m looking for from the entire orchestra.”

The Academy performs around the world. It’s a big addition to Bravo! Vail’s lineup, according to Anne-Marie McDermott, the festival’s artistic director.

It’s the first international orchestra to play in residence at the festival. And with 44 members, the Academy is smaller than the other symphonies -- the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Dallas Symphony -- that play outdoor concerts in Vail each summer.

McDermott says the Academy’s smaller lineup, and Bell’s unusual role, helps the ensemble sound and look unique in concert.

“A chamber orchestra without a conductor -- everybody has a great responsibility to really be listening to everybody else,” McDermott said. “It’s a very dynamic form of music making.”

The Academy formed in 1958. They’ve made dozens of acclaimed records over the years. Bell has recorded and toured as a solo violinist for decades. He became the Academy’s music director in 2011.

He says it’s a thrill to shape how the Academy plays music --  like Antonio Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons," which Bell recorded with the Academy in 2008. The well-worn piece is on the Academy’s final Bravo! Vail programs on Sunday.

“We’re in the business of doing things that have been done many, many times,” Bell said. “That’s the fun of it -- to see our version, to see his version or her version. That’s the fun of being a classical music fan.”  

And for Bell, that’s part of what makes the challenge of leading the Academy -- of juggling solos and conducting duties -- such a joy.

Read about summer classical music festivals across Colorado and the CPR SummerFest concert broadcast series, which will feature music from Bravo! Vail.

Bell returns to Colorado for a July 24 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre with jazz trumpter Chris Botti and the Colorado Symphony.