As art objects, Stradivari violins create a stunning lineup of masterpieces, each instrument with its own 300-year-history:
But in the hands of live artists, these historic objects release their voices and deliver living moments of music. It's a profound union of past and present, art and artist.
That was the magic of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's four-day Strad Fest Los Angeles, which featured (from left to right, pictured above at Saturday's gala concert) Margaret Batjer on the the 1716 "Milstein" Strad; Ray Ushikubo (age 12) on the c. 1720 "Beechback"; Xiang "Angelo" Yu on the 1666 "Serdet"; Chee-Yun on the 1714 "Leonora Jackson"; Martin Chalifour on the 1711 "Kreisler"; Philippe Quint on the 1708 "Ruby"; Cho-Liang Lin on the 1715 "Titian"; and Elizabeth Pitcairn on the 1720 "Red Mendelssohn" (not pictured above).
I attended two of the events: a concert Friday called the "Stradivarius Fiddlefest" at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, featuring five of the fiddles; and the concert portion of Saturday's "Stradosphere: a Strad-Studded Gala Evening," which included all eight performers and violins at The California Club in downtown Los Angeles. The festival honored the violins of Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), who made some 1,100 instruments -- violins, violas, cellos, guitars and harps -- in his Cremona, Italy workshop. About 650 survive, and some 500 of those are likely violins.
When a violinist plays a Strad, a unique chemistry occurs. It's not always good -- and yet it can be sublime. It sounds nutty to say it, but after talking with so many violinists over the years and also test-driving a number of Strads myself, I can attest that these instruments have rather complicated personalities. An instrument that sings for one violinist might put up a fight with another perfectly good musician. It's a relationship, a lot like a relationship with another human. There are those "love at first sight" kinds of situations, but time and careful attention tend to help.
So in some ways, this meeting of so many artists and instruments felt a bit like a chemistry experiment: chemistry between artist and instrument, between artist and artist, between composer and artist, perhaps between composer and instrument, maybe even instrument and instrument! Some of these violins and violinists were long-time partners; others were meeting for the very first time.
Friday night's "Stradivarius Fiddlefest" was billed as a face-off, featuring Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu, who played in teams and as soloists, with LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane at the piano when needed. The Broad Stage, a contemporary theatre that opened in 2008 and has exceptional acoustics, was sold out for the event, with a crowd of 499 people.
The evening began with a good piece for comparing four violins: Telemann's Concerto in D major for Four Violins, with Lin, Chee-Yun, Quint and Batjer. The motives in this Baroque-period piece repeat throughout the four voices, allowing one to hear the same bit played by different players. My first impression was that here were four really different volume levels and rather individual voices. I wondered, was it the soloists, or the instruments, that have such strong individual voices? Does a Strad tend to stick out in a group, kind of like a soprano singing in a boy's choir?
Throughout the evening, various players spoke about the instruments they were playing, giving history and also their own impressions about playing the instrument. LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer talked about how the 1716 "Milstein" Strad landed in America five years ago, when Pasadena resident and owner of Brighton Collectibles Jerry Kohl fell in love with the idea of owning a Strad. Batjer and Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, were enlisted to help Jerry and Terri Kohl choose the Strad they would buy. They spent about eight hours testing eight different Stradivari violins -- brought by dealers from Chicago, London and Austria -- at LA's Disney Hall. "We had an amazing day," Batjer said. But for her, the most amazing part was when she took the "Milstein" Strad from its case and recognized it immediately as the violin that the great Nathan Milstein once played. "I cried. I couldn't believe what I was seeing -- I knew that it had spent 15 years in a bank vault." The Strad now resides in the Los Angeles area, where Jerry and Terri Kohl lend it locally, most often to Batjer and to Chalifour.
Cho-Liang Lin then spoke about his 1715 "Titian" Strad, made just a year before the "Milstein." "Very conceivably, they sat on Stradivari's work bench at the same time," he said of the instruments. And here they were, reunited after nearly 300 years. "I think the old man might be pleased, but he also would be flabbergasted by the price!" That is, in the $ millions. Lin's violin received its name from a dealer, who felt that its color reminded him of the paintings of 16th-century Venetian artist, Titian. Once played by Efram Zimbalist and Arthur Grumiaux, the violin was in the hands of a private collector when Lin came upon it. Lin already had a nice violin, but he fell madly in love with the "Titian." "I felt like I was committing violin adultery by loving this instrument!" he said. He wrote the collector a letter every year, offering to buy the violin, and every year, the collector graciously turned him down. "It was like asking a girl on a date, and she keeps saying no!" Lin said. When the collector died, though, his will gave Lin first option on the instrument. When the executor of the will called to tell him this, "I didn't sleep that night!" said Lin, who now owns the violin.
Above, Lin and Batjer played the last two movements from Moszkowski's Suite in G minor, Op. 71, after Philippe Quint and Xiang Yu had played the first two movements. This is a heavy piece in places, full of double stops and easy to overplay. I enjoyed Quint and Yu's second movement, where the beauty of these violins' voices emerged best in the softest passages, as did their camaraderie in the cute "pluck, pluck" of an ending. Lin and Batjer likewise achieved some real beauty in the slow threading in and out between their lines in the third movement, and in the stillness they achieved by the movement's end. Their accelerando at the end of the fourth movement also was nicely paced and very exciting.
Philippe Quint took the stage alone to play a work which is too new to awaken any sleeping ghosts from the "Ruby" Strad's long past: John Corigliano's Red Violin Caprices, Variations 4 and 5, composed after the 1997 movie music. The "Ruby" is on loan to Quint through The Stradivari Society of Chicago.
