For soloist Giora Schmidt, playing a modern violin is no Plan B.
But coming around to that feeling of certainty was a major education and a long journey. Giora spoke about his experience with modern violins at a lecture on violin quality that took place in Indianapolis last month as part of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and the Violin Society of America Convention.
His familiarity with both old and new violins is also probably one reason why he was chosen as one of the 10 violinists who took part in the 2012 Paris Experiment, in which American violin maker Joseph Curtin and French acoustics researcher Claudia Fritz devised a scientific study to compare six old Italian violins to six modern violins.
Giora Schmidt, the son of two professional musicians from Israel, began playing the violin when he was four, and he studied with some amazing teachers: Pinchas Zukerman, Dorothy DeLay and Itzhak Perlman among them. He also played some amazing violins early in his career: a 1753 Milan Guadagnini for about three years, and before that, a 1743 Guarneri del Gésu for about five.
"You do everything you can to get a loan of something big," Giora said of his early playing days. Playing those fine violins for so many years, "I started to get really educated about the sound," he said. But like every loan, the time comes to an end, and you have to give the violin back. The question is always looming: Get another loan? Sell your soul to the devil to try and get a violin priced at $1 million or more? "I came to a decision, when the Guad had to be returned, that I would seek out the best modern instrument that I could for the concert stage."
When he started looking into modern violins, he was happy to realize that not only was this feasible, it also appeared to have some advantages.
"It was kind of exciting, and it was really eye-opening," Giora said.
For him, one of most appealing features of newer violins is their ability to hold stable in changing environments; whereas violins that are several centuries old are notorious for being difficult to play when they are put under the stress of constant travel. For a soloist who is constantly crossing the globe for concerts in various locations, this is good news. "I can do a concert in the jungle of Brazil or the dryness of Alaska," Giora said. His modern violin "holds its pitch and always sounds good."
He considered commissioning a violin but ultimately felt reluctant about the idea. What if you wait four years for a commissioned instrument and then you don't like it? The one that Giora bought "was available; he already had made it."
And who made that violin? In 2011, after much research, Giora bought a violin made in 2000 by Hiroshi Iizuka, a Philadelphia-based luthier who actually specializes more in violas. Giora hasn't looked back.
"I have concertmasters ask, 'What Guarneri are you playing?' or, 'What Guadagnini are you playing?'" Giora said.
"Everyone who puts bow to the string looks for a different output," Giora said. For him, he really wanted a violin with power on the D string, for things like certain passages in the Tchaikovsky Concerto.
He was pleasantly surprised at the difference in sticker price between an old Italian and a modern. Though he thought he'd have to spend $30,000 to $50,000 to get a fine modern, he spent less.
"I had a budget, and I ended on the low end of that," he said. It seems to be in our violinist genes, he said, the idea that if something is priced high, then there must be a reason for that. In fact, when it comes to fine instruments, there seems to be no correlation between price and a desirable violin, one with a high quality of sound and good playability. (Note: this is not true at the lowest end student violins.)
For Giora, participating in the 2012 Paris Experiment validated his decision to buy modern and bolstered his confidence in modern instruments in general.
"I tried violins priced in the millions that were not as exciting as some of the moderns I played in Paris," he said.
Something he learned from Paris, where they played the violins with goggles on, is that it's easy to be deceived by looks. That gorgeous antique look does not always equate to a good-sounding violin. Sometimes violins are like Swiss cheese, "there are parts you love, and then there's a hole," he said. "Sometimes you just want a nice solid piece of cheddar!"
Wearing the goggles, "I was surprised to see how, within three seconds, you know: absolutely not, or absolutely yes, or you need more time with a certain instrument," he said. "That kind of pre-selection process was something I'd never done."
In the Paris Experiment, the violinists started testing instruments in a small rehearsal room, playing solo. For the next testing session, they moved to a larger, 300-seat concert hall and also had the option of piano accompaniment.
"What we picked as our foremost (in the first session) changed in the hall," he said. Adding piano then changed perceptions further. "I felt some violins were really enjoyable for playing alone, then certain overtones got enhanced or diminished with the introduction of the piano," Giora said.
The question is: Do you want a violin that covers all the bases: playing alone, playing with piano, playing with orchestra? For Giora, the answer was "yes."
"All of that became very clear, and the results for me were astounding," he said. "All of my choices were modern instruments."
Beyond each player's ultimate choice of instrument, the Paris Experiment took down a lot of data on player's specific reactions to every violin, with players rating instruments in six categories: overall quality, articulation, timbre, playability, projection, and loudness under the ear.
"Joseph knew what I would like, based on Paris, and it was spot-on," Giora said. "There was one that stood alone for me, and it was exactly what the data predicted."
The idea that modern violins can hold their own against million-dollar old Italians is good news for those of us who can't afford a million-dollar instrument (99.9 percent of us, would be a guesstimate). It means that "for the next generation there are options of instruments that are exciting and can hold their own against these instruments that have this mystique associated with them," he said.
For Giora, signs of the strengthening interest in modern violins are everywhere. While in Indianapolis, he was pleased to learn that one of the competitors in the Indianapolis competition was playing on a violin by modern maker Gregg Alf. (Kristi Gjezi, performing on his teacher Svetlin Roussev's Alf violin.)
"I would like to see more of these players playing instruments by the great makers was have among us today," Giora said. "They are alive and well, and willing to work with you. It's not a Plan B to play something modern."
* * *
After the lecture, violinist Giora spoke to me and documentarist Stefan Avalos about his violin, going into fine detail about how he has worked with the instrument to produce the sound he wants and demonstrating with the violin:
Video copyright 2014 Stefan Avalos, as part of his documentary, "The Strad Project."
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