We have heard that violin-making has reached a new "Golden Period," but what do modern violins actually sound like?
Below are several videos from an event last Friday in which Los Angeles Philharmonic Concertmaster Martin Chalifour tried out 50 modern American violins, each by a separate maker. It was all part of a Contemporary American Violin and Bow Maker Exhibition and Sale at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif., which included violins, violas, cellos and bows by 95 modern luthiers. On the following day, violas and cellos were tested by violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Marek Szpakiewicz (more to come on that!). About 100 people came to each event, and instruments were available for testing all weekend. Several dozen of the luthiers had traveled to California for the event and were present as well. On April 23, Metzler Violins will take the show to Las Vegas, holding the same exhibit at the Nevada School of the Arts in Las Vegas. Prices of the violins ranged from $7,500 to $48,000. That upper price was an outlier, though; most were below $20,000, and many below $15,000.
Obviously, the best way to test a violin is to play it yourself or hear it live, but I hope that the following videos help familiarize you with some of the top names in violin-making today and also give a small sample of the sound and playability. The videos include the 49 violins in the exhibit, plus Chalifour's own modern violin. Before each video, I have listed all the luthiers, with links to their websites (when available). I've also included some of my own observations and facts.
Testing 50 violins in one night is one exhausting feat, and I applaud Chalifour for his enthusiasm and his obvious respect for the art of violin-making throughout the evening. He started around 7:30 p.m. and ended two hours later, with barely a break for water! When you test a violin, you want to check the balance of sound on all strings (does the voice match?), the response (do fast notes "pop"), power and projection, quality of tone, and playability (a factor that can be pretty individual, based on a person's size). Chalifour played the beginning of the Tchaikovsky Concerto as well as the end of Bach's Chaconne -- about two minutes of music -- to demonstrate those qualities.
Of course, playing the same excerpts on 50 different violins in this speed-dating set-up has its considerable challenges. Every violin has a slightly different size and different set-up. Many things can vary just in the physical construction, among them: the width of the neck, the length of the fingerboard, the thickness of the ribs, the overall weight of the fiddle, the placement of the chin rest, and the type of strings used. Those physical differences can result in changes in variables such as finger placement for accurate pitch, bow angles for string crossings, bow pressure for good tone, etc. In other words, it's a whole new calculus for every violin.
The first two violins in this segment were made by brothers from Toronto, Artak and Hratch Armenious. Michael Becker of Chicago is among the more well-known of modern makers. During the first part of this demonstration, Chalifour seemed to find Peter Bingen's violin to be very easy and enjoyable to play. You might remember Andrew Carruthers from his cool violin-related T-shirts and graphic art as well as his fiddle-making!
Artak Armenious, 2012, Toronto, Ontario
Hratch Armenious, 2015, Toronto, Ontario
Dorian Barnes, 2016, Houston, Texas
Michael Becker, 2016, Chicago, Illinois
Sam Billings, 2016, Los Angeles, California
Peter Bingen, 2016, Santa Rosa, California
Andrew Carruthers, 2016, Santa Rosa, California
David Chrapkiewicz, 2015, Washington Grove, Maryland
Joseph Curtin is one of the most famous modern violinists and has led many of the scientific studies on qualities of instruments. His was the highest-priced instrument, at $48,000, a reflection of his established reputation. I played the violin by Anton Domozhyrov (who was present at the event) and was impressed with its sweet tone and playability. Jedidjah de Vries works at Metzler's shop; he is pictured at right with his violin.
Douglas Cox, 2015, Brattleboro, Vermont
Paul Crowley, 2017, New York, New York
Joseph Curtin, 1981/2004, Toronto/Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michael Daddona, 2016, Salisbury, Connecticut
Jedidjah de Vries, 2015, Boston, Massachussetts
Anton Domozhyrov, 2016, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Warren Ellison, 2017, Jericho Center, Vermont
Ron Fletcher, 2010, Yonkers, New York
I was especially impressed by Alina Kostina's violin (pictured), with its especially dark tone, as were a number of young violinists who stayed late into the night to test it themselves, after the demonstration. Kostina's mentor is David Gusset, who also had an excellent violin in this segment, which Chalifour very obviously liked. Both completed their violins in Eugene, Oregon, and both were present for the event. Lisa Gass is known in LA for having a bass shop; she completed her violin in 1986.
Jonathan Franke, 2003, Monroe, Oregon
Lisa Gass, 1986, Los Angeles, California
Fabienne Gauchet, 2017, Montreal, Quebec
Joseph Grubaugh & Sigrun Seifert, 2017, Petaluma, California
David Gusset, 2015, Eugene, Oregon
John Hill, 2016, Medford, Oregon
Okkyum Kim, 2016, Irvine, California
Alina Kostina, 2017, Eugene, Oregon
Chalifour demonstrated his own modern, by Mario Miralles, in this segment. It's a violin made from different and hard-to-carve wood - bird's eye maple. Francis Morris's violin seemed easy to play. Brian Lisus, who was present, also had an excellent cello in the follow day's exhibit.
Brian Lisus, 2014, Ojai, California
Mario Miralles, 2007, Altadena, California
Joseph Liu, 2013, Los Angeles, California
Duncan MacDonald, 2016, Seattle, Washington
Cheryl Macomber, 2016, Sacramento, California
Jeff Manthos, 2012, Corvallis, Oregon
Chasha Mindlin, 2012, Lake Sherwood, California
Arlie Moran, 1992, Los Angeles, California
Francis Morris, 2015, Great Barrington, Massachussetts
I won't forget meeting Guy Rabut years ago in Indianapolis and seeing his "Picasso"-like fiddle (there's a picture in this link). Rabut's violin at this event was more "normal"-looking; when it came to the sound, I noticed its power. Also, the violin by Ernesto Ramirez (Mexico City) also stood out for its precision-pitch and color; it had a pure tone, in my notes I said there was "less junk-noise." The violin by the Rezvani brothers was a bit smaller, something to note for those seeking a good-sounding smaller fiddle (hard to find!). Antonio Rizzo's violin seemed to inspire bouncy and light playing.
John Osnes, 2016, Anchorage, Alaska
Guy Rabut, 2015, New York, New York
Ernesto Ramirez, 2006, Mexico City, Mexico
Alkis Rappas, 2013, Kingwood, Texas
Shahram and Saeid Rezvani, 2014, Camarillo, California
Antonio Rizzo, 2014, Torrance, California
Steve Rossow, 2013, St. Paul, Minnesota
Peter Seman, 2016, Chicago, Illinois
Theodore Skreko, 2016, Indianapolis, Indiana
For Wladek Stopka's violin, I noted that I felt it had an "old-world sound." Both Ute Zahn and Tim Summerville were present at the event. I'd met Zahn last summer, when she one of her violas was being tested in a similar demonstration at the American Viola Society Festival at Oberlin. Her fiddle had nice dynamic range, and a student testing her instrument the next day liked the size, beauty and feel of it - and a good price-point. I was especially interested in the finish on the violin by Tim Summerville (pictured) -- he called it a "corduroy" finish, as you could really see the groove in the wood - just beautiful. It reminded me that these instruments are as much works of visual art as they are the tool of our trade as musicians.
Nathan Slobodkin, 2013, Bangor, Maine
Wladek Stopka, 2016, Chicago, Illinois
Tim Summerville, 2016, Chicago, Illinois
James Thornton, 2016, Chicago, Illinois
Chris Ulbricht, 2013, Indianapolis, Indiana
Mason Weedman, 2017, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Ute Zahn, 2013, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Kelin Zhang, 2016, Plano, Texas
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