My wife played professionally before we immigrated to the US over thirty years ago, at which time she quit playing completely.
When she re-started playing a couple of years ago as an amateur, we bought a viola made by a South American luthier Simon Boskoboinik. The instrument plays decently but not great, esp. when played next to $50K cello or $15K violin.
I play too (not a string instrument) so I understand my wife's frustration.
We are going to take the viola to a well- known luthier in NYC in hope that he can do some adjustments and make this instrument sound better.
However, I am thinking of getting her a better instrument, in the price range between $5K-6K.
I spoke over the phone to a man from Johnson Strings who suggested going with a modern Chinese instrument. It is my understanding, however, that a modern Chinese viola would have low re-sale value in case we need to sell it later.
We can search for a viola in luthier shops in and around NYC, but it could be very expensive buying an instrument in NYC.
There is also a shop in DC (Brobst violin shop) that seems to have some nice instruments. We can drive there if necessary, although I am not sure if that shop could offer anything better (choice and price-wise) than NYC.
Looking for advice/feedback and possible "search strategies".
I used to stop by the Brobst Shop (between DC and Dulles Airport) when my job took me to DC every month (but that was more than 30 years ago and before they moved from the direct driving route I took back to the airport.) I think it is worth calling them and looking around good shops nearer you, but sometimes some setup changes can make remarkable differences to an instrument (soundpost, bridge, strings).
One of the most impressive violins I have ever played was made in China. It was owned by a fellow player in a mixed quartet I was playing in. He had bought it from the maker in China for $1,500 while he worked there. (My previous (very limited - short term) experience with famous name violins were two Strads (one owned by Olé Bull - it was amazing) and one 1698 instrument that did not impress me much above my own instruments, one Amati, one Panormo, and an Andrea Guarneri. I did own a Stefano Scarampella for a while but did not like it.) I have also played current instruments (a decade or so ago) in 3 different Cremona exhibits that traveled around the United States back then and saw what $10,000 to $25,000 would get you there - probably not as good as the same price for US made instruments.
My violins and viola are all luthier made but not expensive. My better cello is a Chinese-made 2004 Jay-Haide A l'Ancienne (my others are a 1960 German Carl Sandner and a 1877 Lowendall, also German). None compare with a great cello (I got to play for the whole summer of 1963) - but they do compare with most of the $20K to $30K cellos in those Cremona shows.
I am not against buying a Chinese-made viola. My concern is with the quality/longevity of the instrument(s). Johnson currently has low stock due to a delay with shipping, they expect a container to arrive in February.
If we buy from them, it would be a newly-made instrument that went over some radical temperature and humidity changes on the way to the US.
I play clarinet and a very knowledgeable repair tech did not recommend bringing a new instrument from Europe to the US during winter in the plane due to temp. and humidity changes. That is grenadilla wood which is much stronger/more stable than wood a viola is made of.
We are planning to go to Italy (Milan) this summer, so we can easily go to Cremona (which is considered to be the world capital of the string instruments?).
We can possibly find a viola there, not sure about the price range.
There, however, I would be worried if the instrument has internal cracks not easily seen, or if it is a re-labeled Chinese-made one.
In addition, it's not easy to get my wife to go to a shop even in NYC (1.5hr drive). Johnson would be 5hr drive.
She would definitely go to a shop in Cremona.
I just feel guilty in a way because I recently got myself a set of very nice instruments (new, bought in Europe, would not be able to afford buying here).
Again, thanks for reading my posts and your advice.
I would recommend purchasing the instrument that plays and sounds best to your wife. I would not factor in resale value.
Time is also a factor. Time spent traveling and visiting shops. For the price range you listed, your time may be worth a significant fraction of the cost of the instrument.
I would recommend you begin by visiting your local violin shops. Then make the trip to NYC ro see what they have. You can also ask around to see if any local performers have such an instrument for sale.
His name is Charles Woods. He lives in Ridgecrest, California and has internet visibility. He has made 101 instruments including 3 cellos and 12 violas, the rest were violins. I have bought 2 of his violins and one of his violas. My granddaughter took the first of of those violins when I gave her the choice from all my instruments (it was the one I most wished she would not choose). I lived in that community for 33 years and bought the first violin from him late in that time (1990), but the other two he shipped to me(in 1996 and 2000) after I had moved away .
I have a model 250 which I like very much
To be frank, I'm inclined to the view that instruments made (or "curated" which is how WHL currently describe their products) in a reputable workshop are possibly to be preferred (prior to actual road testing) over those made by a relatively unknown single maker and sold through an unrelated dealer. WHL's models 230, 250 or what have you are presumably built to certain standards and obviously the firm will be strongly motivated to preserve their good reputation.
