Mozart is considered by many to be the original wunderkind. The great classical composer first sat down at a keyboard at the age of three and was composing by the time he was five. Emily Bear has him beat, on both counts.
Now a mature 17, Rockford, Illinois-born Bear is currently in Israel to share the limelight with a 100-piece ensemble and a slew of local pop A-listers such as Esther Rada, Avraham Tal and Shiri Maimon. The instrumental troupe in question is the World Doctors Orchestra entirely staffed by qualified physicians who also happen to be accomplished – if not professional – classical musicians.
The WDO was founded in 2008 by Prof. Stefan Willich from Charité University Medical Center in Berlin and former president of the Berlin Music Conservatory Hanns Eisler. For the past decade the nonprofit has been intermittently performing across the globe, “driven by the spirit and dedication of the players,” based on its credo that “neither national borders nor political or economic interests should limit access to basic healthcare.”
The two concerts here, at the Jerusalem Theater (February 6, 8 p.m.) and the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv (February 7, 8:30 p.m.), feature a varied repertoire that takes in Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” as well as “popular works to be announced.” The latter may very well include some penned by Bear herself.
The proceeds from the concerts will go to Save a Child’s Heart, a humanitarian organization based at Wolfson Hospital, dedicated to improving the quality of cardiac care for children.
IT IS hard to imagine anyone setting out on their hands-on musical road any earlier than Bear.
“I was too young to remember it,” she says, which, considering she was probably still in diapers at the time, is hardly surprising.
“It was actually the grandmother, who is not particularly musical, who first noticed that Emily had something a little unusual going on,” explains Andrea Bear. The teenager’s mother has sung professionally and has a degree in music education, so she knows her B-flat from her D-sharp. “We thought it’s nothing, she’s just a kid, it’s all good.” “Kid” is a little off the chronology mark. Bear was all of 21 months at the time.
The nonmusical paternal grandma’s perceptiveness was soon corroborated.
“I was away for the weekend with my husband, and my mother, who is a pianist and piano teacher, flew in to take care of my children,” continues Bear Sr. “She was in the kitchen and she heard playing and she thought it was the six-and-a-half-year-old, who had just started playing piano, but it was the baby.”
There was no stopping the tiny tot. She had composed her first song by the age of three, and the following year she began studying with renowned piano teacher Emilio del Rosario at the Music Institute of Chicago. Bear’s compositions have been published since she was four, and she made her professional piano debut at Chicago’s famed Ravinia Festival at age five, the youngest performer to play there.
Oh, and she performed at the White House for president George W. Bush when she was six, making her first appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show at the same age. She wowed DeGeneres, as well as the studio and viewing audience, not only with her keyboard dexterity, but also with the breadth of her genre reach, even in early infancy. Her spot on the talk show included a classical vignette, a bluesy jazz number and a little something she wrote for the host “in 10 minutes.”
IF THERE is one thing I have learned in over 20 years of interviewing jazz musicians, it is don’t talk in genres or styles. Improvisational musicians, in particular, basically just play music, just create. Even so, Bear’s ability to produce excellence across the stylistic board is pretty jaw-dropping.
“Ever since I was little, I started with classical music, you know, the normal route,” she notes, adding that it didn’t take long before she began to champ at the bit. “It was always a little constraining for me, and I discovered jazz two months later. Ever since then, I have grown up doing both.”
Not just “both.” “I started getting into orchestration when I was eight or nine, and then, more recently, it’s been pop and songwriting, which is so much fun.”
It’s not just the public at large that has been left wide-eyed with amazement at Bear’s scintillating musicianship. The professionals also began to sit up and take note quite a while ago. Bear’s admirers include none other than megastar record producer, musician, composer, and film producer Quincy Jones.
With over six decades in the business, and 27 Grammys in his trophy cabinet, Jones is eminently qualified to pronounce judgment on Bear. Asked, several years ago, where he sees Bear going in musical terms, his quick-fire response was “anywhere she wants.” Jones produced Bear’s first studio album, the aptly named Diversity, when she was all of 12 years old.
Bear says she has had critics, the genre police who believe she should decide on a single avenue of musical expression and stick with it. “Yes, there are people who say I have to pick one, and that I can’t do everything. Then there are people like Quincy who embrace the fact that I’m into so many different styles and genres. I take something and I make it my own each time I play it.”
When Bear stepped onto the TV studio stage, on DeGeneres’s show, there was nary a hint of tension. She smiled naturally and appeared to enjoy her tête-à-tête with the talk show host. Nothing, it seems, has changed in the meantime. “Once in a while, when I perform a special performance, I get a little nervous, but I don’t usually get a lot of nerves. I just feel the excitement.”
Bear’s sources of inspiration and influences are as broad as her own oeuvre. She cites Amy Winehouse, jazz piano giants Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock and rappers among her musical references.
“And Quincy,” she adds, with a laugh. “Right now it’s Earth, Wind & Fire,” she says, naming the veteran group that, over the past half century, has navigated a steady, high-energy course through R&B, soul, funk, jazz, disco, pop, rock, dance, Latin and Afro pop.
If blowing people away with her ivory tickling weren’t enough, Bear recently began to lend her vocal chords to her output.
“I got into singing accidentally. I didn’t have my heart set on being a singer,” she notes. “I starting songwriting, and they had me demo all the songs [including vocals].”
Acclaimed Los Angeles-based German record producer/songwriter Toby Gad, whose bio includes highly successful synergies with the likes of Beyoncé, John Legend and Fergie, was the man behind the controls for the demo session. He was mightily impressed with Bear’s singing, and her first pop EP is due out in the spring. With soundtrack composition, and maintaining her classical and jazz gigs, Bear keeps herself out of mischief.
One of the many lauded junctures in her star-studded career to date was a performance of “The Bravest Journey,” a work she composed and orchestrated, at the age of 13, for an event honoring American war veterans. The audience of 6,000 included former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state Gen. Colin Powell. Bear put a lot more into the work than just apply her rare talent and gifts. “I wanted to tell the whole story [of the veterans] – getting drafted, leaving home, enduring everything [in the field of battle] and then coming home, and then seeing all the things they knew from before, but it’s not quite the same for them.” To have that perception at the age of 13 is nothing short of amazing.
Bear did her homework before getting down to the score. “I watched a lot of interviews with veterans – before, during and after [active service].” Clearly, for the teenager, it’s not just about the music. “To me, emotions is the basis of all of my music, no matter what genre it is,” she declares. There’s also an open freeway between Bear’s music and life outside the concert hall, or recording studio. Anything and everything can get the mojo working.
“We were in Aspen, Emily was six years old, and we went on a hike,” Andrea recalls. “People there told us how the Aspen trees make a very special sound when the wind blows through the leaves. When we got back to the hotel, there was a piano in the lobby, and Emily sat down and wrote a piece called Aspen. You could hear the tinkling of the leaves in the music. Anything can inspire Emily, including food,” she laughs.
You never know, Bear might produce something along the lines of “Hummus Blues,” or something of that ilk, while she’s here.
After performing with all kinds of top ensembles, it must be a different experience playing with a bunch of doctors who, with all due respect, are not full-time musicians.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but they’re actually pretty great,” says Bear. “I’m really excited to play with them.”
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