In 1990, the Stradivarius violin nicknamed the Red Mendelssohn was sold at auction in London for $1.8 million. Once owned by the heirs of Felix Mendelssohn’s family and known for its peculiar red varnish, it was one of 600 violins Stradivarius made and dates from 1720. Elizabeth Pitcairn, currently the CEO and artistic director of the Luzerne Music Camp and Chamber Festival, became its owner at age 16.
Francois Girard, a film director and a good friend of Joshua Bell, learned of the violin and its sale. An idea for a film: What if a violin with an unusual red color was made the main character and the story followed its life over a 300- plus year span? And what if Bell were to do the violin playing?
“I was involved from the beginning even before John Corigliano signed on as composer,” Bell said. “He was everyone’s choice because he’d done work on film before. I knew it was going to be a big challenge. But he had me in mind for the solo part and I worked with him on it.”
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra for the 1998 film.
Bell’s role turned out to be not only as consultant and performer, but also actor. Besides having to teach the actors how to hold, bow and finger the violin, he donned a wig and acted as body double for the character of English virtuoso Frederick Pope. When viewers see his fingers moving on the strings or even the arm moving the bow, those are Bell’s fingers and arm.
“I had to reach around him to do the shot,” Bell said laughing. “I’d done work on film before but never on this scope. But it was great fun.”
The score won the 1999 Oscar for Corigliano and at the ceremony the composer proclaimed that Bell had “played like a god.”
Bell laughs at that, but playing it live before an audience is something he’s never done until he will Aug. 18. Since this is the 20th anniversary of the film, he’ll also perform it live with the Chicago and New York orchestras later this season and asked long-time friend conductor Max Stern, the son of famed violinist Isaac Stern, to conduct.
“I’ve known him for 20 years and this way I won’t have to re-learn the part,” Bell said.
Corigliano later wrote a suite and sonata based on his score, both of which Bell has premiered and recorded.