"Well, I thought you might like to try this one," said Geoff Fushi, and at this, his daughter, Suzanne Fushi, started to unpack a very normal-looking red violin case.
I knew exactly what was in there, and the adrenaline immediately began to flow.
I'd only planned to have lunch with Suzanne, director of the Stradivari Society, an organization which has become so important in matching fine instrument investors with violinists, many whom I've interviewed on Violinist.com.
Of course, I did know that the 1741 'Vieuxtemps' del Gesù was residing in Chicago at Bein and Fushi, the same place where the Stradivari Society is headquartered, on the 10th floor of Chicago's Fine Arts Building. I'd ridden up there on an old-fashioned hand-operated elevator, expecting to tour the shop and hear a bit more about the Society.
But to actually see the 'Vieuxtemps' del Gesù? To play it?
This would be the violin that Yehudi Menuhin reportedly liked better than his beloved "Soil" Strad. ("If my most illustrious violin and the ‘Vieuxtemps’ were in a fire and I could only rescue one, it would be the ‘Vieuxtemps,’" Menuhin once said.)
It's the violin that the famous violin dealer Arthur F. H. Hill wrote about as having "probably the grandest tone of them all" some 120 years ago.
It's the violin that currently has an asking price of $18 million.
My hands began to tremble, picking up the violin. I simply looked at it for a while. It's beautiful -- rather light in color, like honey -- and warm.
I strummed across the strings. Oh geez, it was totally out of tune, I have to tune this thing? What if I break it or drop it or something comes flying off? These are irrational thoughts for someone who has tuned a violin well more than 10,000 times. But consider the circumstances, here! I gingerly turned a peg. It felt pretty much like tuning a violin. I know how to tune a violin. I also know how to play a violin. Let's give it a go.
I played some open strings. Wow, immediately I heard the tone. It's just right. What to play, what to play? Vieuxtemps played this violin, Ysaye played this violin, Menuhin played this violin, and more recently, Philippe Quint, Vadim Gluzman and Joshua Bell...what is this big boy violin going to think of little me? I played that nice rolling beginning of the Bach G minor Partita. Oh, that's okay, but it was not impressed with me. Not enough to tell me any secrets. What to play? A little Meditation? Again, just okay. I'm not really a Paganini Caprice person, but maybe it would like the Tchaik Concerto. I tried it, but the heavens did not open. Wait, wait, Saint Saens – French music perhaps? I tried the beginning of Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Ah, yes. This was catching on. So sweet on certain notes, and yet it asked for restraint. No need to hold anything too long, don't draw anything out. Simple. Sweet and simple, here's the definition of it, right in this sound. Keep it sweet and simple. But wait, do this one over. I found myself playing things slower, not to draw out the music, but to find the groove. If I'd had longer, I would have gone through it all, just to listen to what the violin was saying and to catch it right, so that I could go back and hit it on-spot, with the short and sweet style.
"I could play it all day," I mentioned. I didn't get the idea that this was going to happen. Geoff smiled, "I brought a Strad for you to play, too, the one played by Tivador Nachèz."
I know who that is. He did the arrangement of the Vivaldi Concerto in A minor that so many people play, that appears in the Suzuki books.
I tried the opening of the Tchaik Concerto on the Strad. My gosh did this thing sound different! My first thought was "my old German factory violin" but that was unfair. It's just hard to step off of a Ferrari and immediately drive away in a Lamborghini. (Okay, I've never driven either, but I'm assuming they feel different!) It didn't want Tchaik. What to play? I cast about, played this, played that. Nothing. Oh duh!
"You want to play Vivaldi, don't you!" I played the opening of the A minor Concerto. WOW! This was actually even more thrilling to me than the Vieuxtemps because it really, really responded. It was so easy, I was just riding the wave. Of course it knows this piece! I switched to the last movement, and when I played the first high 'C' with just a bit of vibrato, I almost laughed with glee. How can I explain what that "C" did? It just wasn't even my "C," it was completely joyous. Then it took me wildly forward: it wanted it fast, it wanted certain articulations, it truly felt like the fiddle was happy. We could have had a very long lesson, that Strad as teacher, I as student. Somehow I just hadn't thought of Baroque music for a Strad, which is silly, but I thought it would want something really virtuosic. It seemed happy with an old friend, the Vivaldi.
It occurred to me, with these violins, that one needs to make a connection with them. I wouldn't try to play something wildly new or out of the repertoire, the first time I played on a fine instrument like these. You have to really pay attention, let it tell you how to play it. I imagine this might take years. Then you would know how to lead it in various directions. I suppose this process is much abbreviated for people who play elite violins on a regular basis – though I would be curious if they, too, find that they have a learning curve. These seem like deep instruments to me, with well-established personalities. You don't want to go against their personalities. I do believe that, in fact, they will not let you.Tweet
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