Poster Violinist Joshua Bell
Violinist Joshua Bell joins the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, led by conductor Tsung Yeh, in their latest project, ‘Butterfly Lovers.’
New Classical Tracks®

Joshua Bell and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra present 'Butterfly Lovers'

New Classical Tracks (Extended Interview) - Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Tsung Yeh: Butterfly Lovers (Sony Classical)

New Classical Tracks - Joshua Bell
New Classical Tracks - August 1, 2023

Joshua Bell is a world-class violinist who has also been music director of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields since 2011. With all his years of experience, it might be difficult to imagine insecurities creeping in on occasion.

But that’s precisely what happened during the making of his latest recording, Butterfly Lovers, with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

“To tell you the truth, I was a bit scared to walk out on stage at the first rehearsal,” Bell says. “[But] it was just very heartwarming, the reception I got from the orchestra and that sense of acceptance from a different culture.”

In 2018, you said, “My new favorite orchestra besides the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London is the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.” What do you love about this orchestra?

“I first went to them about seven years ago. At the time, they said, ‘We have these arrangements for Chinese orchestra, using Chinese instruments, of some classic violin pieces, like Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, by Saint-Saens, and Zigeunerweisen, by Sarasate.’ I fell in love with the unique sound of a Chinese orchestra, with instruments like the pipa and the erhu. It was thrilling.”

When did you decide you wanted to play Butterfly Lovers with the orchestra?

“For years, I didn't take the time to really get to know the piece. I just kept hearing about it and then finally sat down and listened to it with the music. It is a gorgeous piece of music. And I had this new relationship with the Chinese orchestra in Singapore, and I thought the stars were aligned for me to learn this piece and to play with my new friends in Singapore. And that's what happened.”

I know that you also have a special relationship with the conductor with whom you're working on this project and that you met him early in your career. How did you develop that relationship along the way?

“Maestro Tsung Yeh and I actually met a few decades ago. He was the one who brought me to Singapore. The musical language of the Butterfly Lovers is rooted in the Chinese sound of Chinese instruments, although it's a weird hybrid of a piece in that it was ironically written for Western instruments in Western orchestra about 50 years ago. In our case, we've actually reverse engineered it back to Chinese instruments and Chinese orchestra.”

What is the history of this piece, and why is it so popular and beloved?

“The easiest way to describe the Butterfly Lovers is sort of like the Chinese Romeo and Juliet. It’s about a young Chinese woman who wants to study during a time where girls were not encouraged to study. So she dresses up as a boy to go study at the school, and she meets a boy who becomes her best friend. But she's secretly falling in love with him and he doesn't know that she's a girl.

“The truth eventually comes out and they fall in love, but she's been betrothed to someone else. And because of this he becomes heartbroken, falls ill and dies. So on her wedding day, heartbroken that she's not with the man she loves, she decides to dig into his grave and out of the grave emerge two butterflies.

“When I first heard it, I got goosebumps because the melody is so beautiful and it's very descriptive music. You can hear the strife between the families and all the longing. In the end, it's the two butterflies going away together, and you can feel all those things in the music.”

Is there a moment in this work that really gets you every time you play it?

“At the very end, the culmination of the piece features the opening melody, originally played by the violin solo, now with the whole orchestra, so 30 players playing in unison. It's quite dramatic, and it's one of the moments that first gave me goose bumps.”


Joshua Bell, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and Tsung Yeh: Butterfly Lovers - (Amazon)

Joshua Bell - official website

Singapore Chinese Orchestra - official website

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