Strad Fest LA: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Celebrates the World's Finest Violins

March 20, 2014, 2:07 PM · The city of Los Angeles has long attracted the brightest stars and celebrities; just look at the beauties who are coming to town next week:


All seven of these fiddles, plus one more, will gather for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Strad Fest LA March 26 to 29, celebrating the violins of Antonio Stradivari, made in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s in Cremona, Italy. In fact, they are some of the most valuable and finest violins made, ever. From left to right (for a larger image, click here:)

1. 1666 “Serdet" Strad: the earliest Stradivari violin known to have its original label.

2. 1708 “Ruby” Strad: named for its rich, extremely well-preserved ruby-tinted varnish and owned by The Stradivari Society, which lends fine instruments to leading emerging artists.

3. 1715 “Titian” Strad: considered among the finest violins of the maker’s Golden Period and revered for its unusual power, scope and focus. It was named “Titian” by a French dealer, who said its orange-red color reminded him of the paintings of the famed artist.

4. c. 1720 “Beechback” Strad: whose simple understated dark exterior belies its rich tone and full sound.

5. 1711 “Kreisler” Strad: formerly owned by the great Fritz Kreisler, it is currently owned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and played by its concertmaster, Martin Chalifour.

6. 1716 “Milstein” Strad: played for nearly 40 years by virtuoso Nathan Milstein and currently owned by Southern California philanthropists Jerry and Terri Kohl, who loan it frequently to LACO Concertmaster Margaret Batjer.

7. 1720 “Red Mendelssohn” Strad: which surfaced in the 1930’s in Berlin and is the inspiration for the 1999 Academy Award-winning film The Red Violin, which speculates on the instrument’s mysterious history after it disappeared for more than 200 years following its debut. Currently owned by Elizabeth Pitcairn.

8. 1714 “Leonora Jackson” Strad (not pictured): named for prominent American violinist Leonora Jackson, who died in 1969 in obscurity.

BatjerA gathering of Strads was something that LACO Concertmaster Margaret Batjer had already experienced and was excited to do again. "Decades ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Cremona Strad exhibit," she said. "It was a very large collection of instruments, close to 50 Stradivariuses at the museum in Cremona. There were concerts that went on for this entire exhibit, which lasted for about a week. We had concerts where everybody in the orchestra was playing Stradivariuses! It was very fun."

The idea for a Strad Fest in LA evolved from LACO's annual fundraising Gala. "We wanted to honor Jerry Kohl, who is a donor to our orchestra, and to honor his ("Milstein") Strad, because I play it from time to time in our concerts. Then we thought, he loves Stradivariuses, what if we get a lot of Strads? I'm a great lover of Stradivarius, and so once this idea started developing from the Gala, we thought, how can we bring all these instruments and players in and not have more concerts?" she said. "It snowballed from there and turned into a four-day event."

The Strads are coming from all over the world: "Two are from London, and two are owned by violinists who are coming to the event -- one is in New York and one is in Houston. Three of them are local, in the Los Angeles area," Margaret said. All the instruments are violins, also; "I would have loved to have had some cellos, but cellos are more rare and harder to find. Also, we didn't have a viola; of course, he didn't make very many violas."

"It's a real gift, to hear these rare instruments, and it's a very unique experience to be able to hear this many of them, played at the same time, and not on a recording, but live," Margaret said.

Does Margaret remember the first time she ever played a Strad?

"I remember it quite clearly; it was in New York, and I was in a violin shop, Jacques Francais, the most prestigious violin shop in New York at the time," she said. "I was getting my violin worked on, and a friend of mine came in with another friend who had a lot of cache in the shop. Jacque got out a couple of Strads, and they were playing them, and they invited me to play. It was the first time for me, and I'll never forget it. We played for about 45 minutes to an hour, and all of us got to play all these different Strads. It was fabulous. They have such a unique sound. In a way, you have to learn how to play a Stradivarius. As they say about great cars: they drive themselves. Well, in a way, a Stradivarius drives itself. You have learn how to let the Stradivarius sing, because it's already there, you don't have to work very hard; you have to allow it to happen. On most violins, you have to work hard to create the sound that you want. In fact, there are players who don't actually enjoy playing Stradivariuses that much; they prefer a different kind of sound, the kind where you work a little harder."

