1703 "Lady Harmsworth" Stradivari, a violin from Stradivari's Golden Period worth millions of dollars. Even before he played a note, the instrument seemed to glow, breathtaking for its pristine condition and original-varnish shine.
Baráti was preparing for a recital in an upstairs salon at the Woman's Athletic Club in downtown Chicago, an elegant and ornate room, with gilt mirrors, antique furniture and about 100 chairs lined up for the concert. Outside the arched windows framed in tassel-lined gold curtains, rush-hour traffic clogged the streets, and in an adjacent room patrons were enjoying drinks and appetizers.
The recital was for the Stradivari Society, which has been lending Baráti the Stradivari for the last 13 years, through an anonymous donor. The Society is associated with the instrument dealer Bein and Fushi, located about a mile south from the recital venue on Michigan Avenue. If you've attended concerts that featured a violin soloist in the last 30 years or so, chances are you have heard a fine instrument from their collection. But what is this organization, whose name appears as a footnote in so many performing artists' biographies?
The Stradivari Society all began in 1985, when Midori Goto -- a child prodigy at the time -- needed a better instrument. Her teacher, Dorothy DeLay, had an idea: borrow one. She appealed to Geoff Fushi of Bein and Fushi and Chicago philanthropist Mary Galvin, and after hearing her play, they granted Midori the loan of a fine instrument. They liked the idea so much, that they started up the Stradivari Society, to connect promising young artists with patrons who have invested in rare, antique Italian instruments.
By now, the list of both artists and instruments connected through the Stradivari Society is staggering. Besides Midori (who is now a patron, loaning out her 3/4-size Gagliano), artists have included names such as Maxim Vengerov, Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Leila Josefowicz, Vadim Repin, Vadim Gluzman, Philippe Quint, Kyoko Takazawa, Augustin Hadelich, Paul Huang and many more (click here for the full list of current and former recipients). At present, 28 fine instruments are on loan. The instruments tend to be valued from the hundreds of thousands into the millions of dollars and include top names such as Stradivari, Guarneri del Gesù, Amati, Guadagnini, Gagliano and Maggini (click here to see the full instrument collection).
With only about 500 Stradivari violins left in the world, each one valued in the millions, it's a pretty hefty privilege to play one. Unlike other kinds of precious antiques, though, this one zips around airports, train stations and cabs in a hand-held case, a constant companion and performance partner for concerts all over the world. For the privilege of an instrument loan, Stradivari Society recipients agree to insure the instrument and to play three recitals a year for the patron who owns it. They can renew the use of the instrument at the end of their loan term, which is typically one year. Usually, those renewals are granted.
"When all of this goes right and we get the proper match of instrument and artist, a wonderful thing happens: There is an incredible spark between them, and things begin to happen," said Karen Arrison, a Stradivari Society patron who, with her husband Clement, owns three violins: a Guarneri del Gesù, a Stradivarius and a Gobetti. Among the recipients of their instruments are Augustin Hadelich, who recently won his first Grammy, and Tim Fain, who performed on a movie soundtrack that won an Academy Award. "It is so gratifying to watch this experience for the young musicians, for the instruments, and for all those who get to experience these great performances."
Of course, it does not always work out, and patrons can deny the renewal of the instrument if that is their wish. The reasons can vary -- they might want to sell it, or give another young artist a chance with it, or they might not feel the violin is being maintained properly. When that happens, "It's a difficult thing to take the violin back for everyone involved," Suzanne Fushi said.
For Baráti, though, it has worked well -- after playing the "Lady Harmsworth" for more than a decade, "he just owns the instrument," said Alan Heatherington. A longtime friend to the late Geoff Fushi and master of ceremonies for Stradivari Society recitals, Heatherington has seen Baráti play with the instrument many times over the years. "They're just knit together, his playing and this instrument."
Baráti, 37, born in Hungary and raised in Venezuela, studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and names Eduard Wulfson (a student of Milstein and Menuhin) as an important mentor. In 2016, Baráti played a complete cycle of Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas in a televised performance at the Verbier Festival. (Below, Baráti's performance of the "Largo" from solo Sonata No. 3.)
He keeps a healthy performing schedule which lately has included a number of performances with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Recent recordings have included Mozart Complete Violin Concertos (2016); Brahms Violin Sonatas (2014); Beethoven: Complete Violin Sonatas (2012) and an album of miniatures in honor of the Strad, The Soul of Lady Harmsworth (2016).
"We have had a very nice journey to present," Baráti said of his relationship to both the instrument and the Society. "There are so many great musicians who owe our respect and gratitude to this Society and all the sponsors who are part of this incredible heritage of being so-called owners of those instruments. I say 'so-called' because it's such a funny thing to say that we 'own' the instrument. My instrument is 314 years old, and so I feel sometimes that this instrument owns me, or it owns the owner! Because we are all going away sooner or later, and the instrument will hopefully go on to serve music and art for maybe another 300 years. It gives you another perspective on what it really means to 'own' something in this world."
"Nevertheless we have to have an instrument to be able to perform," he said. Today's prices for fine instruments have hit astronomical levels -- one sold for nearly $18 million in recent years. "I don't know how many concerts I would have to play to own one!" he laughed. "In the older times, even not so long ago, maybe 30, 40 years ago, if you were lucky, you could buy one. And many musicians did buy. But it's really, really not the case today."
You might be wondering, what is all this baloney about million-dollar Strads and del Gesùs, can they really be worth this degree of fuss? Do artists just want these instrument so they can put "Strad" in their bio, use it for marketing purposes? Are people being duped? What is the obsession, here?
Here's something Baráti said in an interview last year with Peter Quantrill: "Playing such a great instrument is always an inspiration. One of their qualities is that they not only serve you but provoke and inspire you to find new ideas in your playing. It’s not all about the prestige or their objective qualities, but that while you’re playing them you find new ideas, new intonations. The instrument has its own harmonic pattern. A 'C sharp' is different on different instruments. You can’t just fix your intonation and then speak with it."
Joshua Brown, the most recent recipient of a Stradivari Society violin, attests to this phenomenon. Brown, 17, was granted the use of a 1679 Pietro Guarneri violin in December, which was a step up from his already-quite-nice 1910 Postiglione. "Every week I feel like I get to know it better and better," said Brown, who attended Baráti's recital. "To get a great sound out of this violin and a lot of Guarneri violins, you really have to push a little more and try a little harder. This has been really good for me, learning to make that extra effort."
In the hands of an artist sensitive to the most subtle details of sound and practiced in producing them, the qualities in a fine instrument can be used to spellbinding effect.
In his recital with pianist Marta Aznavoorian, Baráti's gentle approach to the instrument was clear. The quietest of notes still had breadth, the highest of notes still had depth of color. Nothing obscured or choked off the sound.
Was it the player, or the instrument? Clearly, it was the marriage of the two -- no, it was a marriage of far more than that; it always is. It was artist and instrument, violinist and pianist, performer and composer, artist and audience, patron and artist, time and place, history and the present. Whether singing with Schubert, riding a wave of sound in Ravel's Sonata, playing up the virtuosity in Sarasate's "Gypsy Airs" and Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" -- certainly our art was alive in that room on that night.
In a day when the finest antique instruments have been made into "investment tools" and many sit in a protective vault or display case, it's heartening to find an organization that seeks to allow a violin to continue to serve as a living object for the creation of art.
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