Exhibition and Concert in San Francisco to Feature Contemporary Violin and Bow Makers

March 31, 2023, 3:09 PM · While "Stradivari" may still represent the traditional gold standard for violins, the reputation of contemporary makers is on the rise, as 21st-century luthiers continue to craft beautiful instruments and those who play them attest to their sound and suitability.

The question remains for many, how does one find a modern instrument or bow? Where do you go to test them out? And who are the best makers living today?

Fortunately, this spring has brought a number of events that put the work of modern makers on display. Currently in Los Angeles, Thomas Metzler Violin Shop is holding a major exhibit and sale of modern violins, violas and cellos (read about it here). Just last weekend V.commers chimed in about their experiences with modern instrument in our Weekend Vote.

I wanted to let you know about another major modern instrument event this spring, which will take place in northern California: the Contemporary Violin Maker's Exhibition and Concert, hosted by Bay Fine Strings violin shop. The event will take place on April 29 at Saint Joseph's Arts Society in San Francisco. (Click here for more information.)

The day will start with a free exhibit of several dozen new violins, violas, cellos, and bows. The instruments will be available for trial - and for sale - from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Then a concert will take place at 6:30 p.m. that evening, featuring musicians from the San Francisco Philharmonic playing the brand-new instruments. (Tickets for the concert are $40). Twelve soloists will perform in Vivaldi's Four Seasons, switching each movement so that each can feature a separate instrument. They also will perform Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings.

The instruments all have been commissioned and/or curated by Bay Fine Strings, and there will be violins, violas and cellos by Paul Belin, Benoit Bonten, Youenn Bothorel, Yanbing Chen, Gabor Draskoczy, Tony Echavidre, Benedicte Friedmann, Michael Koberling, Louis Kupersmith, Antoine Nedelec, Jihwan Park, Frank Ravatin, Viateur Roy, Ryan Soltis, Anton Somers, Maurizio Tadioli, Lea Trombert, Andrea Varazzani, and David Leonard Wiedmer.

There will also be bows by Sylvain Bigot, Doriane Bodart, Noel Burke, Pascal Camurat, Emmanuel Carlier, Marie Chastagnol, Sebastian Dirr, Eric Gagne, Ronald Ji, Ulf Johansson, Yannick Lecanu, Robert Morrow, Yongmin Na, Gilles Nehr, Pierre Nehr, Jacques Poullot, Magdalena Sapeta, and Stephane Thomachot.

The price range for the instruments and bows will be $8,000 to $75,000.

The event is the brain child of violinist and teacher Thomas Yee, who also is the founder of Bay Fine Strings.

Thomas Yee
Violinist, teacher and Bay Fine Strings founder Thomas Yee.

Yee first became interested in fine instruments when he was in high school.

"My beloved teacher from my pre-college days, Nina Bodnar, showed me her amazing Carlo Bergonzi violin," Yee said. "This violin inspired me to strive to recreate on my own instrument making a projecting, warm, colorful, singing tone."

Yee grew up in Santa Barbara, the son of immigrants from Hong Kong. His father passed away when he was a toddler, and he and his older brother and sister were raised by their mother.

"As a kid, I followed my trumpet-playing brother, James, to Santa Barbara Youth Symphony rehearsals," Yee said. "While there, I was befriended by the father of the concertmaster, who asked me if I was interested in learning how to play the violin. He brought me one that following week, and that kind gesture changed my life!"

Yee started teaching when he was in his mid-teens, and he still teaches today. "Being an active pedagogue keeps one's mind attuned to solving and overcoming issues," Yee said. "A key core in life is in learning. We are in a constant evolution, and we all learn from our exposure to other minds and experiences."

Yee established Bay Fine Strings in 2016, with the help of his brother in-law, a graphic designer who helped create the logo.

"I started out with a small rental fleet and some early 20th-century workshop instruments," he said. "The business was founded with the principle of presenting hand-selected instruments and quality accessories, with the commitment to serving the music community. As a musician, I tailor and search for the best experience for each client."

The idea of hosting this unique interactive exhibition - an exhibit in which the instruments are also played in a concert - came from attending various art, culinary, and music events.

"I have been lucky to have a worldwide network of musicians and makers," Yee said. "This has allowed me to commission an entire chamber orchestra worth of instruments, with the idea that every player will use a contemporary maker's instrument and bow from the exhibition for the concert. The exhibition instruments will be initially offered for sale during the event, and afterwards."

Sebastian Dirr bow, Anton Somers violin
From the upcoming exhibit: violin bow by Sebastian Dirr; violin by Anton Somers.

As a player and teacher who is also a violin dealer, how does Yee himself evaluate an instrument?

"I evaluate instruments on varying degrees of four main criteria: projection, response, tone variation, and timbre. With an understanding of construction, wood quality, and model, I can tell by sight - to an extent - if an instrument will be more or less successful," he said. "But ultimately, playing it will give the most information."

"Musicians have different needs, so we must understand that a beginning violinist may initially need an instrument with proper measurements, and an even and balanced tone," Yee said. "Using the criteria above, playing the same long-toned scale up and down the registers, and a few short excerpts from familiar music is a great way to assess a group of instruments."

"At a higher level, one should look for wider variations of sound and response in an instrument," Yee said. "Sound is subjective, and it changes in the environment and space it is heard in. Find the best instrument you can, within budgetary means. Musical instruments, in terms of investments, are not created equal. They change over time and vary greatly by who made the instrument."

Are contemporary instruments just as good as the older ones?

"I have a fairly neutral stance on this because I truly believe a good-sounding instrument is a sum of its parts," Yee said. For a violin to sound good, "first and foremost, it is the player and their skill. Second is the instrument itself and the set-up, including the cut and design of bridge, sound post fit and placement, fittings, and string brands. Third is the bow, the rosin, the acoustic space, etc. "

"I do believe that well-made contemporary instruments will have a high standard of quality in materials, set-up, and will be in perfect condition," Yee said. "All instruments do need playing-in, some more than others. Old instruments can cost less, the same, or much more, depending on how it was made, who made it, and its condition. That actually makes finding an antique that has the stability of a contemporary new instrument rarer, overall. That said, I think its best to try instruments available to the musician and find out what speaks to them."

* * *

For more information about the Contemporary Violin Maker's Exhibition and Concert in San Francisco, click here.

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April 1, 2023 at 01:30 AM · This is so great to see. Thomas helped match me with the perfect violin by Andrea Varazzani. It is wonderful that Thomas whole heartily supports modern makers like he does. Can’t wait to enjoy this concert!

April 1, 2023 at 11:58 PM · Two violas made by me will be in the show!

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