Even after dozens of performances with symphony orchestras across the continent, Steve Bell finds it difficult to rehearse for the moment when the house lights go down and the baton is raised.
"It's always really emotional," explains the Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter of hearing the sounds of a 60-piece orchestra swell up behind him. "The only thing I worry about is crying."
Bell's next appearance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra also promises to be emotional. On April 25, the orchestra plans to honour him with its Golden Baton Award for his contribution to the musical life of Winnipeg.
"We recognize him for his skill, his musicality, for his connection with the symphony, and for his openness as well," explains Trudy Schroeder, WSO executive director.
The orchestra will also recognize the Richardson Foundation for its support of the symphony.
An award from a public institution such as the WSO has a special meaning for the 52-year-old Bell, winner of two Junos and recipient of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal, because he makes the bulk of his living singing in churches and small concert venues across North America.
"I think what I feel the most deeply with this (Winnipeg) symphony award is my happy participation in a community of communities that's made it all happen," says Bell in an email exchange, referring to the support of his musical team, his financial backers and his fans.
"Whatever has been good and noteworthy about my work has the quality of a symphony to it, (with) a coming together of separate goods that have made for something special. I'm just very pleased to be part of it."
After 17 albums and a long career of touring, Bell understands that his music, with its thoughtful, poetic lyrics, doesn't fall easily into any one genre, probably because he frequently turns to the Christian scripture when seeking inspiration for his songs.
Employing Christian sacred texts means he's considered too religious for some contexts and not quite religious enough in others, admits the grandfather of two, who sees Christian music more as a specific genre than reflecting the artist's worldview.
"Christian music as a genre often presupposes a certain lexicon of lyric, melodic and production style that has come out of the press of the Nashville Christian music industry," says Bell, son of a Baptist minister.
"It has a recognizable sound that you can pick up within seconds of unknowingly landing on a Christian music station."
Well into a career that has taken him to 15 countries, Bell doesn't trouble himself much these days with fitting into one style or another. His latest release, Keening for the Dawn, was heavily influenced by the poetry of Anglican priest and author Malcolm Guite of Cambridge, England. Bell and Guite are scheduled to perform together in Winnipeg at the West End Cultural Centre on Sept. 26.
He's also looking forward to another Christmas concert with the WSO, set for Dec. 1, 2013, nearly six years after their initial collaboration. That 2007 concert was the first sold-out performance in years for the orchestra and had the added benefit of bringing Bell's fans out to the symphony and introducing orchestral fans to the music of an accomplished local artist.
"It's worked out marvelously well for him, and for us, too," says Schroeder of the 2007 concert, which featured Bell's songs orchestrated by band member Mike Janzen, as well as some Christmas favourites. "It was transformative on both sides."
It also set the stage for two dozen more symphonic concerts across Canada as well as one in Nashville, and opened the doors to new opportunities, says longtime manager Dave Zeglinski, who has listened to thousands of Bell's performances from his perch at the soundboard.
"I don't know any of the musicians in the contemporary Christian music genre that have been invited to play in mainstream halls and with orchestras," he says.
Bell's award from the WSO recognizes his contributions to the community that go well beyond the concert hall, says Jim Cornelius of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an ecumenical Winnipeg-based aid organization Bell has supported for many years.
"He's a person of integrity, so when he speaks, people take him seriously," Cornelius says.
"He's genuinely concerned and interested in the issues."
Schroeder is thrilled that Bell's name will be added to the list of exceptional musicians who've already received the Golden Baton, including soprano Tracy Dahl and violinist James Ehnes.
"Steve Bell is an extraordinary human being. He's thoughtful, he's thought-provoking, he's a philosopher who appeals to a lot of people," she says.
"He deserves that recognition from the broader community."