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Violin Virtuoso

Joshua Bell at the Pabst

Feb. 6, 2008
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Grammy award-winning violin virtuoso Joshua Bell remembers clearly when they first met, and when their paths unexpectedly crossed a second time. It was at a London violin dealership prior to Bell’s 2001 appearance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Bell admits he wasn’t looking for a change, but the chance meeting rekindled a flame that he described as “love at first sight.”

“I was picking up a bow that was being ‘re-haired,’” Bell said during a recent interview. “The dealer told me about the Stradivarius he had for sale. I already had a Strad and wasn’t in the market for another. But as soon as I realized which violin it was, I knew this was the instrument I had to have.

“We performed Bernstein together that night before an audience of 7,000,” he added. “It responded to my playing beautifully. We had chemistry from the start.”

The violin, a Gibson ex Huberman crafted in 1713, will join Bell onstage at the Pabst Theater on Feb. 12 as part of the Artist Series at the Pabst. Pianist Jeremy Denk will accompany Bell in a chamber concert of compositions by Tartini, Prokofiev, Dvorak and either Grieg or Saint-Sans.

Bell, an Indiana native, first met his $4 million Huberman, produced during Antonio Stradivari’s “Golden Period,” in 1988, when the instrument was still owned by British virtuoso Norbert Brainin. When Bell learned during his 2001 visit to London that Brainin was planning to sell it to a German collector, he sold his 1732 Strad, the Tom Taylor model he played while recording The Red Violin, for $2 million and purchased the Huberman.

Falling in Love

“It’s not that it’s a better Strad. That’s a matter of taste,” Bell said. “A violin is like a person, in that you may fall in love with it for the same reason you want someone new in your life.”

The Gibson ex Huberman, jointly named for its previous owner, the 19th century violinist Alfred Gibson and the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman, has a colorful history that involves a 1936 theft from Huberman’s Carnegie Hall dressing room, a near 50-year absence from public view, a deathbed confession and final restitution of the instrument. It also has a brilliance and clarity of tone that attracted Bell in the first place.

“This Strad had a purity of sound that I had missed before,” Bell said. “I found it easier to play and I didn’t have to fight against the orchestra to be heard. As a Golden Period Strad, it has the best balance between the low registers and the high notes, characteristics I associate with the violin because my teacher [Indiana University Jacobs School of Music professor] Josef Gingold played a similar instrument.”

The acoustics of any Stradivarius are superior to just about any other instrument in their subtlety, Bell explained. When well played, the instrument evokes a warm richness with a complexity of overtones that produces a sweetness of sound and a voice, if you will, that projects uniquely as it’s played.

“But no violin has everything,” Bell said. “I’m sure if I went back to my former violin I’d discover characteristics that I miss.”

Object of Desire

Bell hopes that the object of his desire produces a balanced program that includes the type of romanticism for which his performances have become known.

“Programming a concert is like preparing a menu for a meal,” Bell explained. “The works have to be contrasting, yet complementary. We want to serve up something lighter and more melodic contrasted with something a little darker and more virtuosic.”

The playlist for Bell’s Pabst performance falls into those categories, from Tartini’s Sonata for Violin & Continuo in G minor B.g.5 to Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor. Bell and Denk also will perform Dvorak’s Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 75, a composition Bell didn’t like at first, but which has grown on him over the years.

“I’m picky about what I play,” the violinist said. “I don’t want to play anything that doesn’t allow me something personal to say. You have to love the music you’re playing.” That love extends to Bell’s performance, one he hopes will truly speak to the Pabst audience, lifting them beyond an evening of mere musical entertainment.

“If I don’t love the music, the audience won’t either,” Bell said. “It’s like trying to tell a joke you don’t think is funny. No one is going to laugh.”


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