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Emily Grossman

Visions of Sugarplums

December 25, 2011 at 4:58 PM

I set my watch alarm for 6:30 am, half an hour before I wanted to hit the road for Philadelphia. Usually, my musical lifestyle permits me to live without an alarm clock, so every time I know I need to be up at a certain time, I get so wound up at the thought of oversleeping that I toss and turn and rarely sleep more than half an hour at a time without flinching my wrist to my face in alarm. This time, I didn't even bother to hit the covers, but lay on the couch like a fully clothed two-by-four. At 5:45, I finally dozed off, only to shoot straight up with a start at the sudden awareness of broken sunlight. 7:34, holy cow, I slept in! Rounding up two instruments, some coffee, and my GPS, I threw myself into the car, somehow managing to fix my hair and make-up at 80mph on I-80. (I shouldn't admit these things publicly because it creates the notion that perhaps I'm irresponsible and reckless, but let's pretend it was skillful and edgy-cool instead.)

Only two minutes late to Karen Rile's home, I still had time for a hello from the jumping dog and a drink of water before loading our instruments up for Fred Oster's. Caeli needed to pick up her bow from a repair and get her sound post adjusted, and I was looking forward to catching up with the two as they navigated through the suburbs into downtown Philadelphia. Conversation topics bounced rapidly back and forth, like a stream over cobblestones, by large fieldstone bridges and fieldstone houses. Squeezing into half a parking spot, we managed to arrive just in time for our appointment.

Any shop with an iron gate and a doorbell automatically gives me the impression that I might be in the wrong place, and the assistants inside might actually be dobermans, and my best response should be to avoid eye contact and back away slowly with a calm, quiet voice. It was difficult for me to override my instincts and speak with assurance. Luckily, the assistants were not in fact dobermans, and their black turtlenecks matched the one I'd slept in.

Caeli's appointment came first, but unfortunately, her bridge had a slight twist and would need to be straightened before they could complete the adjustment, so she tucked her fiddle away and helped me summon assistance for my instrument audition.

Just when I thought I might have to resign myself to awkward thumb twiddling, Fred Oster himself came to the rescue with a cordial introduction and a quick list of specific questions that led him to his first selection of instruments for me to try. My fingers were cold and rusty, and I had to block out a lot of static to focus on meeting and greeting each instrument properly, but after a couple of rounds, it wasn't all that difficult to select my favorite. Caeli obliged me by playing them through so I could listen to the sound from across the room; I'm so lucky she was there to help me with that.

After a few minutes, he returned. Using my favorite pick, he chose a second set of violins along the same color scheme, and as I described my favorites, he adjusted his selections accordingly. I got to try Italians, Germans, French, both old and modern. My favorite, still, was that first Italian; I took its name and price tag for future reference.

Fred didn't stop, though. He kept bringing more and more instruments. The table and chairs began to fill until I was swimming in fiddles. He reminded me of my color pencil sessions, grabbing and sampling and assembling a palette of colors, which scattered all over the desk. Then he really began to talk, about their personalities, various string combinations, and proper bow selections. I showed him my Nurnberger, and as he looked it over, I felt distinctly like I was being interviewed on an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Karen informed me that he actually does participate in the show, giving appraisals for all kinds of lost and found treasures and trash heaps of the stringed world. For a second, I was nervous about what he would discover, but his excitement put me at ease: "It's a nice bow!" He concluded its value to be $500-$1000 more than what I paid for it.

I then showed him the Flemish and asked about its neck. I watched him look it over with intrigue and pleasure. There might be question as to whether it had its original scroll, he informed me, but the original assessment that it was 1720's Flemish was most likely correct. It had several cracks in the front, but was in otherwise fine condition, and quite a charming instrument. I told him about the perplexing issue I'd had with the strings. "Pirazzi strings exert a good amount of pressure on the body of the violin and actually choke out an old instrument's true sound," he explained. "When you changed out the Pirazzi's for lower tension strings, it is going to have to go through an adjusting time while it opens back up. It could take a couple of days for the sound to come back." Curiously, I wondered if that explained why the magical sound I'd remembered from my first experience with the Flemish was fleeting. Is it possible that I might need to give it more time?

He began to bring out the bows. I played some fine French bows, which he tried to convince me of their superiority to my Nurnberger. Okay, one or two of them were definitely worth toying around with...

And then, behold, he introduced me to my first Kittel: prince charming had just entered the ball room. I almost refused to touch it; at $70,000, he was way out of my league. The gold fittings certainly beckoned, though. At last, I gave in and took it into my hand.

If sugarplums could take flight on the strings of fancy, this is the way the Kittel danced with me. With all the beauty of a promised land I was forbidden to enter, it sang. I felt a tear welling and a slight lump of the throat, and then I quietly set aside my longing and simply reveled in the moment. I was having a glorious fifteen-minute affair with the bow of every girl's dream.


From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 25, 2011 at 5:10 PM
What fun! A violin shop in DC trying to figure out whether mine was a genuine Bailly or not (labelled as such) sent it to Oster for a look. He had it for a week before concluding that he could not be certain. I spoke with him a couple of times on the phone. He was just one of a number of experts to throw up their hands over my violin. Ten experts have looked at it during the 45 years I have had it and given 12 opinions (that's right, two changed their minds over the years). No two of them have ever agreed. But, I know he has been on Antiques Roadshow, although I have never seen the show for any more than a minute or two.

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