March 2013

Library of Congress Welcomes the 'Stradivarius Oberlinenfis'

March 22, 2013 13:40

Who knew that violin makers could be so collegial and cooperative?

Sure, they spend long hours alone at the bench, engaged in the solitary and painstaking work of carving a scroll, planing the plates of a fiddle or laying purfling along its curvy perimeter. But when they get together? These people can collaborate! Case in point: Some 50 luthiers worked together to make a copy of the 1704 Betts Stradivari. This spring, their copy, completed in 2011 at Oberlin College, will join the original in the Library of Congress' historical instrument collection in Washington D.C., thanks to a donation by William and Judy Sloan of Los Angeles.

Oberlin Strad
The interior of the 2011 Betts copy, "Stradivarius Oberlinenfis," is signed along the ribs by some 50 luthiers who made it.

How did a group of violin makers -- historically known for guarding their secrets, cheating their rivals and working in isolation -- undergo such a change in professional culture?

It has to do with the Violin Society of America's (VSA) summer workshop at Oberlin College, an annual event that has attracted violin makers, and more recently, bow makers, from some 50 countries around the world since 1986.

"It has come a long way," said luthier Christopher Germain, who has run the program since 1997. "I ask that for two weeks during the year, everyone tries to have a spirit of sharing, to be nice and friendly to your competitors. Then the other 50 weeks, you can go back to normal!"

"Violinmakers, bowmakers -- a lot of us work very independently, and we need to get feedback and continue to grow professionally," Germain said. "For hundreds of years, makers very jealously guarded these secrets. As a result, the standard of the work didn't improve. This (kind of openness and sharing) is more of an American view, not so Euro-centric. Everybody has specific information and knowledge, and if everybody shares what they know with the rest of the group, that just raises the standard of our craft that much higher. That's really what Oberlin is all about."

Every summer for two weeks, the luthiers work on a special project or theme, which serves as the focus that unites the group on a daily basis. For the last few years, the project has been to replicate the Betts Strad.

"We wanted to find one of the finest examples of Stradivari's work, and as you can imagine, most of the very best examples are not in the hands of musicians; they're in the museum, and some are privately held," Germain said. "In order to get something of that caliber -- one of the 10 finest Strads in the world -- we reached out to the Library of Congress," which granted the VSA permission to take out the Betts. The VSA had worked with the Library of Congress before, on a show called The American Violin in 2006, "so there was some history of working with the Library of Congress."

The Betts' little two-week vacation to Oberlin, Ohio in 2011 was actually a very big deal: the violin came with armed guards, a special vault and security -- "and everybody wore white gloves," Germain said. "We made sure everything was as carefully kept and done as possible. We locked it up at night, and took accurate measurements."

Radiologist Steve Sirr joined the group, to study the Strad. "He's been doing CT scans of stringed instruments for about 20 years now, and that's an art in itself," Germain said. "You can't just take a violin, do a CT scan and expect good results. You have to know how to set the controls and to get it calibrated correctly so that you can actually get an accurate picture."

The CT scans gave the violin makers a whole new window into Stradivari's work. "Through the CT scan, we're able to see stuff that nobody had ever known before," Germain said. "You can get the density of the wood: the top plate, the back plate. For instance, we learned that the top of the Betts Stradivari was a very dense piece of wood, which you would never expect, as a violin maker. We generally look for lightweight but strong tops, not heavy ones. So we learned from that."

They also learned that even Stradivari's work was not completely perfect. "You expected Stradivari was a meticulous craftsman and never made any mistakes, but even Stradivari (made mistakes) -- the purfling didn't always go down to the bottom of the channel, and there were air gaps and glue -- you could never see any of this stuff without the aid of technology," Germain said.

Their mission was to use traditional crafts, aided by the most modern technology, and make two instruments: one copy that made major use of modern technology; and another copy using all traditional methods. They used the modern method first to create the now-complete instrument that is being donated to the Library of Congress.

"That was made by a process where we took the CT scan information, digitized it, and had the parts reproduced on a CNC machine," Germain said. "That got us to a very close dimension, and then we finished all that work by hand."

Wait, back up, a "what" machine?

"CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, and they're very commonly used in industry now. You've probably heard the term 3D printing. It's similar to that, where you can take a scan of an object and, based upon that scan, you can digitize it then have the machine reproduce the shape, quite accurately. So we started with that for the first project and finished that two years ago in the white. Then last summer two members of the group, Jeff Phillips with Antoine Nédélec, did the varnish work and we set it up."

William and Judy Sloan bought the instrument to donate to the Library of Congress, and the proceeds will go to the Oberlin program, to be used for future projects.

Sloan and Germain with the Betts
Left, Dr. William Sloan holds the 1704 Betts Stradivari; right, Christopher Germain holds the 2011 Oberlin copy

How did the instrument actually sound? "It sounded terrific," Germain said. "I would say that instrument was extremely successful in every regard: tonally, aesthetically -- it was quite gratifying."

If you are curious, though, both instruments will be played at a special event
at 6:15 p.m., April 18, at the Library of Congress's Whittall Pavilion (Here is more information, in case you are in the area and want to attend the free lecture). Two members of the Marine Corps orchestra, concertmaster Claudia Chudacoff and violinist Christopher Franke, will take the original Betts and the Betts copy for a test drive, so that the audience can hear both instruments. Also, Germain and other luthiers and scholars will be on hand to tell the story of making the Betts to the public. The talk is a pre-concert lecture, before a performance in next-door Coolidge Hall by the Keller Quartet. The performance is free, but it requires that you reserve tickets.

5 replies

Tafelmusik: 'House of Dreams' in Disney Hall

March 18, 2013 21:59

Turning modern-metal Disney Hall into an intimate setting that feels like a Baroque-era European living room requires some serious magic, but the Canadian period-instrument ensemble Tafelmusik worked its spell last Wednesday in Los Angeles.

This was no normal concert -- the show, entitled "House of Dreams," unfolded under a giant gilt frame, where a slideshow of artwork and photography helped transport the listener to five different homes in Europe: the Handel House Museum in London; the Palazzo Smith Mangilli-Valmarana in Venice; the Golden ABC in Delft, Netherlands; the Palais-Royal in Paris, and the Bach Museum and Archive in Leipzig.

Tafelmusik at Disney Hall

These five houses were chosen for their connections both musical and artistic, and actor Blair Williams narrated a show that was equal parts Baroque music and art appreciation. The underlying sense was that here was the atmosphere in which the music we were hearing was conceived. The 42 pictures projected into the giant frame ranged from photos of the houses themselves to the images of artwork within them, including paintings by Canaletto, Titian, Vermeer and Chardin. (The show was written and conceived by Tafelmusik's bass player, Alison Mackay.)

On the musical side, the 17 members of Tafelmusik, directed by violinist Jeanne Lamon, performed this entire two-hour show from memory, strolling around the stage with the comfort of musicians playing in -- well, their living room! They made it look easy -- it isn't. These musicians have the absolute and complete mastery that allows them to enter the realm of the playful -- and take the audience along. The ensemble includes strings (all period instruments), oboe, bassoon, lute and harpsichord. As is the Baroque way, the violinists and violists play with no shoulder rests. The 20-some musical pieces in "House of Dreams" included movements from works by Handel, Vivaldi, Bach, Telemann, Sweelinck, Purcell and Marais. The spotlight fell on every member at some point: a furiously fast cello duet by Vivaldi played by Christina Mahler and Allen Whear; a bassoon concerto played by Dominic Teresi; an oboe duet featuring John Abberger and Marco Cera and much more. We even got the last movement of the Bach Double, while in the Bach Museum -- they took it at quite a clip, what a ride! A trio sonata played by violinist Tricia Ahern, violist Patrick Jordon and harpsichordist Olivier Fortin was full of color and personality. The show was so seamlessly scripted, it left no room for applause between the various pieces, though it was hard not to clap, especially after the incredible harpsichord solo, Sweelinck's "Engelse Fortuin," played by Fortin.

This is not the first time that Tafelmusik has joined its 17th-century aesthetic with 21st-century media technology to create a show that makes its own elegant point. In 2009 Tafelmusik toured with a show called "The Galileo Project," which was released as a DVD in 2012. That show took music by Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach and Handel and set it against a backdrop of high-definition images from the Hubble telescope, NASA and Canadian astronomers.

