The history of Joshua Bell's 300-year-old violin bears all the elements of a detective novel. His 1713 Stradivarius has been, over the past 100 years, stolen by a thief and recovered hours later; owned by Bronislaw Huberman, founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; stolen again from Huberman's dressing room at a concert in Vienna, possibly by Nazi sympathizers, then hawked for $100; rediscovered 50 years later caked in shoe polish; and restored and bought for $4 million by Bell.
"It's a fun history with plenty of intrigue, but that's not enough reason to drop millions of dollars on a violin," Bell says from a hotel room in Kansas City. "I bought it because it was actually love at first play. There's nothing like a Strad."
Bell, dropping by the Kravis Center on Sunday with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra — and with the violin — says he first played the instrument, built by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari, in the early 1990s, and laid hands on it again in 2001. Before he bought it, Bell tested the violin in a high-pressure setting, with an equally high-pressure program: London's Royal Albert Hall, performing Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade" and "West Side Story Suite."
"This is actually the third Strad I've owned. I had to sell another Strad to buy this one. It's sort of like trading up a used car," the 46-year-old musician says. "The level of balance and overtones and sweetness and power and ease that I use to coax the sound is so perfect. There are times I don't get along with the violin, and other times where I'm totally in love. It feels like a marriage."
Right now, Bell says, he's back "in love with" the Huberman violin. He celebrated the instrument's tricentennial last year with a series of violin-driven symphonies. Two of those, the complicated Brahms' "Violin Concerto in D major" and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat," will appear on Sunday's program with the orchestra, for which he has been music director since 2011.
"You have these two incredible pillars of history, the Beethoven 'Eroica' and the Brahms, and it's almost overkill," Bell says. "It's a huge challenge, especially because I'm both the music director and the conductor. But my violin is just the instrument to handle it."
Joshua Bell will perform with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Orchestra at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Tickets start at $35. Call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org.