We had great seats that night: right-center orchestra, 20 rows back. The concert was a wondrous double-header, pairing stellar jazz trumpeter Chris Botti with Joshua Bell, the greatest violinist in the country.
Botti brought along his 1940 Martin Handcraft Committee trumpet, while Bell travels with a $4 million, 300-year-old Stradivarius.
I had never been under the same roof with a Stradivarius before, let alone that close, let alone that Strad. When Bell walked onto the stage of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and raised the instrument to his chin, the sight of it raised goosebumps on my forearms and made the hair on the back of my neck prickle up before he so much as played a single note.
For this was the Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius, surely one of the most legendary Strads in the world. It had been stolen and recovered — not once but twice — before being acquired by Bell in 2001. More significantly, it had survived a time of murderous hate — and then played a part in overcoming it.
Once it belonged to Bronislaw Huberman, an early 20th-century Polish virtuoso. He charmed
Johannes Brahms as a 12-year-old violinist. He grew up to become an international star. But in the end, his virtuosity as a musician would be transcended by his courage as a humanitarian.
In 1936, he founded what would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, fleeing from Central Europe to Tel Aviv and recruiting scores of Jewish musicians to follow. In the process he rescued the musicians and their families — roughly 1,000 souls altogether — from the oncoming genocide of the Third Reich.
I promised myself, that night at the arts center, to always remember the sweet spell cast by Botti with his Martin and Bell with his legendary Strad.
The next morning, I awoke to the news of the Pulse nightclub attack.
Suddenly, the very thought of a sublime concert being separated from a senseless slaughter by a few city blocks and a matter of hours was just another ragged edge to the horror.
Over time, I would come to see things differently.
For generations, community leaders have championed the arts for the role they play in sustaining both the prosperity and the life-worth-living connective tissue of our communities.
So we dress ourselves out for the fundraising galas, buy the season tickets and applaud the performers. But it’s one thing to pay lip service to the arts, and another altogether to wake up to a grief that leaves your soul scoured in a way that resists the usual, go-to ministrations of friends, family and faith.
And so you find yourself among hundreds of people who’ve gathered for a community vigil on a grassy plaza in front of the very place where you’d heard that beautiful music — music you can’t let yourself think about anymore.
And then you look around and realize that you’re surrounded by artists — by ordinary people who’ve reached out for a way to raise themselves up against this terrible thing.
Their grief and indignation, their connection to the living and the dead, are borne by makeshift tableaus of votive lights and flowers and stuffed animals, by poster boards and sheets and even the canvasses of their own skins, now inscribed with tributes to the children, friends and lovers they’ve lost.
And soon enough, the seasoned performers and playwrights and musicians and muralists would follow with their tributes, not just in Orlando but around the world.
But from start to finish, it would remain a primal outpouring, a pro-am affair in which the playing field was leveled, with no distinction to be made between street-corner mourners and Broadway stars.
It was the most important year in the history of the arts in Central Florida — a darkly won course in art appreciation whose lessons were viscerally absorbed rather than intellectually learned.
In the days that followed the Pulse attack, we told ourselves that love would conquer its opposite, hate. The parallel role the arts played was to remind us that creativity can triumph over its opposite, destructiveness.
Bronislaw Huberman understood the principle.
There was always more to his plan than saving musicians. That was just the beginning of his battle. He had seen an enemy coming, and he had fought it with the only weapon available to him: his music.
He described his orchestra as an upraised fist against anti-Semitism, a way of protecting a people and a culture from a hatred that wished to eradicate them from the face of the Earth.
The presence of his violin among us that night was a harbinger of hope and defiance, a reminder of the power the arts can wield. I’ll remember that concert. I’ll remember that Strad.
Not just for its sweetness, but for its strength.
Michael McLeod is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.