Printer-friendly version Weekend Vote: Should young soloists borrow a Strad, or buy a modern?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: February 27, 2015 at 4:17 PM [UTC]

Events of the last week would seem to demonstrate how fickle arrangements can be, when one is borrowing a fine instrument such as a Strad.

I certainly feel for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who had to give the 1711 Strad he was renting back to the German bank that owned it this week, right before his concert series with the New York Philharmonic. The bank is trying to sell the instrument and Zimmermann had the first option to buy, but by all accounts they priced it some million dollars higher than its already-sky-high valuation that was around $5 million.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Young violin soloists face no small dilemma, when it comes to procuring a fine instrument. Should they borrow (or rent) the very finest instrument possible, knowing that it can be withdrawn at any moment from a sponsor, or that they might be asked to fork over millions of dollars to buy it at some undefined point in the future? Or should a soloist pass up on the chance to play an instrument like that, and instead invest their money and spirit in finding a modern violin that will live up to expectations and carry a much more reasonable price tag?

The simple answer is "get a modern, they're just as good." It's too simple of an answer, though. I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime. It's a special experience that just might be worth the possible pain of a bad break-up. Plus, you may wind up with a kind sponsor who just lets you use it for your entire playing career.

Or not! It gets very, very ugly, and soloists describe losing their beloved instrument like "losing an arm," one becomes so attached. Certainly, it is like losing your voice.

How would you advise the most promising young soloists today to handle the instrument dilemma?

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Posted on February 27, 2015 at 4:43 PM
You left out the sensible choice:

play a strad, and have a copy of the instrument built.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 6:14 PM
For the vast majority of us a choice of that nature is purely hypothetical. My vote (for modern) was for a number of reasons:
1) The sound we hear today from instruments made by Antonio Stradivari and his peers is very different from the sound they would have heard, because of fundamental changes to the structure of the instrument over the last two centuries, the advent of new types of strings with a different sound to gut, and even the modern bows.
2) How many decades will it be before the old violins will gradually cease to be everyday tools for the working soloist or concert master because of the increasing age of the instruments (and perhaps even a perceived deterioration in tone and playability), consequently finding their way into museums or collections? Not all that many I suggest.
3) The best luthiers today are making violins that sonically are at least the equals of the old ones, and their starting point is the old violins at their zenith. They should therefore be encouraged.
4) The exponential increase in the value of the old violins to impossible levels due their constant (and possibly quietly diminishing - see #2 above) numbers and the increasing number of truly great young players coming on the scene. No argument there, I think.

[Edit added] Since I posted the above I've seen the previous comment. It's a good and valid point, and I am sure it is being done, but for most of us "first catch your Strad" comes to mind!

From Steve Reizes
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 8:52 PM
I agree mostly with the earlier comment on the third option, I would however make it "borrow the finest possible and buy the finest modern you can". A great modern may even appreciate in value, or at least work as the equity for an upgrade in time.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 10:17 PM
Though I agree in concept to the idea of borrowing a fine instrument and having a modern made in the interim, I think there are a few factors to consider:

1. A copy, however well made, will not sound like the original! It's not like copying someone's recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

2. I kind of wonder, can you really find "the one" modern instrument that could work for you as your primary instrument, if you are always practicing and playing concerts on another instrument (ie. the Strad you have on loan)?

Posted on February 27, 2015 at 11:11 PM
Modern makers today are just... so good. People still have a stigma about moderns but my fiddle converted me. Sound wise, it easily matches the old cremona's, partially because the makers were careful to stay true to the original form and not flatten out the arch. It has a wonderful, clear and refined sound that would make many antiques envious. I have deep respect for antique instruments, but as a playing tool, moderns have a huge sound per dollar value.
Posted on February 27, 2015 at 11:29 PM
Your two options display a too-clear prejudice in favor of Strads and other 'master' instruments...when you say 'the best instrument available' and don't stop there, you ignore the possibility, demonstrated in various sound trials, that a modern instrument may BE the best available.

I'm a great believer in cutting one's coat to fit one's cloth; buying a house, a car, a piece of professional equipment, or whatever beyond one's means is asking for trouble, tragedy, or, at the very least, stress.

