Theirs is a love affair that bridges the centuries and makes audiences swoon, whether they’re zipping past in a subway or seated in one of the world’s most magnificent concert halls.
It was love at first sight for Joshua Bell and his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin, which he’ll make sing at Hancher Auditorium on Friday night (10/20).
Many hands have held the instrument during its 300 years, and Bell is determined to hold it for the rest of his life.
Its most celebrated former owner was Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), who at age 13, played a Brahms concerto that dazzled the composer himself. The child prodigy grew up to be a humanitarian, as well. During Hitler’s rise to power, Huberman secured exit visas for 60 top Jewish musicians and their families and sent them to Palestine to create the orchestra now known as the Israel Philharmonic.
Stolen from him in 1919 and 1936, the violin was “lost” for 50 years, covered with shoe polish and played by the suspected thief, who confessed on his deathbed in 1985. The instrument was recovered, restored by J & A Beare Ltd. in London, and sold to a British violinist. Its remarkable journey is told in the 2012 documentary, “The Return of the Violin,” featuring Bell, and outlined in an essay he wrote in honor of the instrument’s 300th anniversary.
Bell first held the instrument in the 1990s. He saw it again when he went into the famous Beare violin shop to buy some strings in 2001. When he learned it was being sold to a German collector, he vowed to buy it himself and keep sharing its sound. He played it that night in London’s Royal Albert Hall, then made good on his vow.
The $4 million price tag no longer fazes him.
“I love the fact that it’s now worth about $15 million,” Bell, 49, said by phone from the Indianapolis airport, en route to Los Angeles to perform a Bernstein centennial tribute with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
“It’s a great investment,” he said with a laugh. “Just joking, but it’s an investment that I’ll never see the end of, because I will die with it — but my kids will appreciate it.
“It was just sort of a match, a chemistry. When I first picked it up, I just had to have it, and did whatever it took to get it, because I was just in love with it. It’s your partner. I spend so many hours a day with it, so it’s a very special thing — finding that right musical mate.”
The Bloomington, Ind., native who now lives in New York City spends about 250 days a year on the road. He’ll be flying in from London on Friday to play his Hancher recital. Jet lag no longer fazes him, either.
“That’s the story of my life. When it comes to playing concerts, I forget about everything. And when I’m playing, I’m rarely tired,” he said. “I’m so used to the traveling. I’m a really good napper — grab an hour here and feel refreshed. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s just part of my lifestyle.”
He’ll be presenting one of his favorite concert styles here, in a recital with pianist Alessio Bax.
“I wish I did more recitals,” he said. “I love recitals and chamber music more than anything, but I probably do more playing with orchestras or directing my own orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, in London. That’s been the latest thing that I’ve been spending a lot of time doing, and I’m actually loving that a lot.
“I usually do a couple of recital tours a year, and I enjoy that format. It’s more intimate, with a lot of different repertoire one evening. You feel more connected with the audience.”
Bell performed in the former Hancher Auditorium in 2003, and is excited to bring to the new hall a trio of favorites by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Brahms.
“Mendelssohn is one of my favorite composers,” he said. “This particular sonata was only discovered in the 20th century, so it’s not like a standard repertoire, but it’s very exciting and very beautiful. Mendelssohn is a genius.
“And Brahms, the sonata we’re doing is one of my favorite pieces for the entire violin repertoire. It’s the most poetic and one of the most beautiful pieces he wrote. That sheer beauty and poetry. Mendelssohn’s more energetic, so they’re a very good contrast.
"The Grieg is passion and excitement in a different way. I like to design a program that elicits a range of emotions. There’s room at the end for some shorter fun pieces to end the concert with, which I’ll decide in the moment.”
He calls pianist Bax “a sensitive, consummate musician.”
“We enjoy playing together,” Bell said. “I just came back from his festival in Italy, in a beautiful place in Tuscany. I spent a week there with my family and playing concerts for him, so we had a good time. He’s also a major foodie and chef, so he’s fun to travel with, because he and I both share a love of food, so when we’re traveling, especially in Italy, that’s quite something. He’s just a great guy. We haven’t done many tours together. We’ve been friends for 10 years, and we’re just starting to play more together.”
Bell has branched into the pop culture realm, as well, with appearances on Amazon TV’s “Mozart in the Jungle,” which he’s hoping to continue. And he found YouTube fame playing incognito in a Washington, D.C., subway 10 years ago, drawing little notice from morning rush-hour passers-by. It was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning experiment arranged by the Washington Post.
“It was a stunt,” he said. “It was something that was just fun for me — it wasn’t meant to make any serious commentary on the state of society. ... Classical music is something that needs full attention. That’s what’s so great about classical music. It requires your brain to be active and working and listening and concentrating, and if you do that, you can get a lot out of it. But it’s not meant to be thrown at people while they’re rushing to work. It’s not going to have the affect that’s intended.
“I wasn’t disillusioned. It played out the way I expected, but for some reason, it tapped into something, because I’ve had various priests and rabbis and all kinds of people say they’ve used it for their lectures and sermons. People can take what they want from it and use as a launching point for various things. It got people talking.”
Anything that gets people — especially kids — hooked on the classics is fine with him. “The most important thing is making sure they have music in the schools,” he said.
WHAT: Joshua Bell, violin, with Alessio Bax, piano
WHERE: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (10/20)
TICKETS: $10 to $70, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu/2017-18/JoshuaBell
PROGRAM: Mendelssohn, Sonata for Violin and Piano in F Major (1838); Grieg, Sonata No. 3 in C Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 45; Brahms, Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 78
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Joshuabell.com