The first time I picked up Nathan Milstein’s violin, three years ago, all I could think about was my shoulder rest. I had been toying for the past few days with the idea of giving it up for good, and suddenly there I was holding Milstein's flawless 1716 Stradivarius in my hands. I imagined his spirit taking solid form and striking me down should I try to attach a piece of plastic to his beloved.
Thus distracted, I managed a restless program of Bach and Paganini. Mostly, I was terrified of dropping the ex-Milstein onto Jerry Kohl's plush carpet. But by the time I handed Jerry back his violin, I had learned the following things:
And that wasn't her only quirk. In fact The Milstein (I'll drop the "ex" for the remainder of the story), for that hour at least, played hard to get. My experience with other Strads (including the one I play at work) had taught me that not all of them dazzle “under the ear”: that is, from the player’s perspective. But great instruments, whether old or new, produce a series of overtones that please the listener from a distance.
But even with that knowledge, The Milstein puzzled me: the two middle strings had distinct personalities, but neither clamored for attention; the E string had the “wow” factor, to a degree I had never before experienced on any violin; and the G was frankly disappointing at first play! I had the feeling, trying to draw sound out of the low register, that I was rousing a sleeping animal, one that wasn't at all pleased at my intrusion.
Piecing together a puzzle
I felt as though I'd been handed a fragment of a treasure map, then had it snatched away after an hour. I was tantalized by what the complete picture might reveal. I wanted the rewards that would follow. So I started to research.
I was eight years old when Milstein gave his last recital, at the age of eighty-two, so in a parallel life I might have seen him in person. But I knew someone who actually had: my grandfather! As a flutist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1949-1962, he had seen most of the giants of the era.
"Milstein just looked like he was born to it," he told me. There was a caricature of Milstein floating around Philadelphia at the time that depicted him playing while casually observing the viewer: a caged lion who instead sees you as the spectacle. He was gracious enough to sign it for my grandfather in 1953, and he passed it down to me.
I had, of course, grown up listening to Milstein, among the other greats, but now I sought out the sound I had just heard under my ear. I attempted to separate the violin from the man. In his recording of Bach’s Chaconne, for example, where was Milstein, and where was The Milstein? Occasionally I would seize on a particular run of notes, usually on the G-string, and say to myself, there it is. That troubled, throaty quality was apparent even through my earbuds.
Jerry Kohl is on intimate terms with The Milstein. As its owner and caretaker, he had generously given me my first Milstein experience years before. And now that I was about to perform the Beethoven concerto for the first time, I asked if I might have a whole week with his instrument. Jerry graciously agreed, and the week began.
Sunday: getting to know you (again)
There was no time to lose: the performance was on Friday, and it was already Sunday! I was set to play a brief string quartet program with my wife Akiko and two other Philharmonic colleagues later that day. Why not use the Haydn and Schubert quartets to get reacquainted? I thought. Seven notes into the Haydn, I missed my first shift, a simple 1-1 from first to third position.
So, that’s how it’s going to be this week?
Monday: reverse engineering
Back in my studio the next day, I sat down to really get to know The Milstein. I fell in love all over again with that golden high register: how it shone, never giving over to that shrill, steely sound that sets a listener's teeth on edge. All I had to do was let the E string do its thing. In other words, a little vibrato and a little bow pressure went a long way!
The gut-core Pirastro Passione A and D behaved much as they did on the instrument I'm accustomed to, a Strad on loan from my orchestra. But on The Milstein, they took on more distinct characters rather than filling out a broad "middle range". I was reminded of an Aaron Rosand article I had read, in which he compares the four violin strings to four vocal types: baritone, alto, coloratura, and soprano.
Tuesday: the power of perspective
The more I played, the more inescapable it became: my baritone had laryngitis! Here was the same Passione G that I'd been playing on for years, but on The Milstein, it sounded under-powered, even muffled. Interesting to be sure, but not of a piece with the rest of the instrument. And just as I’d noticed years ago, with even a bit too much bow pressure, it shut down completely.
So at Disney Hall the next day, I asked my colleague Martin Chalifour to give The Milstein a play and a listen in his dressing room. He had spent quite a lot of time with the instrument over the years, and knew its potential. Perhaps all it needed was an adjustment?
First I played a few notes, and then I handed the violin over to Martin. As he played, I was astonished by the difference just a few feet made! Of course, any instrument changes once you give it a bit of breathing room, but rarely to that degree. That animal quality in the low register remained, but intensified and seemingly amplified.
“Yes, this is how it sounds,” Martin chuckled, turning the violin over and admiring it from all sides.
“Do you hear a buzz, or some weird grit in there, like I do?” I asked.
“Well, yes, there’s always been some noise in there,” he admitted. “Milstein’s spirit, maybe? I think he’s trying to tell you how to play it!”
I’ll take all the help I can get.
Wednesday: watching videos
Once again in my studio, I turned to YouTube to hear Milstein perform his own cadenza for the Beethoven. A virtuoso-composer in the mold of Paganini, he had written original pieces, as well as cadenzas for most of the major concerti. Once I knew that I'd be playing his violin, I planned on playing his Beethoven cadenza as well.