One artist has to give his instrument back b/c he can't/won't buy it. Earlier, another violinist had hers removed because, if I remember correctly, she became pregnant, and the lender decided she was insufficiently committed to her career. There are enough hostages to fortune in our world without adding the possession of something you cannot truly afford. (Besides, there are some STUNNINGLY wonderful 'modern' instruments in the world.)

Posted on February 27, 2015 at 11:46 PM
I totally agree with the introductory statement to this topic that "I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime."

I've long been interested as a player in the wide variety of differences in sound and playability of violins, and intently endeavored to train my senses to discern subtle differences as I strove to upgrade my tools through a succession of purchases.

Over the years, I've gratefully had the opportunity to have test-played on the order of perhaps 600 violins (mostly mid- to higher-level) in violin shops in the U.S. and around the world, and have had the privilege to play a half dozen Strad/delGesu/Amati instruments. Of the latter, I would never want a third of those, a third were fine, and a third were extremely gorgeous under the ear.

The couple of real standouts have remained mentally embedded tonal references for all subsequent comparisons, and I have never yet encountered a new instrument that fully matched such complete beauty. I am well aware of the much-publicized and controversial tests in which a few modern instruments have been perceived by some to be on par with a selection from leading old makers.

Based on my findings, it seems highly advantageous for promising players to use the finest instruments available, if only for a short while, be it hours, days or years. This will provide great inspiration during that period, and also will provide a valuable reference point, as they should concurrently seek out a personally affordable instrument for their own purchase, be it old or new. And the choice is definitely not just Strad or modern, there have been a couple hundred years of production by others in between!

I wholeheartedly agree with Laurie's comment that "A copy, however well made, will not sound like the original!" I've heard or read several luthiers comment that they might never live long enough to hear their products at their ultimate best. In the book The Violin-makers of the Guarneri Family by Hill, an interesting comparison of how long it took to "season the tone of the most famous makers' instruments" is presented. This ranged from 10 to 80 years for makers listed, with Strad 30-60 years and del Gesu 40-80 years.

Even if I had a fine old Strad on loan, I would definitely want to own the best instrument I could afford in order to have a ready solution for just the situation Zimmermann experienced.

Posted on February 28, 2015 at 12:16 AM
It is less and less feasible to play on the Great makers of the past, at all levels. The earth's population has almost quadrupled in 100 years. The number of these fine, antique instruments cannot increase, while the number of qualified players who want these instruments has. What wealthy collectors have done to the affordability factor is unforgiveable. We are apparently loving in another golden era of talented violin makers. It seems obvious that the future is there. As a violinist, and one who has been looking for an affordable and fine instrument, what I find the most challenging aspect of the search, is travel. The makers and dealers I need to visit are so spread out, it makes it very difficult. I would like to see more modern maker shows, where players can try instruments made by many modern makers, at onçe. I know there is a show of this type, but it does not take place every year and there is not much publicity. We want to meet you, modern makers, and try your violins, under one roof, if possible.
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 2:06 AM
Borrow means to return it at some stage, not determined by you. Backup modern Italian or 19 century French or something a must !
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 3:13 AM
If I had a choice between spending 50k to play on one of the greatest old italiens for even just 6 months, I would DEFINITELY do it! Even if I spent 10 years saving up every penny to get that kind of money. You can always get a nice modern violin, but to play on that kind of instrument... It lights a fire in the eye of every single cellist/violist/violinist/bassist to even imagine playing on something like that. If you go for the thing that secures your career, that has better investment value in the future or something like that, instead of going for the thing that lights up your soul, I think it's highly likely that your soul might have died.

a dear fan of :)

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 4:18 AM
I agree with Steve, and I would add, practice and perform on both.
From David Beck
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 7:21 AM
The "young soloist" is stuck between a rock and a hard place, IMHO.
An ad on Craigslist will not necessarily get a donor to pop out of the woodwork..
And a young player may not yet not have the experience to know how to interact with a maker to get the desired result.
Anyway, who is to decide that a talented youngster deserves to be called a "soloist" ??
Being a young player at any level is hard. Sheer luck is needed. It's so hard for anyone, let alone a youngster, to navigate the sea of confusing & dubious advice that abounds.
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 3:09 PM
What does one do in the situation where they are offered a Strad or similar to play, and they don't like the violin, or don't feel that it's a very good instrument? What are the consequences of turning it down? Isn't it quite widely known that not all of these are exceptional instruments?
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 5:06 PM
The Strad is a status symbol, I guess one can't overlook that aspect.
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 5:25 PM
After the story about the Milwaukee concertmaster being mugged for his Strad I can't imagine carrying one around. Nor would I be able to tolerate a bodyguard following me to the grocery store on the way home from rehearsal.

