DHAHRAN: On a chilly Dhahran night, Joshua Bell’s violin serenaded a full audience at Ithra’s Theater. Although everyone was wearing a mask, you could see excitement in their eyes.
“When I was growing up, Saudi Arabia was a very exotic place that was far away, and now I am here. Music made this happen. Music can bring us all together,” Bell told the crowd.
On plush red chairs, with social distancing stickers urging people to skip a seat, time stood still. The auditorium filled with the reverberations of strings and keys as US Grammy-award winner Joshua Bell took to the violin, with Italian classical pianist Alessio Bax playing in unison.
The violin and piano were in equal partnership; with the gentle stroking of violin strings and graceful glide of the piano, it pulled at our heartstrings. We each had the luxury to create our own individual interpretation as we collectively sat down and let the two instruments take us on a journey. We let our minds wander and stumble, and falter with the rhythm. Unlike a movie, we did not need to follow a plot or read subtitles — the concert provided a full journey through Europe without saying a single word. The pace went from fast to faster to slower at the end, because not only were Bell’s hands tired by then, but it helped ease us back into the pace of the current world.
The night started with arguably the most famous composer, Mozart, and then went on to Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, one of the most prominent composers of the Romantic era. The sound was raw, passionate, and at times, sounded like the composer ripped his heart out with his bare hands. Bach, to me, was an unraveling love story. At one point, Bell took out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped beads of sweat, then continued with a calmness only found in still water. The violin seemed to weep then sigh as it told a story of love from the depths of despair and purest of joy. I would argue that the almost two hours of music took the audience on an emotional ride, swinging between youthful wonder and deep melancholy.
The energy was palpable.
Dhahran resident Faris Mahdi works in finance during the day but dabbles in art at night. He said that before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, he used to frequently travel to Europe to attend live opera and ballet, and was pleasantly surprised to see it offered in his own backyard.
“I’ve attended other concerts at Ithra, but this is so nice. I didn’t know Joshua Bell, but I saw a post on Instagram and did a search and decided, why not? This is the type of concert that I’d normally travel abroad for, but now I can take my own car and just come,” he told Arab News.
Mahdi was surprised to find such a good turnout at the concert. He said he understood if pop music brought in the crowds, but did not expect classical music to attract people.
“I like to listen to classical music. It seems that even the radio favors fast-paced music, but the ear sometimes needs to be cleansed with calm sounds. I prefer to listen to something gentle and, let’s say, elevated. Tonight’s event might open up people’s horizons and allow the audience to seek a different flavor of sound. I was honestly very surprised to see such a big audience tonight,” he said.
The tiny booklets marking the program were in such high demand — and will likely become valuable keepsakes from the two-day event — that only a handful of audience members got to take one home on closing night.
In that program guide, Majed Z. Samman, head of performing arts and cinema at Ithra, wrote: “As part of our commitment to cross-culture exchange, we are privileged to be able to present some of the world’s most acclaimed artists to perform live here in Saudi Arabia. On this occasion, we are proud to present our audience with an unforgettable musical performance by world renowned violinist, Joshua Bell.”
Lamees Saad Almesfer, a 17-year-old high school senior, decided to take a chance and attend the concert. “None of my sisters or brothers really appreciate classical music, so I decided to come alone,” she told Arab News.
“I tried to make a story out of the music while it was playing. The first piece that he played, Mozart’s sonata for violin and piano No. 32 in B-flat major, was like the piano and the violin were speaking with each other — like a conversation. He was just repeating whatever the violin was saying. Music is like this; it’s words conveyed in a way that is nonverbal,” Almesfer said.
While many famous pieces were played, some were lesser known to Almesfer, and she appreciated all of the hard work, dedication, and practice it took for the music to sound so crisp and clear.
“Two chords can make 64 moods. The minute Joshua Bell walked in, my eyes started to cry — but I held it together. Each composer has a piece of their soul in the pieces, and we got to listen. It was just mind blowing because I never expected this world-renowned violinist to just be here in Saudi Arabia. I’m in shock,” she said.