Category Archives: The Violin

I’m an adult beginning on the violin and it’s been a rollicking adventure, chronicled here.

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

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So. You’re thinking of buying a violin, making this big step. Exciting times, huh? Or are you rushing the decision and not giving it quality thinking time? How about a quick reality check from The Classical Girl before you take the plunge?

Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

  1. Are you in love with the violin and its playing potential, or how it looks?
  2. Is it [mostly] within your budget? (Do you HAVE a budget? Please have one. And if money is no object? Consider the beauties mentioned HERE.)
  3. Have you shopped around? A lot? (4 stores, 25 violins tested, minimum. Doubling that number is even better.)
  4. Have you had a luthier or other trusted professional look at it and offer their opinion?
  5. Are you too caught up in the price (a bargain!), or the country of origin, or the century it was made?
  6. Are you super-excited, but not so excited your judgment is getting clouded?
  7. Has your teacher heard you play it? Have you heard your teacher play it?
  8. Have you done a blind test with aforementioned teacher, comparing it to at least two other comparable violins?
  9. Are you judging the instrument independent of its current setup? (Bridge placement, nut grooves, fine tuners on one string versus five – all these things are adjustable.)
  10. Does the acquisition of the final pick make you want to run home and practice on it, or are you a little intimidated, or deflated, or uncaring about it? (Because, then, DON’T.)

Here’s my own Big Violin Acquisition story, first published at Violinist.com in 2006.

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Three violins sit in my guest room. I can feel them throbbing, giving off invisible energy in their respective cases, like radioactive material. At least one of them will go back to its shop on Monday. One will most likely remain and take my $200 student violin’s place.

I’ve sampled roughly forty violins in the past five months. One, three months ago, made my heart catch: a late 19th century Stainer copy, Czech, with that battered, scratched look I find so intriguing. A look that tells me it’s been Somewhere. It has a story to tell. Just what I’ve longed for. But, at $2200.00, it’s a bit over budget. My instincts (and a clerk at a competing shop) tell me it is overpriced. The workmanship shows flaws and it will need some touching up. But it has continued to tug at my heart and beat out competitors I’ve introduced as I’ve made my rounds to music shops in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and San Jose.

I’m in no hurry to buy. I told myself it would be a year-long process. My goal has been to visit a half dozen shops and listen to at least 50 violins before embarking on any sort of decision. The queen bee, the Czech violin, located in the Santa Cruz music store where my lesson takes place, has been hanging in the shop for some time now. I’ve told myself if it was meant to be, it will wait for me. It has.

Last Monday, a breakthrough in the fifth shop—a Palo Alto store that specializes in guitars. Low expectations from the start. The first violin the clerk hands me seems equally unassuming. A new violin. Romanian. With a budget of 2K, I have little interest in testing an $850.00 violin. “Trust me,” the man says.

I trust him. Damn. He’s right. A feeling of quiet excitement descends over me.

But wait—my heart is set on something old. Yes, I tell the clerk, I realize the new ones, particularly those Chinese-made ones, generally cost less and sound better than their elders. Much better. But they have no story, no soul. The clerk nods and brings over another contender—a German 1930 Strad copy, at $1880.00.

Nice. Big sound, clear tone, much like the Romanian. This, then, might be the best compromise.

Thirty minutes later, I hear myself asking the clerk what their policy is on taking out two violins. Wait. I’m not ready to advance to this level of commitment. Am I? Because I sense Something is about to happen and there will be no turning back.

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The test during my violin lesson the following day—Czech queen bee meets the contenders—is objective and unbiased. My eyes are shut as my teacher hands me one violin after another to play. Deprived of my vision, my other senses leap around. Feels nice in my hands. The tone—wow, it’s clear. This one, not so much on the G string. Sweet E strings, all of them. The bow skitters a bit on that one—must be the higher bridge. But which one is my queen bee? Damn. I’m not sure.

Next, my teacher plays all three, while my eyes remain shut. Ooh. What a sound, soaring from that first violin. And on that one, as well. This one—it’s the German, for sure. And the other one with the slightly muffled G string—that must be the queen bee. I feel a pang of disloyalty. I realize I’m not rooting for the queen anymore.