A generation or two ago you could buy an old Italian for about the price of a VW. Not exactly cheap, but a young pro with a good job could swing it. As these instruments became investment vehicles for hedge funds and Russian oligarchs it's no longer practical for individual musicians to own them. Fine instruments have been left on trains and in cabs, outside front doors, have taken falls down stairs and been backed over by cars. Does any young musician want to be known as "the kid who ruined the del Gesu"?

From David Rowland
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 6:21 PM
In aviation we have a saying: "Never fall in love with another man's airplane."

As a pilot and airplane owner as well as an adult student of the violin, the parallels are apparent to me.

Flying is a passion, as is music and the violin. It is all too easy to let one's emotions hold sway and over power one's sense of logic and reason. Getting emotionally attached to someone else's possession can lead to decisions with undesirable consequences.

It is a shame that the old instruments have become out of reach of the talented players who can bring the most out of those wonderful instruments.

Perhaps instead of having these instruments on indefinite loan, they should be loaned out for definite periods of time then passed on to another player. That way the music loving public can still hear these great instruments as they were meant to be heard and hopefully, the players won't become too emotionally attached to an instrument they can never afford to own out right.

Of course, we are discussing music, which is all about emotion.

Posted on February 28, 2015 at 7:58 PM
what ever makes you sound better!

From elise stanley
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 10:28 PM
Curious, no one has mentioned that a large part of being a soloist is - showbusiness! If you can write on the program that you play a Strad it automatically makes the general public assume you are a virtuoso. You simply can't emulate that kind of draw with a modern instrument. To some extent this is, of course, true for those young players that have won the right to borrow - and hence have earned the status that the instrument conveys.

Indeed, I bet some soloists own a Strad (a lesser one of his instruments) but then play on the instrument of choice. Noone said you have to actually play on it.

From marjory lange
Posted on February 28, 2015 at 11:50 PM
I definitely weigh in on the 'modern' side...and here's another thought...even if we "own" our instrument legally, in reality, we are equally the instrument's custodian and guardian to make sure it reaches the hands and hearts of those who come after us. That means we all really 'borrow' our instruments...

From David Beck
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 9:56 AM
"...we are equally the instrument's custodian and guardian ..."
Yes, and if the concert instrument we might beg, borrow, steal, or (perish the thought !) BUY, is a Stradivari then we are upper-crust-odians.
From Steven Albert
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 12:58 PM
I think the better question is what constitutes a great instrument? I voted for the modern instrument. Personally, I think the whole Strad thing is a bit of a scam. Well, not scam exactly, but a matter of definition is perhaps a better way to put it. I pose the question to the violinistas, what is a violin SUPPOSED to sound like? If you hold up a particular instrument and say, "This is what a violin should sound like", then of course that instrument, and all instruments that sound like it, are the best instruments. I will point out that not all Strads sounds the same. Strads have not always been the favored instrument. Stainers were at one time preferred to Strads or Guarneri. Amatis, at one time the premier, have fallen to the wayside. The radiant sound of Hillary Hahn, for example, emits from a Vuillaume. For her, despite opportunities no doubt for more "famous" instruments, is the one.

So who decides what violin sounds better than all others? The player, the critics, the violin community at large, the audience? Well, all of the above most likely. Definitions have changed, and will probably change again. One must remember that Strads and del Gesus were at one time MODERN instruments, albeit game changers.

