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More than strictly an Italian job

Times Staff Writer

Cremona is a magical name to musicians and music lovers. Master violin makers Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri and Nicolo Amati -- these are only the best-known 17th and 18th century craftsmen who put the Italian town on the international map.

Currently, a collection of more than 50 modern Cremonese violins, violas and cellos is at the Thomas Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, where they will remain on display -- and for sale -- until the end of the month. Sunday afternoon, three players will be on hand to demonstrate them for the public.

“One cannot say that these are today’s Stradivarii,” says Metzler. “But the quality is way up there. The makers are working in a strict tradition, and they’re proud of that tradition. A lot of the results are in keeping with the masters they have copied, visually and tonally. They’ve created some beautiful instruments.”

But talk to musicians, other retailers and experts on stringed instruments and it soon becomes clear that the Italians have long since lost their corner on this particular market. Worldwide, a renaissance in violin making is underway.

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“There is a mystique about Cremona,” says Michael Selman, director of the U.S. office of J & A Beare Ltd., a London-based firm widely regarded as the authority on Strads and other high-end instruments. “Unfortunately, other violin makers have latched on to that. The best violins go back to the golden age. But just because you live in Cremona doesn’t mean you’re a great violin maker. The better makers are upset that some others have set up shop there.”

In contemporary violin making, Selman says, “there are great European makers, there are wonderful American makers, there are wonderful Japanese makers. Anywhere you look, there are great makers now.”

A number of factors have fueled this revival, especially in the U.S.

For one, great European makers came to these shores in the years immediately before and after the Second World War and started schools of violin-making in, among other cities, Salt Lake City, Chicago and Boston. Graduates received further training at instrument repair and restoration shops.

The students were often motivated by countercultural values, rejecting industry and academia and turning instead to music, crafts and craftsmanship.

On top of that, market demand exploded as the prices of older instruments began spiraling to stratospheric levels in the ‘70s. More and more players around the world were chasing a very limited supply. Even superstar artists found instruments priced out of their reach.

Conventional wisdom, of course, held that new instruments could never be as good as the older ones. Stradivari and his compatriots, this thinking went, knew some secret that had long been lost. Maybe it was the varnish. Maybe, one more recent version goes, it was that the wood was soaked in the swamps around Cremona.

Contemporary violin makers laugh at such notions.

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“There is no secret,” says Brooklyn-based maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz. “Violin making is a highly sophisticated, pre-modern technology, with quite a developed body of empirical knowledge.

“The secret is contained in all the little things you do -- the shapes and styles and all the details you see. It’s a thousand different variables. Any of those will affect the outcome. The secret is in plain view.”

To be sure, all contemporary makers use Strads and other golden age instruments as models -- taking them apart, copying parts, making replicas. Professional violinists sometimes use such copies in their concerts because the originals may be fragile or because there are insurance risks.

Yehudi Menuhin, for instance, had his 1742 “Lord Wilton” (made by Guarneri) copied for those reasons. And Isaac Stern similarly commissioned two touring copies of his Guarneri-made instrument from Zygmuntowicz. Amazingly, at a recent auction of Stern memorabilia, Zygmuntowicz’s copies sold for a total of nearly $200,000.

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“That sent a shock wave through a lot of people I know,” the violin maker says. “They were not used to people paying such money for modern instruments.”

But, says Maryland-based maker Christopher Germain, “the better makers today have had the opportunity to examine, study and work on and learn from the great masterpieces and incorporate some of the knowledge they’ve gained to produce great contemporary instruments.

“Many of those have the characteristics that professionals seek out in an instrument -- great projection, brilliance of tone, balance and tonal qualities -- all the hallmarks of a great instrument.”

In fact, during blind tests, in which a musician plays from a mix of fine contemporary and older instruments, many people are unable to tell which is which.

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“The great old instruments truly are great,” says Germain. “But it’s very difficult sometimes to tell the new instruments from the older ones.”

The modern renaissance in violin making is also fueled by makers’ willingness to share what they know.

“Traditionally, the field has been very secretive,” Germain says. “Trade secrets were passed down from family to family and workshop to workshop. There was a fear of sharing, of losing a competitive edge.

“Today, people realize that opening up and sharing information raises the level of everyone’s work. That enables a synergy for everybody to learn from everyone’s experience. The profession is a very competitive one, that’s true. But, as someone once said, there’s plenty of room at the top.”

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Anyone contemplating purchasing a new violin must first decide what he or she is willing to pay, the experts say.

“You might spend $10,000 for a violin built by a younger maker who hasn’t yet established himself,” says J & A Beare’s Selman. “That won’t necessarily be any less of a violin. The price might triple in a couple of years because violin makers are at different points in their careers.”

Germain suggests that potential buyers contact the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers Inc. at www.afvbm.com.

“That’s a group of about 120 members in the U.S., and it’s a professional organization which has very stringent standards of admission and membership,” he says. “That’s one way to determine people who are professionals.”

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Now that so many fine instruments are available, a few apostates say that perhaps it’s time to think the unthinkable and go beyond the Cremonese models.

Gregg Alf, a Michigan maker who trained in Cremona, is planning a brainstorming session in the Italian region of Tuscany this spring with a number of prominent makers and shakers -- to ponder the state of the art. He also plans to raise the issue of innovation.

“We’re all copying Stradivari and Guarneri,” Alf says. “If you likened that to painters copying the Mona Lisa, you can say we can make better and better copies, but does that mean I’m as good as Leonardo? Maybe we should re-brand contemporary violin making on our own terms and no longer compare by how close we get to looking like our predecessors.

“We might just start by giving makers permission to consider building violins on their own designs,” he says. “This would be absurd if we were talking about painters. They don’t have to do Leonardo anymore. As things are now, we have three paintings -- Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati -- and we’re doing them again and again, over and over.

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“Nothing about this in any way should be considered my disenfranchising old instruments. I love them. My reputation is built on getting a Strad into my shop, taking it apart and rebuilding replicas. But for the most part, the copying we do today in the future won’t get as much mention as the violin makers who branched off and did new things. I’m trusting the people who come to the Tuscany session to be very creative and have fruitful visions. It could get wild. And that would be a good thing.”

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Violin makers of Cremona

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What: Violin exhibit and demonstration

Where: Thomas Metzler Violin Shop, 604 S. Central Ave., Glendale

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; demonstration Sunday, 2 p.m.

Ends: Jan. 31

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Price: Free

Contact: (818) 246-0278


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