The 1734 "Ames" Stradivari violin once owned by Roman Totenberg -- stolen in 1980 and recovered in 2015 -- is now in the hands of Nathan Meltzer, 18, a student of Itzhak Perlman at The Juilliard School.
It's a new chapter for an instrument with a messy past. Totenberg, who was a pedagogue, performer and father of the well-known NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, had played that violin for 38 years, all over the world. After it was stolen from his office by a violinist named Philip Johnson, Totenberg never again saw his violin in his 101-year lifetime. When Johnson died in 2011 at age 58, he left the violin to his ex-wife. Several years later, in 2015, she came across it while doing some spring cleaning at her Los Angeles-area home and decided to have it appraised. That's when she discovered it was a stolen Stradivari and turned it over to the FBI.
The Strad was returned to Totenberg's three daughters, Nina, Amy and Jill Totenberg.
"When we three Totenberg sisters got the violin back, we were intent on just one thing," Nina reported last week on NPR. "That the instrument, now known as the 'Totenberg-Ames' Stradivarius, would be played in concert halls everywhere and not be closeted away in some collector's vault."
To that end, they had the violin restored at Rare Violins of New York - a process that took more than two years. Then they set about finding a buyer -- one that would allow the violin to be played. "We could sell it for oodles in Asia but would likely never hear it again," Nina said on NPR.
An anonymous patron contacted the co-owners of Rare Violins, Ziv Arazi and Bruno Price, and encouraged them to set up an organization to allow wealthy patrons to invest in rare violins and then loan them to promising young violinists. This patron would start the collection by purchasing the "Ames-Totenberg" Strad and allowing it to be loaned. (Such a model has been in motion since 1985 in Chicago, with the Stradivari Society.)
Last Tuesday Rare Violins of New York launched the program, called Rare Violins in Consortium, with the announcement of its first loan recipient, Meltzer, who accepted the instrument from the Totenberg sisters at a ceremony at the Rare Violins' 57th Street shop.
Meltzer studies with Perlman and Li Lin at Juilliard. He began his music education in a second-grade orchestra class in Vienna and attended Meadowmount, the Indiana University String Academy, the Perlman Music Program, and Juilliard Pre-College. Meltzer also won First Place and Audience Prize at the Windsor Festival International String Competition in 2017.
"Professor Totenberg didn’t live to see his violin recovered and restored by Rare Violins of New York, but today I had the privilege to play it for his daughters Amy, Jill, and Nina Totenberg, the newest unofficial members of my family," Meltzer wrote on his Facebook page.
"For artworks such as this, as Nina has written, there are not owners or borrowers but basically guardians," Meltzer said. "Thanks to the generosity of its new anonymous owner, the vision of the Totenberg family, and Rare Violins In Consortium, I have the unexpected joy to be its next guardian. I hope, in some small way, I can continue to honor the memory of Roman Totenberg."
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