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McKnight Center entices international talent to 'flyover state'

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Even while playing the violin, Grammy award winning violinist Josh Bell conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra at the McKnight Center Wednesday night

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, led by music director and Grammy award winning violinist Joshua Bell, brought its prestigious sound to Stillwater on Wednesday and Thursday evening.

The performance is part of the McKnight Center’s inaugural season, which has brought top of the line talent to Stillwater. Mark Blakeman, the Marilynn and Carl Thoma executive director of the McKnight Center, said bringing the Academy of St. Martin to Oklahoma State was an integral part to creating the precedent-setting season.

“They were simply going to tour the east coast, and then they were going to fly to the west coast to tour. We were going to be a flyover state," Blakeman said. "We enticed them to make a stop in the Midwest. They have come here specifically to be a part of our inaugural season.”

The Academy of St. Martin is the most recorded orchestra in the world with 753 albums and counting, including recording on the soundtrack for the 1984 Oscar-winning film “Amadeus.” Joshua Bell, who directs the orchestra while also performing, is a world-renowned violinist and recipient of several notable awards, including a Mercury and Grammy Award.

For its first night in the McKnight Center, the Academy performed pieces from Mozart, Nicolò Paganini and Johannes Brahms. The orchestra, which contained less than 60 musicians, featured Joshua Bell as what is called a ‘play-conduct,’ where the musician conducts and performs simultaneously. This proved no problem for Bell as he mastered both sides of the performance.

To watch Bell perform is an art of its own.

Whether he’s playing the violin with the orchestra, conducting with his bow or playing a solo piece, every movement he makes is animated and expressive on a level that exudes passion. Robin Terronez, who was in attendance for the performance, said Bell’s solo piece was her favorite part of the performance.

“The talent was unbelievable,” Terronez said. “I felt the performance. Them being able to come to the McKnight Center added so much to the culture and music here, and Joshua Bell is just over the top talented. The Paganini with him as the soloist was absolutely the best. I play the violin, and I don’t even know how he did that.”

The Paganini piece, “Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6,” includes a long, extremely difficult violin solo that Bell made quick work of, bringing sounds out of his legendary 1713 Stradivarius violin that are seemingly inconceivable.

Even with two nights of a nearly full house, Mark Blakeman said it is possible that they will be back in Stillwater at a future time.

“We plan to bring amazing orchestras every season to the McKnight Center, and they’re certainly one of the finest from Europe, so I think there is every possibility that they’ll come back,” Blakeman said. “Joshua Bell also does a lot of performing away from the Academy of St. Martin as a chamber musician and feature soloist, and he often puts together tours with other artists doing duos and trios and things like that. It’s quite possible that we could see Joshua back at some point soon without the Academy.”

The McKnight Center is set to announce their new 2020-2021 season lineup this Saturday at noon.