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Laurie Niles Interview with Anne Akiko Meyers: about the 'ex-Molitor' Strad

October 29, 2010 at 4:07 AM

I watched last week as Anne Akiko Meyers emerged from the van, at the back of the Ambassador Auditorium, where she was about to rehearse the Barber Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony.

There she was with the car seat containing her four-month-old, Natalie, and her newly-purchased $3.6 million "ex-Molitor" Stradivarius.

I couldn't resist. "You've got both of your babies!" I said.

A lot has changed for Anne Akiko Meyers since the last time we spoke with her. She moved to Austin to teach at the University of Texas, had a baby girl, put out a new album called Seasons...Dreams and then just last week bought the 1697 "ex-Molitor" Strad for a record-breaking price. She played the instrument on Saturday with the Pasadena Symphony – just days after getting it into her own hands – then on Tuesday on the MSNBC show Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

We spoke last week in Pasadena, and she even gave me peek at the "ex-Molitor," an instrument of pristine beauty.

Anne Akiko Meyers
Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Laurie: I think I first have to ask you about this new Strad, because it's all over the news.

Anne: I wasn't even looking for a new violin! One month ago I was in New York playing concerts, and I went to get my violin adjusted by René Morel. When I saw him, he said, "Babeeee, the Strad here, you should take a look!" The second I tried it, I fell in love with the sound. And then, the games began! (laughs) I've had the violin for just two days; I got the violin on Wednesday afternoon. Picked it up at the airport in Austin, then flew to Pasadena yesterday, rehearsed for the first time with the violin last night.

Laurie: That's a whirlwind! What is it like to buy a Strad – you said the games began, what games?

Anne: As an artist you are forever looking, locating your sound. Each violin has its own unique personality, its identity, just like you and me. When you actually come across the sound that you love, you fall in love with everything up until that point that you've known. It's very much a projection of who you are at that moment. It's just like music – it's so incredibly multi-layered, so spiritual and part of your being. I had been playing on the 1730 "Royal Spanish" Strad for five years now; I've made three recordings on it, and I just made a new recording. That sound is still very much inside me. So this is incredibly exciting. Also, I think it takes a great amount of courage to switch your sound so close to a concert. It's kind of nutty, but I have to admit, I am nutty! (she laughs)

Laurie: What is different about it?

Anne: It's a little smaller than the "Royal Spanish." Physically, I feel like it's a little easier to maneuver. It has incredible power; it has a sound that sails across the orchestra. Even through really thick orchestration, you can still hear this very pure line. It's an incredibly clean voice. The "Royal" is darker and has so much color, you're just soaked in color. This is much more of a straight laser: clean.

I played one concert on (the "ex-Molitor") in Chicago, the Clair de Lune. I had the violin for about an hour before that performance, and the second that I stepped out on stage and played it, I felt very comfortable with it. Most violins take a lot of adjusting, but this one was just instantaneous, like putting on an old glove.

Laurie: When you were there in René Morel's shop...

Anne: My reaction was, "Oh great. Now what I'm going to do?"

Laurie: Did you know, within seconds of playing it?

Anne: Yes. This is why I try to stay away from trying violins – I don't want to get tempted, with such a big price tag!

Laurie: So how are you swingin' this? How does one buy that expensive of a violin?

Anne: When you're just so obsessed with finding the right sound, you kind of make it work. I feel like I've saved up for this my whole life. I've been playing my whole life, since I was four years old.

I think it's absolutely, positively insane that the violins are this much. When you look back historically at the days of Paganini and other performers, they had a caravan of Strads and Guarneri del Gesus, up until, really the middle of the 1950s. Then it became unbelievably unattainable, a luxury item, from 1960s and 70s. That's when foundations and sponsors and private collectors could afford them. Before that, they were known as unbelievable instruments, but you could still manage to pay for one with an artist's salary.

Laurie: You're a rare case, at this point.

Anne: I think, when you look at a lot of my colleagues, a lot of them own their instrument. It is your equipment.

Laurie: What do you feel the advantage is in owning it, versus not owning it? Have you been in both situations?