I agree that just because an instrument is made by a workshop does not mean it is inferior to all individually crafted ones.
A friend of mine took the following approach: purchase instruments from a maker whose income is solely derived from violin making. His reasoning is that those individuals must create good instruments or they will not earn a living.
I guess buying an instrument in Italy/Cremona is not a good idea since no one recommended to go that route.
I checked the Vermont Violins-it is about 300 miles drive one-way.
Could be feasible to go there,try an instrument or two,spend the night and come back the next day.
It looks like Brobst also sells Richelieu instruments too, which is a shorter drive.
Anyway, will start from NYC luthier this weekend and see if he can do something to her existing viola.
It's well worth the visit to WH Lee to try out their individual maker instruments as well as some of their less-expensive workshop lines.
Will start from NYC and, if we cannot find anything we like, possibly go to Brobst then.
Moreover, if you purchase new, or used, you'll likely have a warranty. Last year, I purchased an instrument that's relatively old, and the rib recently came unglued near the end pin at the bottom. My luthier fixed it under warranty, though I would have been pleased to pay for the repair.
With that said, I do like to purchase USA made wherever possible, if I can afford it. I'm just not sure if it's really worth the exponential increase in cost between the cheaper options that sound just as nice (to my ears, at least).
Many luthiers will accept an instrument (or bow) they originally sold, as a trade-in at the ORIGINAL, FULL PURCHASE PRICE, for a better instrument (or bow) purchased later.
My luthier does this, and while I doubt that I will ever trade in the violin that I purchased from him, he's let me upgrade my bow under this policy a couple of times over the last few years. Both times, it was at the full, original purchase price of the trade-in. (Purchased from him.)
My wife and I own two of them. The one on the left is a 15.5" Strad pattern model from the early 2000's from MJZ back when he was heavily involved with all the different models and overseeing the work of his apprentices. Sadly, he passed away in 2014. It was rather inexpensive, but it plays beautifully with an enormous tone and a quick response, and is my "daily driver." I've played it for many orchestra and chamber music performances, and it is had paid for itself many times over. In fact, I just played it this past weekend on my first union gig (since the pandemic) here in Connecticut! For strings, I use a Larsen A with Warchal Karneol C/G/D.
The one on the right is a Tertis-inspired pattern model made recently in 2021 by the MJZ workshop, in partnership with the luthier team at the shop of Jonathan and David Morey in Lakewood, California. It's only 15" in length and is very easy to play, especially as my wife doesn't have very long arms. :) However, the increased internal volume gives it a very robust C string, and it does not sound like a small viola at all. The response is very good, and the tone is smooth and round, a surprising characteristic for a brand new instrument. The geared pegs are really wonderful here given the climate, and I think the strings are a Larsen A with Dominant C/G/D.
A number of our colleagues have bought MJZ instruments as their "picnic instruments" for outdoor performances for summer pops and weddings and whatnot. In terms of their price vs. performance, they are definitely a good "bang for the buck" in their price range. However, it is still VERY important that regardless of where you acquire one, that the luthier spends the time for it to have a good setup. It makes all the difference in the playability and response of workshop instruments.
I will post after we pick up the instrument, in about a week, the result of the work.
Cutting me a new bridge for one of my violins was something a very respected SF bay area luthier did for me about 25 years ago. Last week I replaced it with the original bridge the maker had put on it when he made it 71 years ago - it sounds better now and plays easier (for me, anyway).
Just saying - I always save my old bridges (and label them with pencil for the instrument they came off).
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You are correct that you will take a loss on resale. Probably it is reasonable to assume that the markup on a mid-range (decent student level) Chinese workshop violin is as much as 100%. But you will take a loss on most any instrument that you sell on your own. On the other hand, let's say your wife uses this instrument for five years and then you sell it at a $2000 loss. You will have then paid $400 per year for the privilege of owning and enjoying the instrument. Over what time interval would you typically spend $400 in restaurants?
Also, the loss that you will suffer on a Chinese student instrument is more or less predictable. The loss you will suffer on some random instrument that you buy from a luthier is entirely mysterious and could be either less or it could be much more. Dealers know that it is very hard for a lay-person to prove that they were hoodwinked at the point of sale. They profit from the intrinsic ambiguity and anxiety that customers feel when buying a violin -- which arises because the average customer knows (s)he is entirely unqualified to evaluate the thing (s)he is buying.