"This is the violin that Jerry bought..."
Like the first line in a child's fairy tale, Conductor Rachael Worby introduced the Stradivarius violin played for nearly 40 years by Nathan Milstein to an audience of about 40 at the Pasadena, Calif., home of Jerry Kohl on Wednesday night.
It really has been something like a fairy tale: a big dream that Kohl turned into a reality, even after Worby warned him at the beginning of his search for a Strad: "They are not to be had!"
"I have spent almost endless nights learning about these magical instruments," Kohl wrote to me in April. "I decided to see if I could buy one -- my small effort to keep these instruments in circulation (in the U.S.)"
On Wednesday Kohl threw a beautiful party for his new baby; with invitations that showed its picture and programs that explained the history of Stradivari violins. And it was all done in support of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra.
Kohl described his quest to the people assembled in his music room: "I had no idea what I was getting into." He started his search with the Smithsonian Institution, where he found no leads but was issued a warning: "Be very careful." There are plenty of fakes and schemes out there.
Kohl eventually enlisted the help of LA Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour and LA Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Margaret Batjer, who together spent about eight hours testing eight different Stradivari violins at LA's Disney Hall. The violins came from all over the world; two from Chicago, three from London, two from Austria and one, Jack Benny's violin, from Los Angeles.
"They played all day long," Kohl explained to Wednesday's audience. Though the dealers did not disclose the provenance of any of the violins, Kohl said that Batjer was overwhelmed with emotion upon taking the 1716 Milstein Strad from its case.
"She recognized the violin," Kohl said. Its distinctive look, with striped wood on the back and black "dimples," gave it away. She knew it was the violin played for so many years by one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. And it was the one that won everyone over, including Kohl. Kohl purchased the violin from the Milstein family, through Charles Beare of Beare's in London, for an undisclosed price.
On Wednesday night, Pasadena Pops Orchestra concertmaster Barry Socher gave voice to the Milstein Strad, with pianist Alan Steinberger collaborating. And Pasadena Pops Maestra Worby, who is not only a conductor but also a brilliant advocate for music, engaged herself fully in bringing to everyone the historical context and musical perspective that helps make these pieces relevant to all.
The first three pieces Socher played were chosen because Milstein played them quite frequently on this Strad: Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, Meditation from Thais and Scherzo Tarantelle. Socher said that he aimed to bring his own interpretations to these works; though he downloaded and listened to Milstein's versions, "I have my own way of playing them."
During the Meditation, Kohl stood at the corner of the room, looking pensive and satisfied, his attentive eyes watching his new baby in Socher's hand. As Socher finished, the woman next to me whispered, "Soooo beautiful..."
It was during the Scherzo Tarantelle that I began to notice how well the violin responded, particularly how lucid the notes sounded on the E string.
"Clearly, one of the things that can make a Strad play well, is the player," Worby said after the S-T. "If you practice, you can grow up to deliver such joy to people." Worby explained some of the theories about the excellence of Strads: that the wood all came from a Cathedral, that the wood was affected by a mini-Ice Age, even that the glue used on the violins was exceptional. "In the end, all the theories have been proven to be false," she said.
Socher continued with the Adagio from Beethoven's Sonata No. 6 in A, which he chose because of his own memories of Milstein playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto as a soloist with the LA Philharmonic. Milstein played it in 1981, at the age of 82, and "he sounded as fresh and alive and energetic as any soloist out there today," Socher said. Milstein even argued a bit with the conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, who wanted the violins to play softer than Milstein did during a certain passage.
"I guess Milstein did, but I think we still tempered how loud we played," Socher laughed.
The elegance and subtlety of the Strad was more apparent in the Beethoven, where Socher's dynamic changes within long bows came out nicely, with lovely ensemble with the pianist Steinberger.
Before Socher played the Malaguena by Sarasate, Worby shared George Bernard Shaw's quote about the composer: that there are many composers of music for the violin, but few composers of violin music. She also shared that Sarasate was inundated with love letters and kept loads of Spanish fans to give to the ladies who wanted to visit him backstage.
During one iteration of the theme for the Malaguena, I decided that I liked the E string the best on this fiddle; something that also came through during the next piece, Kurt Weill's Youkali, Tango Habanera, which Socher had newly arranged for violin and piano. I noticed he could get very thin on the E string when the music called for it, and still have good presence.
The music ended with Heifetz' arrangement of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So." As Worby explained, "Heifetz had no suitors. He played, he conquered. He played, he conquered. He played, he conquered." Socher conquered this one beautifully, Strad or not: nice harmonics, flawless octaves, great execution, and an ending that spun out into organized chaos crazily – just perfect.
After playing, Socher answered questions. He had been practicing on the Strad for two weeks, and he found it to be different than any other Strads he'd played. Socher's regular instrument is a Nicolas Gagliano.
"This Strad is sort of a soprano instrument," Socher said. "I had to work to bring out the richness of the lower registers."
He also compared playing on a Strad to when the LA Philharmonic moved from the acoustically less-than-satisfying Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to the universally acclaimed Disney Hall. "Things show up more on a Strad," Socher said. "Things that might slip by on another violin don't on this violin."
"It has been a voyage of discovery, trying to bring out the best in this instrument."
The same could be said for Kohl, who will keep the violin and lend it out as he deems appropriate.
"I played music my whole life," Kohl said. "My kids now own a part of history."
I'm glad to see this instrument in the care of someone who is inclined to have it played by fine musicians, to tell its story and to celebrate the its significance. Congratulations, Jerry!
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