Academy of St Martin in the Fields opens 2018 Bravo! Vail Music Festival season | VailDaily.com

Academy of St Martin in the Fields opens 2018 Bravo! Vail Music Festival season

Bravo! Vail Music Festival concertgoers will doubtless lose themselves in the virtuosity of this weekend's Academy of St Martin in the Fields performances, but even as they surrender to the music of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach they should spare a moment to contemplate their small part in a 300-year-old story.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields musical director and violinist Joshua Bell is a major protagonist in the tale. It is a story that began in 1713 when Bell's instrument — the Gibson ex Huberman violin — was created by Antonio Stradivari. Believed to be one of only five or six Stradivarius instruments crafted that year, the violin's history reads like an adventure novel complete with brushes with fame, escape from Nazi forces, diabolical thefts and deathbed confessions.

"I always play my Strad. It's my main partner," noted Bell during an interview this week. "There is something very particular about a Strad. Each one is very different and from the first time I played it, I felt this was the one."

Bell and his violin have been a team for 17 years now, and last year he wrote an essay about his instrument's history.

Three centuries

"My violin is over 300 years old," begins Bell's essay.

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The violin has had a remarkable life and has been played by many musicians. But Bell noted the instrument's connection to Bronislaw Huberman was both particularly fascinating and personally compelling.

"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," wrote Bell. By age 11, Huberman was already touring Europe as a virtuoso.

"At 13, Huberman had the honor of performing the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer himself, who was stunned by his interpretation," Bell continued.

While he was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, Bell wrote that Huberman and his violin became humanitarian heroes when the Nazi Party came to power. In 1929, Huberman paid a fateful visit to Palestine and he developed a plan 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," wrote Bell. "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. fund raising trip in 1936. By the end of that tour, the money for the orchestra was secured and sixty top-rate players had been chosen from Germany and Central Europe."

It was at the height of this success, that one of the violin's plot twists unfolded.

Stolen from Carnegie Hall

On Feb. 28, 1936, Carnegie Hall was the venue on Huberman's fundraising tour. That night, he chose to play the second half of his concert on his other violin.

"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," wrote Bell.

"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," Bell wrote. "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."

Huberman was heartbroken by the theft and he never saw his Stradivarius again. However, his dream of creating the Palestine Orchestra became a reality in December of 1936.

"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," wrote Bell.

Deathbed confession

The suspected thief of the Huberman violin played the instrument for 50 years.

"In 1985, 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 wrote.

Late British violinist Norbert Brainin purchased the violin. Bell actually encountered the instrument years before he became it owner. Brainin allowed him to play it one evening in 1990. Bell recalled that Brainin actually predicted that one day, perhaps we might be lucky enough to have such a violin.

Bell had no idea that the violin would find him back in the summer of 2001, when he was in London preparing for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He had stopped by the famous violin shop J&A Beare to pick up some strings.

"As I entered the shop, Charles Beare was just coming out of the back room with a stunning violin in hand. He told me that it was the famous Huberman Strad, and of course I was instantly intrigued," Bell wrote.

Bell was told that the instrument was being sold to a wealthy industrialist for his private collection.

"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. I fell in love with the instrument right away, and even performed that very night on it at the Royal Albert Hall. I simply did not want it to leave my hands."

For 17 years now, it hasn't.

Vail showcase

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields has returned to Bravo! Vail Music Festival for a three concert residency beginning Thursday, June 21, and continuing through Sunday, June 24.

Bell will direct the orchestra in program that balances orchestral works with the dramatic, violin concertos showcasing the remarkable ensemble. The performances also showcase the Bell's remarkable talent and the unique character of his partner Stradivarius.

"The 'Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra' is the type of piece that Huberman would have played on this violin," he noted. "Saint-Saens's Violin Concerto No. 3" is remarkably suited to the sound of his violin, Bell continued. "The French music is all about the color and the nuance of the sound," Bell said.

Finally, the Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was written about the same time his violin was crafted.

The complete musical program for the Academy of St Martin of the Fields performance can be found at http://www.bravovail.org.

As they listen to the music performed by Bell and the orchestra, Vail audience members may want to contemplate the final words of Bell's essay about his violin.

"This violin is special in so many ways. It is overwhelming to think of how many amazing people have held it and heard it. When I perform in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, 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? While it certainly will be enjoyed and admired long after I am not around anymore, for the time being I count myself incredibly lucky to be its caretaker on its 300th birthday."

If you go…

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

When: Thursday, June 21 at 5 p.m.

Saturday, June 23 at 6 p.m.

Sunday, June 24 at 6 p.m.

Where: Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, Vail

Tickets: Ticket prices range from $109 for premium aisle to $28 for lawn seating. Tickets can be purchased on line at bravovail.org or by calling 877-812-5700.