Well, over the last 10 years, I've done my own meager collecting of [cheaper] violins and attempted to learn what I could about setup and some of the finer details.
In 2007, I played a 1997 David Burgess violin and have since insisted that it was like no other violin I've ever played. The problem with that was that I haven't really been all around the block to compare with other great modern makers, so no one should be surprised by that statement.
That being said, I've learned enough to where I've gotten some phenomenal playing instruments for 1-2k, that I was sure could at least come close to old instruments priced 50k or more above.
Welp, I head up the second violin section in our local community orchestra here in Parma, OH and have a couple additions to my section this year. I noticed the one lady plays rather well, and every rehearsal I would hear her play this or that behind me and think, "Boy, she sounds pretty good."
Soo, I went to orchestra rehearsal tonight, did some of my librarian duties, struggled through the string bowing rehearsal (we're not terribly good, and that's not a very good advertisement), and at the end of rehearsal she comes up to me and says, "Are you a luthier?" She asked because I adjusted someone's sound post last week after rehearsal and she must have seen it.
I said, "No, I do some of my own adjustments and make my own sound posts, but I'm not a qualified luthier."
Jokingly, she says, "Then I shouldn't let you touch my violin."
I says, "No, don't let me touch your violin.... What kind of violin do you play?" (A question always toward the front of the discussion when making new friends)
"A David Burgess."
I think my head exploded, but I'm still evaluating that. Someone playing a $30,000-ish violin in our rather mediocre community orchestra.
I believe I meant to ask, "Could I possibly play it a bit, please?"
What came out was, "CANIPLAYITNOOOW?"
She was very gracious and did so allow.
Now, the reason that I was so thrilled at this opportunity was because 8 days ago a kind and very skilled soloist played with our orchestra at our first concert of the season. When I found out he played on a Joseph Curtin, I inevitably asked him before the concert-day rehearsal if I might play it a little bit. Another gracious person.. I finally got to try another top-tier maker with a huge reputation. It was ca 2008 and a copy of Guarnerius.
I played it a bit, and it had a firm and crisp response very typical of the Guarneri reputation, ie, takes a little more bow pressure to keep it going. The tone was powerful, but I recall the previous week walking in (late) to rehearsal while the soloist was playing Zigeunerweisen and honing in on his instrument which seemed somewhat to lack sweetness, at least at the range at which I was unpacking my instrument maybe 40 feet away, which may not be saying much.
Nevertheless, I've come to play with an aggressive style and feel I can judge an instrument by playing it. And I felt a bit restrained by the Curtin. It wouldn't let me go as close to the bridge as I wanted, even when applying sufficient pressure and proper bowspeed. Though, I did not have too much time with it before he had to start warming up. But I trust my instincts here.
SO, at long last I had something to compare to a Burgess. A 1991 Burgess.
Two things struck me in comparison regarding the instrument itself: One, the model was the same or similar (to my untrained eye) as the 97 I played. It was not a copy of a Guarnerius, or a Stradivarius. It was a David Burgess. A very distinctive, beautiful and original model. The second, that very deep and dark varnish like the 97 had, and the crisp workmanship that showed so little wear over the last 23 years.
I have heard a lot of hype about the antiquing of new instruments, but until I saw the Curtin didn't know what I would think. The truth is that I was rather disappointed in the appearance of worn edges and dirt-ified wood. Where was the elite workmanship that showed the meticulous hand of the maker? And I felt like I was looking at a Guarnerius (like so many many others I've seen) and not a Curtin. It seemed only to impress upon my mind what had already previously been impressed by great pictures of old Guarneris before. I remember the first time I held the 97 Burgess, I had to soak it in for a bit because it was something new and exciting.
I don't mean to bash anyone here, and maybe this won't get posted anyway, but these are just my personal observations and taste. The Curtin was a fantastic instrument with tremendous capabilities and the workmanship was superb.
So, looks aside, what would my hands think of the playability, how hard would my mind have to work to keep a powerful tone going due to the response of the instrument?
I was ecstatic to hold a Burgess again and couldn't help but think, "Was it as good as I remember it? I didn't know half as much back then as I do now about instrument setup and craftsmanship." And, "But this is a 1991, the 97 was maybe better?"
So I started Tchaikovsky over and over again, familiarizing myself with the instrument until I had the bow sawing against the bridge. And the instrument just wouldn't break. Any increase in bow speed was exponentially audible in the hall which does not have good acoustics and seats about 1300. I just wasn't used to this kind of pallet, but what really surprised me was how much more accessible the Burgess was than the Curtin. Others have testified this as well about his instruments: a sharpness of response and clarity that is perhaps lacking (which is to say not on the same level) in other modern makers.
It blew me away all over again, just like it did 7 years ago. What a joy to play..
One other note of interest. I know that Curtin set up the Curtin I played and it was purchased straight from him. Sound post roughly 3mm behind bridge. The Burgess was set up by Stearns, and the sound post, I was surprised, was way behind the bridge. I didn't have my scale, but I'm guessing around 6mm. Though the original Burgess bridge was quite thin (something else I took note of), so the usual 4-4.5 mm base that I would have used to judge the gap by eye was maybe around 3.5 (sry if I'm wrong DB) So maybe it was only around 5. I feel sure, though, that the 97 I played at Burgess's home was not that far behind the bridge. And the response of the 97 was better. There was something very cohesive and immediate about it (and more color, too, I think) and I am guessing this was because Burgess did the final touches of the setup, which is very crucial.
I am also happy to say that I was able to straighten the bridge out for this kind lady. Most people don't even notice when it starts to lean.. and to me, that felt like the good deed of the year.. lol.
Anyways, I was hoping to get many of the more experienced players on this site to comment on differences between these great modern makers and who they think really stands out of the crowd in their own trial experiences.
Many thanks for reading and comments,
I should also note here at the end that the soloist who allowed me to try his Curtin did also try a Burgess and eventually settled on the Curtin.
This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.