Joshua Bell treasures the Stradivarius at center of 'Return of the Violin'


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The story of a violin stolen from a Jewish native of a Polish city after the rise of Hitler almost doesn't deserve mention. After all, Czestochowa was the scene of one of the worst cases of genocide of World War II -- approximately 45,000 Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis.

But that violin -- a priceless Stradivarius -- was owned by the town's most famous resident, the famed violinist Bronislaw Huberman. Before the rise of national socialism, he was considered one of the most prodigious musicians of all time.

Born in 1882, no less than composer Johannes Brahms praised his playing. But as a recent film documents, during the war he was a tireless opponent of the Nazis and saved many Jews by bringing them to Palestine to create an orchestra that would become the Israel Philharmonic.

"The Return of the Violin" shines a harsh light on the brutality of the German occupiers and sheds light on just how Joshua Bell -- now the world's most famous concert soloist -- came to own Huberman's Strad.

This Friday, he will display the violin and speak about its amazing journey after a screening of the film as part of JFilm, the Jewish film festival. The documentary by director Haim Hecht taught the violinist much about the fate of the town and the extraordinary violin once called the Gibson and now known as the "Ex-Huberman." It was built in 1713 in Cremona, Italy, by Stradavarius and gifted to Huberman early in his life by a Polish count.

"He really was a very famous man," says Mr. Bell. "People today know Heifitz more. But in Europe he was a very important figure. He saved countless lives of Jewish people by getting them visas for the purpose of creating this orchestra. It wasn't just as a foil, it was a dream of his to have a superstar orchestra. It was both things at the same time." Mr. Bell says it's "always special to play in Huberman's orchestra," speaking of his yearly visits to the Israel Philharmonic. But in 2009 he came even closer to Huberman when he was invited to perform in the orchestra in Czestochowa. "I was proud that I was playing the Brahms [violin concerto] and Brahms heard him play it and it was Huberman's hometown."

But Mr. Bell had already had an extremely close relationship to Huberman. In 2001 he bought the "Ex-Huberman," saving it from being put in a museum. That would have been a shame, but at least we would know where it was. For 50 years that wasn't the case: an unscrupulous musician named Julian Altman stole the violin in 1936, and it was not recovered until 1988. The most despicable part of the tale is that as a desperate bid to enhance his fledgling career as an orchestra player, Altman took the Strad from Huberman's double violin case while the latter was performing on the stage at Carnegie Hall. For years after, Altman played the violin disguised under a layer of black shoe polish, at clubs, churches and small gigs.

With Altman dead, the violin was eventually sold to British violinist Norbert Brainin, who was going to sell it in summer 2001. It just so happened that Mr. Bell stopped by the shop.

"I was in London playing a concert, the Bernstein 'Serenade' -- the same piece I will play with the Pittsburgh Symphony this week, actually -- at the BBC Proms, and the afternoon of the concert I picked up some strings at a shop, and they said you have to try this instrument that Brainin is selling," recalls Mr. Bell. "I never connected so quickly with an instrument. I played a few notes, and I said, 'This is my violin. I can't let it out of my sight.' I played it that night at the concert. I never played on the other Strad in concert again -- I sold it to finance the deal."

While that is remarkable, the Proms concerts are among the biggest on Mr. Bell's schedule every year and he took a huge risk by switching violins hours before.

Despite its title, "The Return of the Violin" is primarily the recounting of the Holocaust by Sigmund Rolat, a survivor who became a successful businessman in America and underwrote Mr. Bell's appearance in 2009. With narration throughout and a preponderance of time spent on footage from the war, the violin's story is not central to the documentary. But the experience of that concert and knowing every day that he has Huberman's instrument under his chin, has made real the spirit of Huberman to Bell.

The screening of "The Return of the Violin" at 11 a.m. Friday at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside will be followed by a Q&A with Joshua Bell. Tickets $10; http://jfilmpgh.org.

Mr. Bell then performs with the PSO at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Program is Bates' "Desert Transport," Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra and Brahms' Symphony No. 3. Tickets start at $20; 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org.

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Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings.


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