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Coming to TSO, Bell honors violin’s Jewish past

Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell will play with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Tucson Music Hall.

The program of romantic classics will include the overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” the “Wedding March” from Men­delssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and excerpts from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”. Bell, in his first performance with the TSO since 2008, will play Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 64, using his 300-year-old violin, known as the Gibson ex Huberman.

Joshua Bell with the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius (Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)
Joshua Bell with the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius (Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Bell recently wrote an essay about the violin’s provenance. When he first acquired it in 2001, he learned that it has a history “complete with twists and turns to rival the film that I had only recently finished working on — ‘The Red Violin.’”

Made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona, Italy, the instrument has belonged to many people, including the English violinist George Alfred Gibson.

“But it was its connection to Bronislaw Huberman that I found particularly fascinating and somewhat personal,” says Bell.

“Huberman was a Jewish Polish violinist who lived from 1882-1947. He was a child prodigy who was revered for his remarkable virtuosity and daring interpretations,” says Bell.

By the age of 11, Huberman was already touring Europe as a virtuoso and at 13, says Bell, “he had the honor of performing the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer himself, who was stunned by his interpretation.”

According to biographer Max Kalbeck, says Bell, “As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, ‘You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully.’”

Huberman became one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, “but it was in 1929 that his contribution to humanity took on an added dimension,” says Bell. “During that year he visited Palestine and came up with the idea to establish a classical music presence there. During Hitler’s rise to power, Huberman had the foresight to realize he could save many Jewish artists while fulfilling his desire to start a Palestinian Orchestra. Huberman auditioned musicians from all over Europe. Those selected for the orchestra would receive contracts and, most importantly, otherwise impossible-to-get exit visas from their homeland to Palestine. Huberman raised the money for the musicians and then their families, even partnering with Albert Einstein to set up an exhaustive U.S. fundraising trip in 1936. By the end of that tour, the money for the orchestra was secured and 60 top-rate players had been chosen from Germany and Central Europe. All in all, it was a fantastically successful tour, barring one particular performance at Carnegie Hall on February 28th. That night Huberman chose to play the second half of his concert on his ‘other violin,’ a Guarneri del Gesu. During the applause following his performance of the Franck Sonata, Huberman’s valet walked on stage to inform him that his Stradivarius had been stolen from his dressing room. The police were called while Huberman tried not to panic, continuing optimistically with his encores. The instrument had previously been stolen in 1919 from a hotel room in Vienna but was recovered days later when the thief tried to sell it. This time, Huberman was not so lucky.

“There are several versions as to exactly how and why the violin was stolen, but what we know for sure is that the instrument ended up in the hands of a young freelance violinist by the name of Julian Altman. Some say Altman’s mother convinced him to steal it; others report that Altman bought if off the actual thief for $100. Regardless, Altman took great pains to conceal the violin’s true identity, covering its lovely varnish with shoe polish and performing on it throughout the rest of his career, which included a stint as first chair with the National Symphony Orchestra during World War II.

“Heartbroken, Huberman never saw his Stradivarius again. However, his great dream was fulfilled when the new Palestine Orchestra made its debut in December of 1936 with the great Toscanini on the podium. I like to imagine that my own relatives might have been in the audience on that opening night, as my grandfather was born there and my great-grandfather was part of the first aliyah of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1882. As for his violin, it was played by its suspected thief for over 50 years, and in 1985, dying of cancer and under arrest for molesting his granddaughter, Julian Altman made a deathbed confession to his wife, Marcelle Hall, about the true identity of the instrument. She eventually returned the violin to Lloyd’s of London and received a finder’s fee; and the instrument underwent a nine month restoration by J & A Beare Ltd, which noted it was like ‘taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.’”

Bell, who’d played the Gibson ex Huberman once in the 1990s, when it was owned by British violinist Norbert Brainin, acquired it from the J & A Beare shop in London, where he’d stopped in to buy some violin strings. “As it was handed to me, I was told it was being sold to a wealthy German industrialist for his private collection. However, after playing only a few notes on it I vowed that this would not happen. This was an instrument meant to be played, not just admired,” he says.

Now, when he performs in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, says Bell, “I am always touched to think how many of the orchestra and audience members are direct descendants of the musicians Huberman saved from the Holocaust — with funds raised by concerts performed on the very same instrument I play every day. Who knows what other adventures will come to my precious violin in the years to come?”

Tickets for the Feb. 16 program are available at 882-8585 or