The results after thirty minutes of this are comically mixed. I have ranked all three as first at one point or another. My teachers confesses that she, too, can’t name one clear winner. “I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these,” she tells me.

My heart is in turmoil. The test has done its dirty work. Could I possibly justify paying so much more for an older Violin With a Story? The painful truth: the story has no bearing on the sound. The second painful truth—when my eyes were shut, all three violins sang to me.

“Want to know the prices?” I ask my teacher as I pack up.

“It’s not what’s important,” she says, “but… what the heck.”

I relish the stunned expression that crosses her face when she learns the Romanian comes in at $1350.00 less than the queen bee. Only then does the full impact of it hit me too. “Well,” she says, “Easy to see where the value is.”

The time has come to choose.

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And here we are, in 2016, ten years later. Happy Anniversary to my sweet little Romanian friend.

Want more tips on buying a violin? Here you go!

  • Don’t get attached to how it looks, but how it sounds
  • Don’t ask a non-violin person to help you decide; seek out your teacher’s advice.
  • Do that blind testing. Have someone hand you the violins one at a time. Play them. Then listen, as that other person (preferably your teacher or a violin peer who’s better than you) plays each one. Now switch, and perform the test on them
  • Don’t get snobby about going to a violin-only shop. I found my winner at a guitar store.
  • Don’t rush a decision. Sleep on it. Wait one more week.
  • Be honest about the violin’s condition. An old one can feel much more exciting to hold but it might not be in the best shape, and might cost you hundreds more in repairs in the long run.
  • After all the above has been said, go with the one that makes your heart race and sounds the best to your ears. And when that’s two different violins? Well, trust your gut instinct.
  • Got a $10 million budget? Have fun! Check out some pickings HERE

Leonidas Kavakos, the Sibelius VC, the SFS, and the truth

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This past weekend, acclaimed violinist Leonidas Kavakos performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. As you might know, I’m a big fan of this concerto. (Elaborated HERE.) I found Kavakos’ interpretation to be magnificent. Soul-stirring. No, not perfect. Sometimes a note didn’t land precisely right on the money. And there were moments where the pacing seemed to involve conductor Michael Tilson Thomas trying to keep up with Kavakos’ propulsive playing. But that’s the third movement of the Sibelius for you. In my mind, the performance transcended the tiny flaws; it transcended everything. It had such power. Kavakos had found that place of haunting, bittersweet beauty, where technical brilliance meets vulnerability, and he played the concerto, particularly the second movement, from that space. The performance was so wonderful, in some ways, because there were some imperfections. It lent the piece humanity.

Joshua Kosman, longtime music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t like Kavakos’ interpretation quite so much as I. Here’s what he had to say. “It was an awkward, unpersuasive performance, wayward of pitch and rhythm and marked by what seemed like the violinist’s utter indifference to what the orchestra was doing at any given moment. Thomas’ efforts to keep everyone together were practically poignant.” (You can find the whole review HERE.)

Well. Ouch. I should mention that I saw Sunday afternoon’s performance and Kosman reviewed Thursday night’s performance. I understand what Kosman was saying, however; I saw glimmers of this within Sunday’s performance. But, even reading this, I will stand my ground. This was one of the most stirring performances of the Sibelius I’ve ever seen.

So. Was it a wildly successful performance, or an uneven one? Should the critic have bashed Kavakos’ performance so unequivocally, or was he simply doing his job?

He was doing his job, of course. I myself have a gig as a dance reviewer for Bachtrack.com, whereby I attend ballet performances as a member of the press. It’s a funky feeling, being there as a judge. After the first review I submitted, back in October 2013, the editor responded by saying, “well, it sounds like you really enjoyed it — this is a very kind review — but it’s got to have something you found lacking, for balance. It’s got to be objective. You’ve got to be objective, as a member of the press.”

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Dang. Not my skill. And it’s one of the reasons that I love attending the symphony simply as a subscriber. I like not being objective. I like riding the storm of my subjectivity. I like getting weepy and effusive and gushing out, “it stirred my soul,” and “whoa, Kleenex box, please!”

