When most people think of violin makers, they think of Italy; they think of an age long past, they think of names such as Guarneri, Amati and Stradivarius.
They for sure don't think of present-day Orange County and names such as Weisshaar, Foster and Davy, all of whom are making violins, violas and cellos here and now.
But someday . . . .
All three believe they are producing the finest in new instruments and that only time--centuries, in fact--will tell whether their handiwork is of the lasting caliber of the great makers.
"As violins, violas and cellos age, their sound improves," says Roger Foster of Foster's Violin Shop in Orange. "The old instruments have the advantage of centuries of playing, the homogenizing of the wood and varnish. . . . The new instruments may not be as subtly wonderful now, but I think there are people making them who are every bit as good."
But the fact is, he adds, "we're never going to live long enough to know."
Michael and Rena Weisshaar, who espouse an Old World approach to instrument-making, are celebrating their 20th anniversary in Costa Mesa. Theirs is a guild mentality involving long apprenticeships and stringent guidelines. Both were trained in the Bavarian town of Mittenwald.
"There are shades and shades and degrees of training," Rena Weisshaar says. "Michael's father went to Mittenwald too. When we finished our four-year apprenticeship there, we joined Dad's shop in Hollywood and learned from him for eight more years."
"Dad" was the late Hans Weisshaar, one of the most respected restorers and violin experts in the United States. "Our son is also entering the business," Rena says, "a third generation, a wonderful surprise."
Not everyone takes the traditional route into the profession, though.
Foster, who has been in the violin-making business for 16 years, planned to be an airline pilot but first earned a degree in literature from Chapman College in Orange.
"When I got out," he recalls, "it was 1972; the airlines were laying off; armed forces pilots were coming back [from Vietnam]--I looked pretty minuscule to the airlines.
"I met a man who played with Benny Goodman, and he taught me to make a couple of violins. My work got shown to an expert, [the late] Louis Main in Long Beach, who invited me to apprentice, which I did for five years. In fact, I worked with him for 15 years."
Steve Davy--who worked for Foster on Saturdays for four years re-hairing bows and working on restorations--opened his own shop in South Laguna a year ago.
Davy came to violin making via the guitar. After a stint playing the instrument at clubs in Washington, D.C., he realized he felt more comfortable at the workbench. Impressed by Davy's craftsmanship on guitars, National Symphony violinist Thomas Norato hired him to work in his violin shop.
After Davy had made his first violin, Norato suggested that his protege study violin-making seriously and introduced him to Albert Moglie, then curator of the Gertrude Clarke Whittal Collection of Stradivari, Guarneri and other rare string instruments at the Library of Congress.
"I spent as much time with him as I could every week," Davy says. "He showed me the insides of great instruments. I was in heaven."
High-quality new instruments are very much in demand, the violin makers say, because the old European-made instruments are becoming rarer all the time.
Prices for a new custom string instruments range from $5,000 and up for violins to $20,000 for the finest cellos. Commercial violin brands directed at the student market sell in the $400 to $500 range.
"The values of many families are such that there is not a problem putting the financial emphasis on a good instrument. . . . A lot of families invest heavily in their children's futures," Foster says.
Payment for even the most expensive instruments is due when work is completed. There are no payment plans.
A new custom instrument typically requires about 200 hours of work, but a project can take up to a year to complete.
Most new-made instruments are commissions--some of which are extraordinary. Foster is fashioning a cello with a scroll--or head, as it's also called--in the shape of a skull, the back of the peg box like a femur. The client is a pathologist.
Involvement by the client is the rule rather than the exception.
Weisshaar says clients "choose the wood and the model and watch it grow."
Foster goes a step further. "Always when I have a new customer, especially when young people are involved, I invite them in to work on their instrument," he says.
Davy, who is now working on a cello commission, says he makes new instruments whether he has an order or not. "It's part of the craft," he says.
Although high-end instruments are in demand, all three makers also do repairs and restorations and sell supplies.
"My real profession is to make instruments as best I can, one after another, like artists make statues," Weisshaar says. "But I couldn't afford to do this all day. Out front, selling supplies, making repairs, a salesman is not the answer. People want to see the doctor, not a nurse."
Violin makers in this country are concentrated on the two coasts and in the major metropolitan cities--New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, according to Rena Weisshaar.
She decries what she calls "rampant amateurism" in violin making and repair, which she says can result in "damage to fine old instruments. . . . The system in this country is that anyone can enter the field."
She believes the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, with about 85 members, helps protect instrument makers and the public. Five members work in Los Angeles; she is the sole member in Orange County.
"The Federation is very strict," Weisshaar says. "Americans aren't used to that. It's as if quality is discrimination--if you choose some people over others you are discriminating. In Germany, you have to qualify to join an organization. [You can't join] because you are nice and have a friend to help you."
Foster, who belongs to a separate professional group, the Violin Society of America, counters that such groups are often "kind of a fraternal thing."
"I've been a member [of the Violin Society] for 15 years, but I don't think its goal is to exclude most people," he says. "I'm not into organizations. I let my reputation stand for itself in the community."
Foster says reputation is all that matters.
"The proof is in the product," Foster says. "If you play it and it sounds like caca, your word-of-mouth is going to be unsuccessful. It doesn't matter what fraternity you belong to; it's the public, the musicians that assess your work."
When a violin leaves the maker's shop, it becomes an instrument in the hands of a musician. And, if it stands the test of the centuries, perhaps many musicians.
Within the world of violin makers, some think of their work as art; others think of it as a high-skill craft. It is an ongoing debate, Weisshaar says.
"Jascha Heifetz had a beautiful old Italian instrument, which is in a San Francisco museum since his death," she says. "Many of us have had this instrument in our hands.
"We had a meeting in San Francisco, and museum custodians in white gloves brought this instrument to the instrument makers who had worked on this instrument, with instructions not to let anybody touch it.
"Sometimes this is laughable," Weisshaar says. "Is it art, [to look at] behind glass . . . or is it for making music? In centuries past, this instrument was probably used in a church somewhere. Maybe even in a hoedown."