Today we have Zigs, Burgess', Alfs, Curtains, etc. All marvelous instrument makers to be sure. As "good" as Strads? No empirical test has really proven otherwise. To say that it can't be a magnificent instrument just because it's not 300 years old made by a dead guy from Cremona, Italy, I can only see as an absurdity. Perhaps it really just comes down to a status symbol. A badge of honor. There are only so many to go around. If you perform on one, you're part of an exclusive club that only the best players get to belong to. Maybe that's the real mystique. I'm not suggesting that these old and venerable instruments are not great fiddles. However, I am suggesting that their superiority over anything else, ever, is an artificial construction that we really must get over.

From Hendrik Hak
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 4:46 PM
There are some fabulous instruments out there that are neither Strad/DG nor modern.
Hilary Hahn explained her reasons for sticking with her Vuillaume very well
in Laurie's interview .

Hilde Frang also plays a Vuillaume.
How about this performance :

BTW the violist plays a modern.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja plays a Pressenda.
I heard her perform the Mendelssohn. Great sound.

Maybe these instruments do not have the same appeal to the general public
as a Strad or DG but in the end of the day are people staying away from
Hilary Hahn's concerts because she doesn't play a Strad?

The concert going public might be more aware today
of the fact that there are other great instruments.

From Scott Cole
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 4:52 PM
I don't understand why the choice has to be between a modern instrument or a Strad. There are plenty of fine instruments in between. Yevgeny Kutik, for example, sounds great on his Scarampella. Many solists play Beckers or Parissons. These are expensive, but the famous modern makers have pushed their prices up into the stratosphere.
From David Beck
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 5:41 PM
"I don't understand why the choice has to be between a modern instrument or a Strad. "
Indeed. Dr. Cole hits the nail on the head. The question seeks to simplify a complex issue. A great many young players will need to work on a borrowed instrument far lower in cash value than a Strad. One orchestra I worked for gave me an interest-free loan for a violin. I started my career on a new violin; the maker had agreed to a payment-plan. Anything worth its salt is expensive nowadays.
Generous assistance to talented young players IS urgently needed. Very few of them are trust-find kids. Even those contemplating using a modern fiddle might have to fall back on a loaned one, as I did as a student.

From Vladimir Yosifov
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 8:22 PM
My vote goes for the best sounding option for one's budget. And this in 95% of the cases would go to the "modern" side unless one has extreme luck. I absolutely agree with Scott Cole and would like to add some examples:

Domenico Nordio plays on Ansaldo Poggi:

Correct me if I am wrong but to my knowledge Josef Hassid performed on Vuillaume at this recording:

Arnold Steinhardt on this recording plays Zygmunowicz:

Svetlin Roussev on Gregg Alf:

And then he plays on Strad together with Tedi Papavrami on his Bayon:

Helena Baillie plays on Collin Galahue's violin:

From Vladimir Yosifov
Posted on March 1, 2015 at 8:30 PM
I missed Stefan Jackiw and his Francesco Ruggieri;
Giora Schmidt - Hiroshi Izuka;
Christian Tetzlaff - Greiner


Posted on March 1, 2015 at 10:54 PM
"2. I kind of wonder, can you really find "the one" modern instrument that could work for you as your primary instrument, if you are always practicing and playing concerts on another instrument (ie. the Strad you have on loan)?"

Maybe not. We frequently hear about soloists who need quite a long time (like a year or more) to learn to get the best out of their Strad, but it's rare to hear of a soloist investing that kind of effort in a modern.

Posted on March 2, 2015 at 2:49 AM
Researchers have already found that Strads are no better than modern instruments under double blind tests. The paper is published in PNAS.

The reason why some people think Strad sounds better is because they know they are listening to a multi million dollar instrument in advance, thus produces a placebo effect which makes them to believe the Strad must sound good.

Posted on March 2, 2015 at 3:53 AM
Instead of trying to find "the one" magical instrument or fantasizing about millions of dollars you should just learn to play on gut strings. At least gut-core. When I switched from amethyst strings to Eudoxa it felt like a revelation. And I have a "cheap" 2000 euro violin and 300 euro bow. The difference is just so enormous, these strings do anything you want with such subtelty, I finally understand what it meant when people said when their instrument or strings felt alive. I can't imagine having a top-notch violin+bow, pure gut strings and skill.