For Tafelmusik, Baroque music and period instruments are no gimmick -- they are a means of expression so ingrained, these musicians seem to breathe it. They bring the same attitude to the use of technology and multimedia. It makes no show of itself; it serves the art. Thus the old and the new coexist on stage like two good friends -- friends who improve each other.

* * *

From Tafelmusik's "House of Dreams": Telemann Ouverture, from Wassermusik

1 reply

Interview with David Schoenbaum: A Social History of the Violin

March 13, 2013 12:09

In a way, David Schoenbaum has been researching his book, The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument, ever since he started playing the violin, as a child.

The ViolinThe idea for a history of the violin formally occurred to him in the early 70s, with a series of New Yorker pieces published as a book by Joseph Wechsberg, called The Glory of the Violin. "I reviewed it for the Times," Schoenbaum said. "And while I'm an unqualified admirer of Wechsberg, who writes in his sixth language better than most people in their first, and was himself a trained violinist, there was a lot of story there that he didn't get, and nobody else got, and I thought would be nice to read, and couldn't -- because nobody else had written it."

A native of Milwaukee, David Schoenbaum started playing the violin as a fourth-grader at his local public school when he was eight. Things were different in the 1940s: "This was a great American industrial city," Schoenbaum said. "It took its public school seriously, and the public schools took their music programs seriously. They provided lessons; they provided instruments. Like any city in those days, there was a series of orchestras, beginning with the school orchestra and working up to a city youth orchestra. So during my school days, I made my way through that and came out concertmaster at the other end."

Schoenbaum went on to specialize in history, most famously writing the 1966 book, Hitler's Social Revolution and working as a Professor of History at the University of Iowa until his retirement in 2008. He continues to play the violin as an amateur.

His history of the violin was a 20-year labor of love.

"My publisher thought this would be a nice, 250-page book," Schoenbaum said. It's actually 710 pages, if you include the 68 pages of notes and references, plus the index. "I signed the book contract in 1993, and the book came out last December. It took me a long time to go where I had to go, to read what I had to read, and to meet whom I had to meet." Schoenbaum said. "When I turned it in, the publisher looked at it and told me, now please reduce it by 20 percent. He was absolutely right. You've got to stop somewhere!"

Indeed, Schoenbaum paints a huge picture, and one should not count on reading this book like a novel. Schoenbaum's voice is engaging enough, but the story of the violin is wide in scope and dense with facts. Read with a bit of patience, this book connects dots scattered across the world, uncovers mysteries and relates quite a few entertaining stories. Schoenbaum has compiled a history that is staggering in its breadth and detail. The portrait emerges of an instrument whose survival seems inevitable --yet teetering on the brink of extinction at every turn.

For example, I'd always taken for granted the supremacy of Antonio Stradivari, and the worldwide worship of his instruments. But here was a shocker from the book: did you know that Stradivari's will wasn't unearthed until the 1990s? That the city of Cremona, where Stradivari made all his violins, didn't get around to procuring a Strad of its own to display, until 1962? As for anecdotes, how about this gem: a pair of luthiers -- women luthiers! -- stealthily switch out a maple shelf from a hospital phone booth, replacing it with shelf made of different wood, so one of them can use the maple for a viola back. No, I'd never heard that one!

"There are a lot of books on the history of the violin, but in a sense, there are only a few because they all recycle the same six anecdotes," Schoenbaum said. Most of those histories have been limited in subject to the collectors, makers and dealers of violins. "They're recycling the oral tradition of the succession from (collector, Count) Cozio to (collector, Luigi) Tarisio to (violin maker and dealer Jean-Baptiste) Vuillaume, to the Hills to (dealer Rembert) Wurlitzer, to (Chicago dealers) Bein and Fushi, or (London dealer) Beare.

Such books tend to lack much historical perspective, beyond listing the facts -- and even the facts are up for argument, so sparse was the real research upon which to base them. "There really wasn't a decent book until (David D.) Boyden's "The History of Violin Playing"," Schoenbaum said.

Schoenbaum's aim was to put the violin into a larger, historical context.

