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Laurie Niles

Sphinx Competition 2011 Day 1: Junior Division Finalists, and a tour of SHAR

February 4, 2011 at 3:05 PM

When I decided to attend the Sphinx Competition – in February, in Michigan – I knew I'd be in for some potentially nasty weather. But I didn't expect to be flying in the day after the snow event of the year. Even the Cleveland orchestra was stranded – they canceled their Chicago performance and crashed a chamber music party at a pizza joint in Ann Arbor.

Coming from sunny California, I somehow rode the back of the storm Wednesday, with my Southwest flight arriving at the Detroit airport not just on time, but a good 10 minutes before its scheduled time.

Thursday, watching the junior division contestants at the Sphinx Competition on a sunny day at the University of Michigan's beautiful Rackham Auditorium, I was glad I made the trip. If this competition is meant to draw a new group of young people and repertoire into the classical music fold, let me be the first to say, “Welcome!”

The morning contestants included Caitlin Adamson, 15, of Evanston, IL; Juan-Salvador Carrasco, 16, of Santa Monica, CA; Brendon Elliott, 16, of Newport News, VA; Xavier Foley, 16, of Marietta, GA; Annelle Gregory, 15, of San Diego, CA; Alexandra Switala, 16, of Grapevine, TX; Ray Trujillo, 15, of Elk Grove, CA; and Ade Williams, 13, of Chicago, IL. All contestants are of Black or Latino heritage.

Violinists each were required to play the first movement of Mozart Concerto No. 5, two contrasting movements from Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and “Here's One,” a piece by the African American composer William Grant Still.

Here are some of the highlights of the morning for me…

I greatly enjoyed violinist Annelle Gregory's “Here's One,” which started breathy, with subtle slides and gorgeous double stops. It had its decisive moments, good contrast, and it ended with grace.

Violinist Brandon Elliott played a stand-out Fuga from the Bach G minor Sonata; the piece played to his strengths; his ease with the chords and sense of contrast.

Bassist Xavier Foley, 16, played with complete immersion in each piece and an energy that outsized even his double bass.

Alexandra Switala took charge of her performance, starting with the Still piece. As she played the last movement of the Bach Sonata No. 2, I marveled at how a visually dull a page of straight 16th notes springs to life, and with so much character. She also played the Mozart 5 cadenza by Rachel Barton Pine, which makes delightful use of the first-movement material and was wonderful to hear for the first time.

I also noticed that both Ade Williams (who played the first and second movement of Bach's D minor Partita) and Alexandra used a lot of first-position and open strings in their Bach, and in both cases I liked it. The open strings give it more ring, and somehow this brings out the polyphony and weaves a stronger tonal thread through the piece.

At the end of the morning, the three finalists were Annelle Gregory, Xavier Foley and Alexandra Switala, with the achievement award going to Ray Trujillo. Congratulations to all the participants!

2011 Sphinx Competition Junior Finalists

The results of the senior division were a little more unusual; I was not there in the afternoon. More on that later today!

In the afternoon I stopped in at a place I've always wanted to see: Shar! Ever since I was a teenager, pouring over the Shar mail-order catalogue, gazing for months at the new “American” case that I eventually bought for my fiddle, I wondered about this magical place of string-supply treasure. It was even bigger and more amazing than I thought.

I came in through the showroom, where many people come to look at instruments, buy strings, and get repairs. I then met Hans Anderson, manager of the Shar Violin Shop; Val Jaskiewicz, Vice President of Merchandising; and Eric Hook, Vice President of Marketing, who gave me the back-room tour.

Laurie and the folks at Shar

About 115 employees work at Shar, which was founded in 1962 by Michael Avsharian. The company also has an "Apprentice Program" for recent college graduates, a year-long program in which they work on phones and in the showroom, go to trade shows, do a project of their own design and even get paid for a half-hour of their daily time on their instrument!

"These are players, we don't want them getting rusty!" said Val, a violinist himself.

Downstairs were more fiddles than I can possibly describe or number for you, and of varying quality, from inexpensive student sets to high-end fiddles. Shar gets a good number of its student violins from China, and much work goes into each one before they are ready to be sold. "Every instrument we get requires attention," Val said. For quality control, Shar set up a shop in Beijing about two years ago with about 20 people so that instruments can be made to Shar's specifications for set-up, varnish, final carving, etc.

When the instruments arrive, they must sit for a month just to acclimate to the difference between China's more humid environment and Michigan's. "If you do the set up on something that hasn't stopped moving, it lasts for only a few days," Jaskiewicz said. Cellos are set on racks and dated, to keep track of this time.

Huiming Amo

Luthiers such as Huimang Amo set up bridges make repairs. If an instrument is cracked or damaged in a way that a repair won't bring it to high enough standards, the instrument is rejected. Val and Eric showed me an entire wall of such instruments, and another wall of rejected bows!

Here is a bass stand they created for making repairs to basses. It swings up so that various angles can be reached, and when the bass is finished and they want to test the sound, they simply keep it on the contraption while drawing the bow across string.

Bass lift

In the climate-controlled room, these large ventilation tubes carry wood dust up and across the ceiling, outside.

Ventilation system

As Val and Eric took me through countless huge warehouses, they explained that before becoming home to thousands of stringed instruments and supplies, Shar's building actually housed a laser research lab that was attempting to create nuclear fusion. The most valuable instruments are kept in a room with walls of reinforced concrete, where they tested a laser (casting its beam all the way across the huge building, through a hole in the wall) to see if it could contain plasma suspended in that room! But now it houses fiddles from many different countries, waiting for restoration.

Shar carries more than 8,000 titles of sheet music, which go for rows and rows in one of the warehouses. There are stacks of boxes which contain 99 sets of Dominant strings. I felt like I was at Costco for Violin Goodies!

Last but not least, here is where everything at Shar gets shipped to the rest of the world:

Shar's shipping department


From E. Smith
Posted on February 4, 2011 at 6:52 PM

 Great reporting! And thanks for letting us see the real Shar. 


From David France
Posted on February 5, 2011 at 12:50 AM

 Thanks for your updates!  I wish I could be there live but this definitely brings it closer.

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