So. I loved Kavakos’ performance. I was so blown away by its power that I all but leapt to my feet right at the end, cheering Kavakos and the SFS musicians. What an astonishing ride he’d taken us on. But I looked around me and realized not everyone seemed to feel the same. Others in the audience were sitting, clapping politely. That was all. Really? I thought. Really? Was it those missed notes that had people thinking it was like a figure skating score in the Olympics, where points got deducted, and therefore the performance didn’t merit a standing ovation? Did he not look glossy enough, or sway enough, for their tastes? Eventually others rose, some in an almost dutiful sense, and Kavakos got the standing ovation his performance merited.

A first bow, amid now-enthusiastic applause. Called back for a second bow, amid the applause. But then the applause died down, too soon, which filled me with dismay. The guy deserved to come out for a third bow, minimum. I clapped more furiously, but alas, I am but one pair of clapping hands.

Then something interesting happened. As the applause died, there was a low, soft rumbling sound, and I realized it was coming from the stage, the musicians’ feet. It was their way of applauding, because of course their hands are full of instruments. The musicians were in agreement with me, apparently. Kavakos’ performance was far too good to let him walk off with only two bows.

It was the coolest thing, that soft thudding sound of their feet, the string players’ bows tapping against their music stands, broad smiles on all the musicians’ faces. Watching it, my heart swelled. Can a soloist have any greater compliment paid than this? A roaring audience, okay, fine, good for the ego. But there’s a sort of herd mentality about a roaring standing ovation. I have succumbed to it myself, rising to my feet because everyone around me did (usually this is one of the superstar soloists with a household name who’d produced a technically flawless performance, quite possibly at the expense of a sense of genuine heart). But when every member of the orchestra is beaming, thumping their feet, well, that’s saying something. Because a fellow musician understands. It’s not about the missing notes. It’s about finding the heart of the piece, the burning core, the composer’s intention, and sharing this gem with the audience.

Happily, the audience picked up the applauding pace once again, keeping at it till Kavakos came back onstage for one more bow. And as a reward, we were treated to a gorgeous, crystalline Bach partita encore. Nice.

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Kosman’s review went on to praise the rest of the performance, and indeed, the two other pieces, Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela” and Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, were both brilliantly rendered. I loved everything about the entire afternoon’s performance. But I’ll tell you what. During that 100 minute ride home, down the Peninsula and through the mountains, it was Kavakos’ rendition of the Sibelius that still gripped at my heart. That, and the image of all the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony stomping their feet in praise of another artist.

Well done, San Francisco Symphony.

Finnish perfection: the Sibelius Violin Concerto

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It’s complex, gripping, devilishly complicated, and sounds like no other concerto in the violin repertoire. Listening to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto, you hear dark, wintry night; pure, crystalline melody above a cushion of pianissimo strings (starlight has a sound!); brooding motifs; a violin that laments but never stops singing. In the second movement, the adagio di molto, a gorgeous melody arises amid the lower voices that makes your heart swell and swell, even as it’s breaking.

“The movement is so haunting, so intense,” my violinist character Montserrat recounts to Alice, the narrator, in my novel, Off Balance. Years back, she’d performed the concerto in an international competition, under a crushing weight of anxiety and despair. “You hear the brass from the orchestra slowly building, and there you are with your violin, desperately trying to… I don’t know. Stay alive. Survive against the odds. The pain of it—I felt like a bird in the dead of winter, knowing I would die, because the cold was just too much to overcome. But you know what? I’ll bet that bird keeps singing sweetly until the instant before it dies. Because what else can you do if you were born to sing? That’s what the Adagio will always be for me. That feeling.”

More on my beloved violinist character later. First, let’s talk about Sibelius. He was born on December 8, 1865, which means in a matter of weeks, the world will be celebrating his 150th birthday. Most people talk about his seven symphonies as being at the core of his success as a composer. Some of them I quite like (No. 3 in C-Major and the No. 5, with its glorious ending). But the Violin Concerto rises above them all, timeless and omnipotent, more spiritual experience than entertainment. Commenced in 1899, completed in 1904, a mediocre premiere prompted Sibelius to hold off on publication. He revised, whittled it down, and the concerto re-premiered in 1905, this time to acclaim. And oh, what acclaim it deserves.