"As a violinist, there are certain composers, certain makers, certain parts of your art that are the pinnacle, and of course Stradivarius, for me, was that," Margaret said of that first encounter with a Strad. "The same is true for Guarneri del Gesú; those are the two makers that I'd always dreamed of having one day. Little did I know how much they cost!"

How much? It's safe to say that for the eight stars of Strad Fest LA, it's in the $millions.

"I think you learn a lot from playing the great instruments," Margaret said. "You learn about what the possibilities are, and then perhaps you go back to another instrument and you strive a little harder to find those qualities in that instrument. You may not achieve it, but you definitely have grown and learned. I'm fortunate because I have a great violin, which is a half-Stradivarius."

A half-Strad?

"Well, I have a composite. For players, often, the Golden Period Strads are out of reach financially. So those that play them generally are loaned the violins, from either a foundation or a person. Then there are these composite instruments. There are more composite instruments in Europe than in the United States, and they are more valuable in Europe, strangely, than in the United States. When you think about the year these fine instruments were made, it was back in the 1600's and 1700's. The chance of damage happening to something so fragile over that amount of time is great, and so a lot of these instruments were damaged. (My) violin was made by Nicolo Amati, who was actually Stradivarius's teacher. The top must have been damaged at some point in the early 1700's, and the violin was taken to Stradivari's shop. Stradivari didn't do a lot of restorations, he mainly just made violins. But in fact, because it was his teacher, he made a new top for this violin and re-varnished it. So it's called a composite because it's made by both Amati and Stradivarius."

Wouldn't that be worth more, not less?

"That's what I thought," she said. But the answer is no; a composite is much less expensive. "When I found it in London, I thought, are you kidding me? This is the best of both worlds! So I'm very fortunate. Because of that, I have a really lovely, beautiful violin. But it's not the same as a Golden Period Strad; that's another world."

There are only approximately 600 surviving Strads, and that number includes guitars, harps, violas, cellos, everything. The ones that are intact are worth the most. If you really want to feel the magical power of these instruments, you might want to go to Cremona, the Italian town where Stradivari made his astonishing creations and where The Violin Museum just opened last fall. Before that, a number of fine instruments were kept in a chapel-turned-museum.

"Cremona is a magical place for string players," Margaret said. "You can walk a half a block from the main square, look up, and there is where Stradivari's shop was. You can see Amati's shop and all the workshops of the great Cremonese makers, and they're marked. It's a very historic city, obviously, for string playing. Then they also have the museum, and they have a collection of Stradivariuses and I believe a couple of Amatis. The caretaker (of the old museum, who now works in the new one) Andrea Mosconi, actually became a friend of mine. Almost all of his entire adult life, his job has been to get up in the morning, go into the museum, take the violins out of the case, play them, and put them back."

Why does he have to do that? "It has to do with the tension on the strings -- when a violin is not played for a long time, it takes a while to get warmed up, in a way," she said. "People actually do use those instruments from time to time, so his job is to keep them in playing condition. So when you don't play an instrument for a while, the habit is to tune down the strings, to release the tension on the bridge. This is very healthy for the instruments. Then after you've had the violin down for a while, you tune it up, and you've got to play it for a while and get it back in good form. Then you might release it again a month later. It's a cycle. These are living organisms. A violin is not like a computer; it's piece of wood, which is alive. So you have to treat it in a very special way, especially these great instruments. Nobody really 'owns' these instruments; they are only caretakers for the next generation. Because we hope that they will be around for generations and generations to come."

* * *

If you happen to be in Los Angeles, here are the Strad Fest LA events that you may want to check out:


March 21, 2014 at 03:37 PM · Beautiful article, Lauire !!!

March 23, 2014 at 10:43 PM · I live in Dana Point California and this morning the LA Times had an article on the Strads. The big picture of a Strad caught my eye (how could you miss). I immediately knew it was the Milstein as that violin has some distinctive markings on the top near the tail piece. I've seen this on all his videos. What an instrument. I am going to try and get up there to see this event. Charles Bott

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