Anne: Yes. I've had a diet of unbelievable violins, from all foundations: the Nippon Music Foundation, private sponsors – up until I purchased the "Royal." The opportunity was unbelievable. One of the sponsors had about 10 violins: five Guarneri del Gesus, five Strads, and said, 'Just pick whatever you like, Anne.' Pick whatever you like! I was like a kid in a candy store. I wondered, is this for real? I had to pinch myself. Is this dream going to end? And it does. It ends after two years, after you've thrown yourself into this violin – this person, this entity – it is a human being, it has its soul. You've inserted your soul into its soul, and it gives you as much as you give it. So when the time would come up, I felt like I was going to die. You feel like you're getting your left arm amputated. Then with the next one, it's your right arm. You make so much emotional investment with a violin – to do that constantly, every two years. By the end you feel like, wow, I'm damaged goods! You get tired of it.

Laurie: I've had friends who've had their violins taken back by sponsors. And then what's interesting is people don't sympathize. The violinist will say, 'This is the worst thing that happened to me in my life,' and people just kind of act like 'What's wrong with you?'

Anne: It's your voice, and no one has the right to take that away from you. It's your right to own it. When you think about singers, dancers, any other kinds of musicians, they have their oboe reeds, they have their ..everything they need. It's the instrumentalists who suffer a great deal.

Laurie: There are some instruments where this is just not the case; to get a good flute or trombone. My violin was not $3.6 million by a long stretch but it still was an extreme strain on my family to buy a violin.

Anne: It's a major commitment on everyone's part. When I purchased the "Royal," my entire family helped me purchase the "Royal Spanish." We're all in it together.

Laurie: Speaking of family, tell me what its like...

Anne: being on the road with a four-month old? It's been incredible. I can't even imagine what life was like without Natalie. And John Corigliano was to write her a lullaby, so there's a "Lullaby for Natalie" I'm trying to record. That was a really super-special gift.

It's just been amazing. Before she was born, she sat through lessons at UT – so many endless scales. And she was with there, on the

Laurie: So is she pretty good about it, pretty tolerant?

Anne: Yes she is.

Laurie: What are some of the logistical issues that have now popped up for you, it's got to be really different!

Anne: It is. Forget taking a nap before working, and things like that. It's all about keeping her happy. If I can find 10 minutes, then I can warm up and practice. The priority is different – it's definitely shifted.

Laurie: It occurred to me, when you mentioned lessons at UT, that's another thing you've done since I've last seen you, becoming a faculty member at the University of Texas.

Anne: That's correct. I moved to Austin about a year ago, from New York. I'd been living in New York for close to 25 years. Sold the condo and moved to Austin – got a house with a full-size washer and dryer! (She laughs) It's been really wonderful living there, and so now I'm pretty much based out of Austin.

Laurie: How many students do you have?

Anne: Right now I'm on maternity leave, but I was teaching about 10 students in the first year.

Laurie: And you'll go back to that at some point....

Anne: Probably at the beginning of next year, the spring semester.

Laurie: It's a lot to juggle.

Anne: With concerts and her needing to be fed (Natalie starts wailing in the background). The feedings are at 12:30 a.m., 3:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m., and then you've got a concert, it's like okay, sure! But it's good, it keeps you on your toes.

Laurie: Tell me about your new CD, Seasons...Dreams It's a real mix.

Anne: I planned it along the same lines as Smile, where the Schubert Fantasy was very much the anchor of that album, I wanted the Beethoven Spring Sonata to be the anchor of this album. I kept thinking of nature, of seasons, and how music is affected by the seasons. Then I started thinking, what music parallels nature? I ended up with "Sakura, Sakura," and I had Gene Pritsker write this new piece, which is one of my favorite pieces on the album. 'Tenderly/Autumn Leaves' – these are standards that I always loved listening to; then there's 'Autumn in New York,' and Gershwin's 'Summertime' which is just such a classic, it's absolutely sublime. It became such a fun study, to see all the different composers I could come up with, from Wagner to Vernon Duke – all under the same umbrella. That's very much the idea of the album.

Laurie: What's up with that Stille Nacht – Silent Night – by Schnittke? I hadn't heard that before, it has a few atonal surprises.