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Jean Sibelius is not just Finland’s most famous composer; he’s a cultural colossus, a national hero, having played a symbolic role in Finland’s quest for independence (granted in 1917). He’s a household name throughout the world, certainly the classical music world. His music is rich and unforgettable, and the classical music legacy he left behind for Finland is unparalleled in any other country in the world. (The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly two hundred times per capita what the United States government spends through the National Endowment for the Arts*. Further, Finland’s musical culture has produced more world-class composers and performers per capita than any other country.)

For being a hero and musical icon, however, the guy was human, and he struggled. For the last thirty years of his life he didn’t publish new material, although he worked away at an eighth symphony for much of that time. Like so many creative artists, he struggled particularly on the inside. In 1927, when he was sixty-one, he wrote in his diary, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair. . . . In order to survive, I have to have alcohol. . . . Am abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock-bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out.” *

For many an artist, creativity tends to arise amid an environment of immoderation. That’s why you hear about alcoholism, suicide, rehab, breakdowns, among the artistic sect of the population. I’ll admit it; I myself feel manic, rather psychotic, when I’m in the process of producing my most creative work. It’s the place where you’re on fire inside. I can feel that, like a tactile presence, in good art. I can tell when an artist has gone inside the fire, trudged through the long, dark night of the soul, gotten lost in those places.

There is something immoderate about this concerto that enormously appeals to me. Something vulnerable and unspeakably beautiful, right there along something dark and brooding. They illustrate that not only do darkness and beauty coexist, they enhance each other. How fitting that a Finnish composer should have so aptly illustrated the beauty of light amid so much wintery darkness.

Listen to the Sibelius Violin Concerto for yourself and tell me what you think. Joshua Bell does a knockout job with the Oslo Filharmoniske Orkester, the young, winsome (!!) Vasily Petrenko conducting.

Ten years ago, in researching my second novel, I decided to give my character, Montserrat, the Sibelius Violin Concerto for her final piece in a competition she was desperate to win. (A long, rather dark backstory I won’t elaborate on here.) She and I both lived within the Sibelius all that fall. And the next fall, when I revised the manuscript. And the next fall, when I re-revised. And when that novel didn’t sell, I picked her and the Sibelius up and inserted them in the next novel-in-progress. She’s there, now, in OFF BALANCE. Her life is safer now, with its happily ever after, prize won, career launched, loving spouse found. It was fun to move her; I love being able to create happy endings for my characters. But at one point, my narrator Alice goads her into sharing the darker side of her successful career as a violinist. Bad girl, Alice. Your insecurity is showing.

I’ll never publish that earlier novel; it’s too dark. The characters suffered too much. But I do love the scene where Montserrat performed the Sibelius. After the months I’d spent crafting and re-crafting, it now feels so weirdly personal, as if the performance had happened to me. That’s what happens to a novelist who gets too deep into their work. Or maybe that’s what happens when you listen to the Sibelius. It has that much power over you.

So, allow me, dear reader, to share a bit more of Montserrat’s story.

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Desperate Little Secrets

The next morning— in truth, only a few hours later, Montserrat woke, and worked her way out of the unfamiliar bed, grimacing at the horrible sickly-sweet taste of alcohol in her mouth. In the gleaming marble and chrome bathroom, she looked at the stranger in the mirror and squeezed her eyes shut till the urge to throw up had passed. Then she ran the hot water till it reached scalding, scrubbed her face, her hands, until they both felt raw and tingling. She dried off, dressed and slipped out of the apartment. Outside, she walked for a mile in the drizzly, grey London morning before catching a bus to her flat. The music, she told herself. The Sibelius. The only thing that mattered. Although she’d planned to stay away from the concerto that day, competition day, it was the only place she could bear to be for the next ten hours. That, and the Bach Chaconne, the purest, most out-of-reach piece of music she’d ever played—the musical equivalent of prayer. Or confession time.

Sleep and appetite eluded her as she slowly, methodically, worked her way through a series of scales and arpeggios, then tricky passages of the concerto, then the Chaconne. Back to the Sibelius and again to the Chaconne. She grew calmer, settling into that meditative state of heightened sensitivity from where she could best perform. And then it was time.