As I listened to his live recordings of the Beethoven cadenza, making notes in my copy all the while, I realized that each performance differed from the published version I had in front of me: sometimes it was simply a different figuration for a chord, but other times, he would add, subtract, or alter several measures!
The video accompanying the audio was no video at all, just a still image of Milstein. It resembled, in fact, the signed caricature my grandfather had given me. I could almost see Milstein turn toward me, never interrupting his performance: You didn’t think I would hand you what I actually played, did you?
Thursday: making videos
Milstein made his Beethoven recordings after performing the piece countless times. But I wanted to use the recording process to help me with my first performance. I decided that making videos would serve me best. There’s something about setting up a shot, turning on the hot lights, plugging in the mic, and hitting “record” that raises the stakes. And I wanted to get Milstein's violin on video playing not only his cadenza for the first movement, but Kreisler’s legendary one for the third movement.
A quick note about these garage videos: I use a DPA lapel microphone to capture both playing and speaking. Therefore the mic is only a few inches from my voice or violin. Why not set up the mic further away? Because I'm not in a proper studio! The further away I put the mic, the more I have to turn the levels up, and the more outside sounds creep in to ruin my efforts. Invariably, the gardeners next door pick my best take to fire up the leaf blower. Or the Pasadena police chase down a suspect with their fleet of helicopters!
So in the following video, you get the sound of The Milstein roughly as it is "under the ear". For a talk-free performance video like this, I like to add some studio reverb as I find the raw sound rather unappealing for most listeners. But I’ll including a sample of the sound as it went straight into the recorder for those of you who are interested. First the finished video:
And 30 seconds of the raw audio: opening of Milstein cadenza (MP4, 135K)
Friday afternoon: wardrobe malfunction
My Friday schedule was more hectic than I would have liked: first, a Philharmonic matinee; then a lesson; then the dress rehearsal; then showtime. By the time my lesson was over and I fought the Friday afternoon traffic, I was fifteen minutes late for my own dress! I had to rush onstage, considerably agitated, and join the concerto already in progress.
So it wasn't the start I had hoped for. But with marvelous support from Maestro Christopher Russell and the Azusa Pacific University orchestra, I settled in. In fact, walking off stage from the dress, I mostly felt relief. If I could handle the dress rehearsal with my fingers still tight from gripping the steering wheel, I could certainly make it through the performance.
In fact, I felt that I had comported myself with a great deal of dignity. Then I happened to look down and see a glint of metal. I had played the entire concerto with my zipper wide open.
Friday evening: maiden voyage
Lounging in my dressing room an hour before the time of trial, I ruefully recalled my own article about the hardest violin concerto openings. I had ranked the Beethoven extremely high on the scale, giving it a 9.0 out of a possible 10.0 in degree of difficulty. Here was my commentary:
“A tutti that seems to last forever. An opening arpeggio in octaves. Then an entire page of sixteenth notes, some slurred, some separate, but all designed to make you look like a fool. It’s fun to imagine what outfit springs most readily to mind for each concerto opening. Glazunov might be a beautifully tailored three-piece suit. Bruch would be your favorite broken-in denim jeans. Beethoven is definitely swimwear. You feel like you should be wearing armor, but all you’ve got is your Speedo.”
I actually spoke to The Milstein, hoping to reach the man himself. If Martin was to be believed, it was as good a way as any to get through to him. Just get me through those first two bars, I implored. You’ve done it so many times.
Just then, Akiko popped her head in. I knew she would be at the concert, but it was still a surprise to see her. She always gives me an extra dose of confidence, and her presence at that moment was a reminder that whether or not I offended Beethoven or Milstein, we’d still look forward to a martini afterward.
I wish that I could recall more of the details from my first Beethoven concerto. I do remember offering up thanks to the “other Nathan” after the first two bars, and again after an extended passage in the first movement that had vexed my powers of memorization. And I looked forward to the first-movement cadenza, wondering during the preceding tutti when The Milstein had last gotten to play it in public!
Here is audio of the performance:
Sound through space
I was prepared to hand back The Milstein the very next day, but Jerry surprised me by asking, “Aren’t you playing the Mozart clarinet quintet in Disney Hall on Tuesday? Want to keep it until then?” Why, yes!
I had big plans for those next few days. I wanted to play The Milstein in Disney Hall, but even more importantly, I wanted to hear it there. It might have been hard to find a player at short notice who could get the most out of that instrument, except that I’m married to one. So I asked Akiko to take the violin on a test drive in that wonderful space.
Ben Ullery, our violist for the Mozart, and Bob DeMaine, our cellist, joined me out in the hall as Akiko put The Milstein through its paces with some of her favorites: Brahms concerto; Bartok 2nd concerto; solo Bach.
The four of us had played quartets together quite a bit, and knew each other’s playing well. We'd also been lucky enough to try some amazing instruments in our time. Nonetheless, we marveled at the transformation of The Milstein's sound through space. “That’s its afterburner effect,” quipped Bob as we closed our eyes and enjoyed Akiko's performance.