"It's an art, it's a profession. It's a marketable commodity, it's a capital gain," Schoenbaum said of the violin. Schoenbaum's history is written in four sections: "Making It," about the birth of the violin and its evolution as an instrument; "Selling It," about the ever-changing and global economics of the instrument; "Playing It," a comprehensive overview of the way the instrument has been taught, its most famous players and teachers; and "Imagining It," about art, literature and poetry inspired by the violin.

His research was full of revelations.

"I began, like most players, with no clue about violin-making," he said. "Like most people, I had no clue about the market, and boy, I learned a thing or two about that. And while I thought I knew something about playing, all I had to do was talk to any pro, and so much for that! Then it occurred to me that, I can't think of any other instrument that has so appealed to the imagination of artists of all kinds; the violin has a kind of iconic status that you just don't associate with the accordion or clarinet. So there turned out to be 500 years of paintings," and novels, and more recently, movies about the violin…"You just can't do that with any other instrument. There may be a romance of the pianist, but there is no romance of the piano because it's an industrial product and susceptible to metal fatigue. Violins are forever, providing you don't sit on them."

"The big discovery is that the collected memory, by default, was the dealers," Schoenbaum said. Why? "The only people who were interested in violin history, for obvious practical reasons, are dealers."Contained within that is the still bigger surprise: that it never occurred to anybody that (the violin) has anything to do with the way the world works," Schoenbaum said. "It had to do with wars and revolutions and currency fluctuations and social status and all of those categories that historians have discovered but never associated with violins: race, class, gender."

"After a while, I had a missionary feeling about it. I'm trying to persuade people that something very important is going on here," he said. He even needed to persuade violin makers. "I'm sure I'm the only professional historian who was ever invited to talk to the British Violinmakers Association and to the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. And in both cases, I had the curious experience of telling them that they were a lot more interesting than they realized. And for obvious reasons, they listened with interest!"

5 replies

Remembering Eugene Fodor on his birthday

March 7, 2013 17:10

Remembering the late Eugene Fodor, who would have been 63 this week (March 5).

7 replies interview with Lara St. John: Polkastra's Wedding Album

March 5, 2013 22:55

I've played in so many weddings; only something extraordinary could make me sit down and listen to wedding music, voluntarily. Leave it to Lara St. John to do something out-of-the-ordinary: She and her polka band, Polkastra, have taken all those wedding classics on a wild and hilarious ride in “I Do”: The Wedding Album, released a few weeks ago.


"We noticed that our original Apolkalypse Now album was incredibly popular with kids; and it also got people dancing a lot," Lara told me over the phone. And what is the one event that inspires people to get up and dance? A wedding! "Not only is there dancing, but it's a place where there's always music. Almost everybody has a live band at their wedding. It's a place where tradition is still alive, so we tried to work with that."

Musical humor dominates the album, from a riotous fiddle version of "Canon in D -- Mostly" to the "Kosher Chicken Dance," which somehow makes the Chicken Dance sound like klezmer music. The "Bridle Chorus" has a distinctly equine feel to it. But the album does include at least one serious endeavor, a sublimely beautiful "Ave Maria," featuring soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Toronto Children's Chorus.

The album follows the sequence of a wedding day, from morning to night: The Ceremony; The Party, with the traditional dances (of many countries), and The End of the Night -- the spinning after-affects of all this partying.

As with most weddings, all this fun took a lot of planning.

"This has been two or three years in the making," Lara said. "For example, I remember talking to Emmanuel Pahud's mother, of all things, after a Berlin Phil concert, asking her: In France, at a wedding reception, what would a typical French song be?" Lara came up with "Le Jardin d’Amour."

"Some countries just don't have their 'O sole mio' or their total stalwart 'this always happens at the reception' dance," Lara said. "I was really surprised. I was talking to German people and asking what it would be there, and they said, of course, it's Mendelssohn and Wagner -- but that's not what you do at the reception! What do you do at the reception? They couldn't name anything. Of course, Ireland was easy, there are all these great wedding tunes. The Albania one ("Napoloni") I came across years ago -- it's such a great blast of a tune. And every Albanian wedding has "Napoloni." I've never been to Albania, but I have many Albanian friends, and they all assure me!"