It's an interesting discussion though and I have one thing to add. These old italiens were famous for a reason, I read that craftsmen were working very hard just to get by so it wasn't the name that got them so famous. All the masters of the past would have to be complete muppets for all playing on the famous instruments once they get the money. You might say that the name draws the croud, it means something obviously but I think it's just not true.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 2, 2015 at 4:56 PM
Pianists play different instruments all the time. Pretty rare (e.g., Horowitz) to tour with your own Steinway.

I understand that's less personal than the violin, because at least you can count on having another Steinway wherever you go. But with the violin, lots of things can happen that might prevent you from performing on your "main" instrument on a given evening, and then what?

Posted on March 2, 2015 at 10:21 PM
Ref "Pianists play different instruments all the time", I was coincidentally just reminded by a pianist friend, who also plays violin, that pianists have up to an inch wide target to hit, whereas violinists have a sub-millimeter zone of acceptable left-finger contact for perfect intonation on any given note. It is indeed helpful to play the same violin all the time if possible once a suitable life-long match has been found.

From perusing this thread, it strikes me that players with finer instruments would greatly serve the upcoming generation by letting those students known to be very careful and respectful of the tools of the trade to have a few minutes of fully-supervised trial just to help train younger ears and inform learning minds.

Anecdotally, I once had a shop owner pass me a Strad without informing me of that in advance, but this was only after I had been observed handling and playing several other finer instruments there with the utmost care and respect. I immediately noticed and commented on the superior tonal quality, and only then was I told what I was playing. The preceding trials were various 18th and 19th century works by better makers, no modern ones at that time.

And what is "modern"? By a living maker? Made in the last 25 or 50 years? From the 20th and 21st century? I guess I tend to think of it perhaps as roughly post-WWII, but even that now covers a lot of years, though a small fraction of the total years of violin manufacture. In addition to the Strad vs. modern choice, there's a very interesting and lengthy post-Strad but pre-modern time range of violins from which to choose.

From Reginald Perry
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 1:33 AM
I would argue that the subset of Strads/Del Gesus that can be called "great" is a much smaller number than the total number of these instruments that exist and are available to play. So if there are like 600 Strads around and 130 or so Del Gesus around are there even 100 instruments out of the 730 that are "magical"?

This says to me that the top 100 soloists and concertmasters in the world can seek these instruments. Everyone else should take advantage of having a living luthier build and tune an instrument to match their personal "voice". Then if the happen to fall into a really nice old instrument then great, but in the meantime they can at least have an instrument which matches them. Is this a bad line of reasoning?

From John Rokos
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 8:11 AM
If it were a bank doing this to Zimmerman, a group of people campaigning for a boycott of the bank in question might achieve something. But a boycott of Portigon Financial Services might not be as feasible. What one can say is that by not permitting the instrument to continue to be played by a player of high standard, the company are mistreating it.
Posted on March 3, 2015 at 5:54 PM
It could also be claimed that continuing use of an irreplaceable art object is abuse, versus the ideal preservation environment.
From Paul Deck
Posted on March 4, 2015 at 6:24 PM
"pianists have up to an inch wide target to hit, whereas violinists have a sub-millimeter zone of acceptable left-finger contact for perfect intonation on any given note..."

As to whether the piano or the violin is harder to play, that's one of those pointless debates. However, in terms of intonation, aren't we constantly regaled with tales about how this or that great player would pick up a violin that's terribly out of tune and play perfectly in tune thereupon? It must be true to at least a limited extent because a violin can hardly hold perfectly in tune over the course of a whole 25-minute concerto.

I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard that old saw about learning a violin was a Strad only after playing it and finding its tone wonderful. The same people will insist these instruments are hard to play and it takes great skill or a lot of time working with them to realize their nuance. Have you also been at a wine tasting where you were surrounded by "wine snobs," none of whom could detect the cork taint what was obvious to you? That is another true chestnut.

From David Beck
Posted on March 5, 2015 at 8:06 AM
The young English soloist Jennifer Pike has just released a stunning recording of the Sibelius Concerto.
Her website reveals that "She plays a 1708 Matteo Goffriller violin made available by the Stradivari Trust."
If a player needs to borrow, it doesn't have to be a Strad.

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