Anne: I have to warn audiences before I play it because sometimes people get a little upset with that piece. Other people think that it's the best piece in the recital program. I love it, personally. I think that Schnittke was unbelievable, kind of a daredevil, but in an authentic way. "Stille Nacht" kind of like a lullaby on steroids (she laughs) with a creepy, erie ending. Some people have said, 'That piece is just so bad-ass, on such a pretty album, what happened there?' You gotta have some darkness!

Laurie: I found it interesting, just trying to figure out, what was he thinking here? Does he hate Christmas?

Anne: He's so sick of hearing that 'Silent Night' - it's his spin on it. He was a film composer, writing so many different scores, and he suffered a great deal in his own life. He had many strokes, he was declared dead several times. He lived a very difficult life, like many Russian composers.

Laurie: Did you record this album before, or after Natalie was born?

Anne: Before. The 'Seasons' part of the album I recorded with Reiko Uchida on piano, and the 'Dreams' part of the album is all with harp, with Emmanuel Ceysson, and that was all recorded in June, before I even knew I was going to be pregnant.

Laurie: I know people are mostly curious about that violin. Can I have a look at it?

(Anne gets out the violin, and it is beautiful to behold. Light brown, and light to the touch, it seems to be completely without cracks or flaws. It is varnished but not shiny.)

Anne Akiko Meyers and the ex-Molitor Strad

Laurie: Wow, that's in good shape!

Anne: Yes, it's like mint.

Laurie: Is that original varnish?!

Anne: Yes. It's like it was made yesterday.

Laurie: Okay, I get it.

Anne: (she laughs) You want to play a couple notes on it?

Laurie: Hmmmmmm...yeah!

(The violin is easy to play, and the tone is amazing, especially on the Eing. But I don't want to out-stay my welcome! I give it back after just a very short walk around the neighborhood.)

Laurie: I see what you mean, it fits in the hand. I'm a small person. You don't feel like you have a tabletop on your shoulder.

Anne: It has such an amazing history to it. Not only did it pass through Napoleon's hands, but it also was owned by one of the most famed beauties, named Récamier. She was patroness who also owned another Strad that eventually was sold to Mischa Elman. There was even a sofa named after her. Napoleon's brother was completely in love with her, and I think something happened with Napoleon and that's why she had to sell the violins to his general, Count Molitor.

Laurie: So Napoleon owned it?

Anne: It passed through his hands, definitely.

Laurie: Did he play the violin?

Anne: I couldn't find anything about him being able to play the violin. There's another Strad called the "ex-Napoleon."

And then it belonged to Count Molitor and his family for more than 100 years until that had to sell it because of World War I, I think. And then it went to Curtis. Then Elmar Oliveira owned it, and he played it for five years, then he found himself a Guarneri and then it's been with private individual for the last 16-17 years, so it hasn't been played in public at all.

Laurie: Sometimes it's amazing just to find something like that. The fact of purchasing it aside, it's amazing that it actually came to you...

Anne: ...that it exists.

Laurie: ...that it wound up in your hands

Anne: wonder, is this destiny? Something made in 1697, that looks like that, that ends up in a New York auction house – under my chin, after all these people have played it. It's passed through so many people's hands, and there's a reason why everybody had to sell it, either death or a war ... If you could go back and figure it out...!

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 29, 2010 at 5:26 AM

Thanks, Laurie!  How fortunate you were to meet with her so close to the purchase.

The interview as printed seemed to trail off.  I hope she manages to break that run of forced sales because of war or death. ;-)


From Y Cheung
Posted on October 30, 2010 at 6:39 AM

Thanks for the interview.  I had the chance to hold and examine it at the Tarisio auction.  It is one of the most beautiful violins I have seen.  Elegant proportions and fine details, gorgeous wood and varnish, in near-pristine condition.  I'm really glad it is in the hands of a great violinist instead of a bank vault.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 30, 2010 at 3:12 PM

 Thank you, both Laurie and Anne! Very enjoyable to read. I especially enjoyed Anne's comments about the violins she's used (along with the new baby) and the highs/lows of acquiring/relinquishing. Fascinating. So well described.

From Ray Randall
Posted on November 2, 2010 at 2:50 AM

Really nice interview. Thanks.

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