"It gives me great pleasure to play the music of a composer who isn't dead," said Russian-born Quint with a smile.
Quint has been playing the "Ruby" for four years and clearly knows this Strad and its secrets, fully inhabiting this fiddle with maximum tone and quality. The Caprices are beautifully composed to flatter the solo violin, with its open strings, voice and sound. By the end, Quint was expertly riding the far edge of "as fast as you can go" and still bringing out a melody in that thicket of notes. What a thrill!
The 1666 "Serdet" Strad, currently owned by the Beare family in England, is the earliest-known Strad, and its label solved a mystery. "We knew that Stradivari was a woodmaker, but we didn't know for sure that he was a pupil of Nicolò Amati," Batjer said. That is, until the label inside the Serdet came to light; it says, "Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Alumnus Nicolais Amati, Faciebat Anno 1666." In other words, it credits Amati as the then-young Stradivari's teacher. Batjer quoted the 20th c. Italian luthier and Strad scholar Simone Sacconi: "All my life, I wait to see this violin -- it must be Number One."
Violinist Xiang "Angelo" Yu, who was playing the "Serdet" for the first time during Strad Fest, said, that "I believe every instrument has an individual soul, and I'm always trying to see, 'What are you trying to tell me?' This is a wild, gorgeous horse -- you never know what is coming next." To show its qualities, he played the last movement of the Franck Sonata, with its long unbroken lines. This piece is known for its fiendishly difficult piano part (Franck was an organist) -- what a treat to have Kahane at the piano, nailing those notes.
Chee-Yun brought out a nice, strong sound from the 1714 "Leonora Jackson" Strad -- a violin that was somewhat darker in tone than the other Strads in the room. As she played Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," the earth shook -- literally! A 5.1-magnitude earthquake hit Los Angeles just then, and the floor moved as all heads and seats visibly swayed side-to-side. At least half of the people I surveyed afterwards said they were so captivated by the music, they didn't feel it or notice at all! (Absorbed as I was, I did notice it -- I've lived in CA only 15 years and these things still faze me!)
Afterwards, Chee-Yun described her anxiety over her first meeting with "Leonora," owned by William and Judy Sloan of Los Angeles. She would be meeting the violin for the first time upon arriving in Los Angeles for "Strad Fest" and was concerned about having enough time to get to know the instrument, which was played by Joseph Joachim, then by Leonora Jackson, who was a turn-of-the-20th-century soloist and among the first American violinists with an international career.
"What if she doesn't approve of my playing?" Chee-Yun wondered of "Leonora's violin." But after playing it, "I felt immediately warmed by her violin. I'm living the dream right now!"
Chee-Yun and Philippe Quint then took the stage together, noting that despite their long friendship, this was their "debut" as a duo. Nonetheless they made an ideal team for Sarasate's "Navarra," Op. 33, which they played with great joy, chemistry and precision in a billion tiny fast notes. These two should play together more often!
Cho-Liang Lin showcased his "Titian" with the more quiet and elegant "Habanera" by Ravel, played with heart and lucid trilling; followed by Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois."
The violinists gathered in groups of four for two tangos: Piazzolla's "Oblivion," which was so sultry and effective that members of the audience gasped at its conclusion, following that with mad applause for Quint, Chee-Yun, Batjer, Lin and bassist Nico Abondolo. Quint switched out with Yu for the second tango, which never really got back on track after a bad count-off. (Fortunately, when the group played this piece again at the Gala on Saturday night, it went much better.) Friday's concert concluded with Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances, each dance played by a different violinist, with the last dance played by all. (Quint's beautiful, dead-on harmonics were a testament to the fact that it's possible for that movement ("Pe Loc") to sound gorgeous and other-worldly rather than to pierce the ears and summon all neighborhood dogs to the door.)
The following night's Gala concert was held in a beautiful room with high ceilings, giant chandeliers and antique furniture at at the California Club, with about 300 guests. Added to the roster of violinists that appeared on Friday night were Martin Chalifour, playing the 1711 "Kreisler" Strad that is owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and 12-year-old Ray Ushikubo, playing the 1720 "Beechback" Strad, so named because the back is made of beechwood.
The evening began with the seven violinists playing Bach's "Preludio" from the E major Partita, passing the musical line from violinist to violinist. Again, styles varied greatly, but it was a nice way to hear the differences between the violins and the violinists.
One of the best moments in this concert was when Margaret Batjer joined Xiang Yu to play the slow second movement of the Bach Double. They found surprising drama in this familiar piece, which was well-suited to their partnership.
Then came a Bach Triple! This piece, the "Allegro" from Concerto in D major for Three Violins, was played by Lin, Chee-Yun and Chalifour. It's more of a virtuoso Baroque vehicle than is the Bach Double, providing each soloist the opportunity to play a note-y and treacherous solo -- no problem for this crowd.
Batjer joined those three for Ludwig Maurer's "Allegro from Sinfonia Concertante in A minor for Four Violins." What an adorable piece; it sounded as though it were written with the express purpose of making a child smile by showing trick after trick, all with a certain degree of comedy. It worked. As the violinists took turns executing downward cascades in pairs, as if trying to out-do each other, the audience actually laughed out loud.
Near the end of the evening, the youngest violinist, Ray, was asked how it felt to play a Strad for the very first time. He summed up the feeling well:
"It feels awesome!"
* * *
After dinner, violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn showed her violin up-close to those at the Gala. Here is a picture of her, with her violin that inspired "The Red Violin" movie, with the Gala's co-chairs:
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