Cremona, Italy – it's the city where the great Antonio Stradivari made his famous violins, and it remains a world center for violin-making.
That's why I was rather intrigued when I was invited to attend a demonstration of instruments from Cremona, held last week much closer to where I live, at Metzler Violins in Glendale, California. Owners Tom Metzler and Barbara Don brought together more than 70 instruments made by nearly as many luthiers, mostly Cremonese. It's the 11th year in a row that Metzler Violins has held a "Cremona Exhibit."
"If you visit Cremona, you will never see so many instruments from Cremona all in one place," said Don, who played bits of Bach, Bruch and other sonorous violin melodies that cover four strings quickly, on 56 violins, all in a row. (There were also 11 violas and four cellos). Seated around her were about 30 people from the LA area, including teachers, professionals, students, and parents of violin, viola and cello students. I chatted with a professional violinist friend who simply liked to check in every on the value of her Cremonese fiddle. (How was it holding up? Better than most people's stock portfolios...) I also met teacher who was curious about the possibilities for her students. Some attendees where adult students themselves, who took the chance to try out the Cremonese fiddles in practice rooms at the back of the shop after the demonstrations.
The instruments ranged greatly in age, with the oldest made in 1743 and the newest in 2008. Most were modern fiddles. Listening to 56 violins in a row was – well I imagine it was like a wine-tasting event, where you're a bit on the tipsy side by the end. Also, it required some imagination when coming up with descriptive words, like "richer, more fluid voice; darker; sweet; buzzy; even sound; focused sound; thin but sweet; warm; milky and easy to play; contained; mature sound; too much in the basement; meh; sounds studenty; strong voice that projects; nice overtones; even in all ranges..."
Oh no, I'm not telling you which was which. I'll tell you the few instruments that were my favorites, though. The quotes are what I wrote upon hearing them, and a few of them I played also: a 1968 Mario Gadda (this man's father was Stefano Scarampella's only student); a 2006 Giorgio Grisales ("even in all ranges"); a 2007 Ada Quaranta ("milky, gentle tone"); a 2006 Edgar Russ (Guarnerius copy, master made, "very clear, projects"); a 2005 Maurizio Tadioli ("mature sound, and really pretty graded color;" I played it and found it responsive); a 2007 Francesco Toto ("smooth tone"); a 1976 Filippo Zanisi ("strong voice, responsive; beautiful varnish, like yellow and brown clouds that blend together").
For folks who don't have $10,000 to $75,000 to spend on a fiddle, Metzler Violin will present a different tasting menu on March 1. It's an event in a similar format only this time "it's instruments for people on a tight budget – which is everybody," Don said. "This year, the economy warranted this kind of event."
They'll show instruments in the $1,000 to $9,000 range. "We have a lot of instruments in stock that are one-of-a-kind, but we decided we also needed some brand names that people could recognize as well." Representatives from Eastman Strings, Heinrich Gill and Vivo USA will speak to potential buyers about how to pick out instruments and how to discern the varying levels of craftsmanship.
For example, "There are a lot of instruments that are hybrids," Don said. That is, the instrument is made in the white in, say, China, and finished in Belgium or Germany. "Historically, that happened a lot between Germany and Italy," Don said, with instruments made in the white in Germany and finished in Italy. Such instruments are of lower value than instruments made entirely by one luthier. "If these instruments are labeled honestly and correctly, they will say, 'from the workshop of....'" These instruments can sound good, while being more affordable, she said.
I appreciate the idea of this kind of event, and the Metzlers did a nice job of encouraging curiosity: presenting each instrument with a bit of history as well as the opportunity to hear and even play it, and all without the pressure of being there just to buy. I'd encourage violin shops to think about doing this kind of educational outreach, and for string players and teachers to take advantage of these opportunities to learn about our instrument, which is its own work of art. Unless you are a collector of fine instruments, you probably won't be buying a new one on any kind of regular basis. Having the opportunity to learn about the origins of various instruments, to hear many of them, to be able to test them, allows string players to eventually be educated buyers; both in their own tastes and in the history and craftsmanship of the instruments.Tweet
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