by Eric Bergeson, February 16, 2011
World-class violinist Joshua Bell played at Centennial Hall just a few blocks down the street in Tucson last weekend.
Bell doesn't just play a mean fiddle.
He is also a savvy marketer. His record company splashes his telegenic face all over his albums, which have sold millions and won many Grammys.
As for his fiddle, Bell plays an old used violin he picked up at a sale last year. The fiddle, a 298-year-old Stradivarius, was priced at $4 million. Bell offered a reported $3.8 million. It was late in the day and time to close up, so the owners said sure. To raise a few bucks for the purchase, Bell traded in his former Stradivarius for $2 million.
I mean, if you can pick up a new fiddle for only $1.8 million, you've gotta do it. Of course, a Stradivarius violin is no ordinary instrument. Artists swear by the brand just as wine-tasters swear by certain vintages. But as often happens with taste tests which pit expensive wine against $4-per-bottle swill, in sophisticated sound tests violin experts have repeatedly failed to separate the 300-year-old creations of Antonio Stradivari from cheaper, more recent instruments.
Yet, the myth of the Stradivarius violins remains strong. Bell played in Tucson before an audience of 2,500. The Stradivarius was not hooked to a microphone. Seated where we were deep in the balcony, we could hear every note clear as a bell, even as the last note of a soft piece faded to nothing. Like any good musician, Bell held the crowd in his hand. When he ended a quiet song with a note that slowly dissolved into the ether, even listeners in the last stages of pneumonia, croop, tuberculosis and other deadly respiratory maladies managed to hold their silence for a precious few seconds before the hall erupted in applause.
And miracle of miracles, the two women behind us who came to the concert for no other reason but to gab stopped whispering when Bell demanded their attention by quieting his legendary instrument way up on stage. Not everybody got it. The man off to the left who crinkled candy wrappers during the Schubert piece disappeared before the Brahms. I assume the ushers had him shot.
Although Bell's playing was impeccable, not all the music was riveting. It is a hard and fast rule: On PBS, the best programming airs during fund drive week. So, too, with classical concerts: the best music is played during the encore and not a minute before. The music of Schubert and Brahms could put a four-year-old high on Fruit Loops and Mountain Dew to sleep in five minutes.
Yet, rambling pieces by the two Germans dragged on for nearly an hour. No amount of beautiful Stradivarius tone can make 19th-century German music bearable for that long. But then, Bell played a sorrowful piece by the great Norwegian Edward Grieg and a sweet little ditty by the famous Finnish composer Sibelius.
Finally, he ended with a haunting charmer by the best of all of the 19th-century romantic composers, Frederic Chopin of Poland. Did the Stradivarius violin produce $3.8 million worth of sound? Well, it was pretty good. Without electronic assistance, the violin's clear sound reached every corner of the large auditorium. That is the test of a high-quality instrument. With the proper combination of wood, oils and age, some instruments just seem to project a pure and clear sound greater distances than others.
Same for the piano which accompanied Bell: Steinways are known to make themselves heard far and wide, even when their keys are barely tapped. Football fans, when pressed (and sober), will admit that those who actually care about the game get a better look on TV than they do from the upper deck on the 10-yard line. The same goes for music. With modern studios and good stereos, attending a classical concert really has nothing to recommend it over listening to a CD. No crinkling Mars bars wrappers or gasps for oxygen on a studio recording! But every now and then, it is good to see a world class musician at work in person and know that their music isn't simply the creation of electronic mixers. And you have to admit there's something novel about hearing a 298-year-old used fiddle picked up from the bargain bin.