The sound in my ear
Throughout my week with The Milstein, I'd felt like Cinderella at the ball, and now the clock was finally about to strike midnight. As long as I held onto that violin, I could call forth its incredible tone. And even after I handed it back, I might be able to retain just enough of its essence that I could recreate its essential elements no matter what violin I was playing. But for how long would the essence remain? How many hours or days would pass before the thread snapped?
When I was young, my teachers encouraged me to listen constantly to the great recordings. Daniel Mason, who had studied with Heifetz, recommended his recordings above all. “Do you know why he kept sounding great all those years?” he would ask me with a smile. “He always had the Heifetz sound in his ear!”
He was only half in jest. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the self-reinforcing nature of sound. What we play, we hear. And what we hear, we are bound to play again. This endless circle can trap players who never experience great sound up close. But for those who seek that sound, and keep their ears open, it's a golden circle. Sound builds on sound, and strength begets strength.
A new instrument is therefore a catalyst for change. Suddenly we have a new voice, and almost immediately, new expectations for what we want to hear. As the new voice becomes our voice, our circle gains power until it begins to affect others. Just as an orbiting planet attracts a comet and sends it on a new course, our sound attracts and influences our listeners.
Sound through time
This is the true power of a violin like The Milstein: it transmits its sound not only through space but through time. More than 70 years ago, Milstein chose a particular 1716 Stradivarius because inside it, he believed he heard his voice. That voice found its way to me, imperfectly, through his recordings. The recordings inspired me to develop my own voice. And for a brief time, with the help of his violin, I was able to complete the circle.
Many violinists have compared old violins to fine wines. The analogy's appeal is obvious: both violins and wines will change over time, and great examples can improve with age. Both sound and flavor resist exact description. There's an element of mystery to both that delights and frustrates connoisseurs.
But a better comparison for a fine violin is to a vineyard, not a wine. After all, a bottled wine is mostly a finished product. It will change over time, of course, but no human hand is necessary for its transformation. And when it comes time to enjoy it, anyone can open the bottle, pour, and taste.
A violin, however, is silent without a violinist. That would be the winemaker, tending carefully to the vineyard, developing the soil, pruning the vines, and finally taking those raw materials and creating something beautiful for others to enjoy. Two different winemakers may make very different wines from the same vineyard. But in Burgundy, for example, the best vineyards are marked "Grand Cru", and for hundreds of years, they have delighted and challenged both winemakers and wine drinkers.
Where is the wine? In the vineyard or in the bottle?
There was a somewhat comic postscript to my time with The Milstein. The Strad that I usually play had been in need of some routine maintenance for a while, so in the let-down period after my magical week, I took care of my violin.
Mario and Brenda Miralles have taken care of both instruments (and a great many more) for years now, so we had a debriefing session. They had heard the Mozart performance in Disney, and they had questions: Are there any issues you notice? How is the response? How are the strings?
I recapped the literal highs and lows: the other-worldly E string, the perplexing G, and the dumbfounding fact that it all balanced out in the hall.
“It’s been that way ever since Milstein played it,” said Mario with a smile. "Nobody could ever figure out how to get it to sound like other instruments, under the ear. But it only matters how it sounds to them,” he said, gesturing to an imaginary crowd.
I had a brief chuckle, imagining a curmudgeonly Milstein banging on the door of his luthier, demanding yet another adjustment: “It’s this lousy G string again! I’m playing Tzigane tonight! What am I paying you for?”
Mario suggested that we get my instrument in the same room as The Milstein, so that we could play around with adjustment. “The Milstein will give us a goal to shoot for.”
A few days later, we made it happen. As I held the Milstein once more, it struck me that I was recreating a scene straight out of Hitchcock! In his classic Vertigo, Scotty (James Stewart) is haunted by the memory of a woman he believes he’ll never see again. When he meets Judy, a woman who bears an eerie resemblance to his lost love, he takes her to a department store, secretly hoping to remake her into the other woman. She picks up on his intentions and recoils in horror:
Sure enough, my violin pushed back. After a few minutes of playing the instruments against each other, with Mario and Brenda adjusting, I struggled to put my finger on what was missing. With me clutching the Milstein, and Mario holding my violin, he smiled. “You’re never going to turn this into that…”
I knew he was right. If any violin could become The Milstein, we'd have no need for The Milstein.
Mario continued, “But sitting here, listening to them, I’m saying to myself, ‘they don’t sound all that different’. One has one quality, the other another. But they’re related.”
Related to Milstein: not by blood, but by sound? It’s certainly a goal worth shooting for. He and I share a name, after all!
As I let go of his violin for good, I wondered when I would get to play the Beethoven again. I decided that when I did, I’d write my own cadenza. I decided that I wouldn’t play exactly what I wrote.
If you want to know how to evaluate the sound of any violin you play, take a look at the free guide I just wrote along with my wife Akiko. We're actually starting a podcast, called Stand Partners for Life, and it's all about stories like these! You can pick up the guide by clicking here:
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