"We made a collection of all those songs that seemed to be very typical for weddings of each of those countries and put them all together into our 'Wedding Party from around the World' section," she said.

And why was "Ave Maria" spared comedic treatment?

"It's such a celestial song. The Wagner (Bridal Chorus) and the Mendelssohn (Wedding March) are marches, and there are fun things you can do with them because they're so incredibly famous," Lara said. "But 'Ave Maria' -- that had to be our straight one. The voices on it -- with Isabel Bayrakdarian and the Toronto Children's Chorus -- are just heavenly. It's such a tiny masterpiece, so beautiful."

"I spent a long time with Martin (Kennedy), doing the arrangement (for 'Ave Maria')," Lara said. She didn't truly know what it would sound like, until all the musical forces were gathered in the recording studio. And it worked!

"It was just so beautiful, especially when (the children) sang. I just lost it, I actually started crying, I was so embarrassed!" Lara said. "Here were 20 kids from the children's choir, staring at the person who is supposed to be telling them what to do: me. And I'm sitting there, sobbing! Sometimes everything all comes together in one moment, and it's overwhelming, in a good way."

But let's talk about what's really important: the Kosher Chicken Dance.

"The whole idea of the Kosher Chicken Dance came, actually, the day that we were recording it," Lara said. "Ronn (Yedidia), our Israeli accordionist, was noodling around, and he started playing the 'Chicken Dance' in minor. All of a sudden, Daniel (Lapp) decided, 'That's a great idea!' Then, it sounded so much like Hava Nagila that we decided to put a Hora in the middle of it, because, why not? The original track is actually five minutes long; we only used three minutes for the video. We even have a bottle chorus -- basically we have all possible permutations of the Chicken Dance."

And as you can see above, Polkastra released a "Kosher Chicken Dance" video.

"I learned, trial by fire, Final Cut Pro. It's all my editing," Lara said. "It's easier than you think, if you're a musician. What bothers me about other people's music videos is the (lack of) synchronization, whenever you have an instrumentalist in such a video. Even things like Beyonce and Lady Gaga -- you would think, with those budgets, they'd have somebody who would go in and do synchronization. But nobody ever does! To me, it loses all sense of reality. If things are not synchronized, it makes absolutely zero sense, whatsoever. A video is supposed to look like you're doing it! It's supposed to give the listener and the watcher a sense of fun, a melding the aural and the visual. As a musician, you can synchronize; you can feel the rhythm, feel how it gets faster or slower, and do your edits accordingly. "

When filming the video, they used a jam box to play the already-recorded music, always starting at the same point to make sure the film was at exactly the right moment.

Lara's friend, professional dancer Stephanie Cadman, plays the bride in the video, as she does on the cover of the album. "She's a choreographer and a great dancer, so I thought she could put a new twist on it -- without doing any moves we couldn't do, because nobody else was a professional dancer!"

Basically, Lara called up a lot of friends in New York and said, "Would you like to do the Chicken Dance in Central Park?" Naturally, they agreed, and they all made it look quite fun. "We had a lot of very jealous New Yorkers that day!" she said.

"The great bulk of it was filmed in Central Park: all the dancers, the accordion player, myself, that's all Central Park. However, my flumpet player was in Toronto. It was actually the day after we recorded the 'Ave Maria,' that we took footage of him, at a park in Toronto. Then my contrabassoonist (Mark Timmerman) and the chicken coop -- he was doing Glimmerglass Opera this summer, and so I took a train up to Cooperstown and we went to a chicken farm."

A chicken farm?

"Farmer Bob Sutherland was kind enough to loan us his chickens and his 1941 Ford flatbed," Lara said. "There were about 20 chickens, and we had to gather them at certain points, to make sure there were enough chickens in the shot."

"There we were, with a contrabassoon and a Guadagnini, occasionally picking up some chickens and sticking them in the shot -- we just sat on the farm all day and took all sorts of fun footage," Lara said. "Farmer Bob actually wrote us recently, saying he loves the video, but unfortunately, our avian stars are now in the freezer. I guess the chickens didn't get through the winter."


2 replies

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