She was the second of the six finalists to play to a sold-out crowd at the Royal Festival Hall, kept waiting an extra minute while she retched into a off-stage toilet. She stumbled onstage finally, the bright lights assaulting her, the rustle of her taffeta evening gown whispering as she walked unsteadily to her spot beside the conductor. She tuned the Vuillaume, tightened her bow an extra millimeter, then nodded to the conductor.

The opening bars were always the worst. She’d never outgrown her stage fright, even after years of increasingly high-pressure performing. She knew the stamina required for the Sibelius, even under the best of circumstances, was enormous. But her months of preparation paid off, the way she’d learned, unlearned, relearned from a different mindset, played passages backwards, even playing in the dark confines of a closet. Rote learning, and technical analysis now slipped away as her fingers landed with perfect memory and accuracy on every note. The music seeped into her, replacing her stage fright with focus.

The first movement was theatrical and epic, her violin’s solo voice flitting amid ever-building intensity from the orchestra alongside her. The passage work was fiendish—double stops with sustained trills; rapid slides from the lowest notes up to the highest, octave double-stops, all of which had to impart that ineffable sense of longing Sibelius conjured so well, a winter of the soul, haunting in its beauty, crystalline in its clarity.

The first time she heard the second movement, the adagio di molto, she’d bowed her head and wept. While she’d learned to curtail the emotion, the feeling was still there in the violin’s lament, dissonance from the brass section keeping the movement from ever turning maudlin. It was the aural representation of hope amid darkness. This then, was what she struggled with, time again time again, much like with the Bach Chaconne, this attempt to connect with something so divine, so out of reach. She could only play the music and hope her despair didn’t mar the effect. Tonight, especially, the despair.

Never before had she relied so heavily on the orchestra, nor been so rewarded by their efforts. As if sensing her failing energy, they hovered close in the adagio, then supported her in the spirited, syncopated third movement as she pulled from unknown reserves to tackle the music. For an instant, she stepped outside herself, marveling at the cleanliness of the tricky passage work, the electric mood generated throughout the hall. She observed the pale, swaying soloist and idly wondering how much longer she could last before her energy failed her.

The answer: after she’d finished. Amid the thunderous applause, she shook the conductor’s and concertmaster’s hands, managed a bow to the audience without tipping over. She made her way to the wings, which were now growing curiously fuzzy and indistinct. There, she felt arms grab at her and catch her Vuillaume as she slid to the soothing coolness of the concrete floor.

Dark, peaceful coolness.

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PS: the reference to this in Off Balance can be found in chapter 13 (roughly page 192). Want to check out the novel? Click HERE.

PPS: Care to hear some less familiar but still utterly delicious Sibelius music? Two of his shorter pieces made my list of Top 10 Spooky [Classical Music] Songs for Halloween. You’ll find them HERE.

* Factoids courtesy of Alex Ross’s informative and interesting article, “Apparition in the Woods,” from The New Yorker. The article is, itself, part of a splendid book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which you can find HERE.

The world of million-dollar violins

Breaking news: Roman Totenberg’s million dollar Strad just recovered after 35 years! Great story, link below **

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In my second year of playing the violin, back in 2006, I decided my $200 starter violin, initially a rental, had served its purpose, and it was time to invest in a quality advanced beginner violin. My budget was $2000. The search took five months as I sampled over forty violins, in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, San Jose. One violin, midway into the search, called my name: a late 19th century Stainer copy, Czech, battered and well-used in a way I found so intriguing. But, at $2200.00, it was over budget and, further, would need a little repair work, sooner than later. A second candidate a month later, an early 20th century German violin for $1800, looked to be in better condition. But when I went back to the shop to reassess that violin, the store clerk brought out a contemporary Romanian violin. “Give this one a try, as well,” he said.

I looked at the price tag. $850. I regarded the clerk quizzically. “That’s way under my budget,” I told him. “And I’m looking for something more… special.”

“Trust me,” he said.

I did. Damn.

My teacher and I were both thrilled with the young Romanian’s quality sound, and could not tell the difference between it and the other two contenders I’d brought in for The Big Showdown. (In the violin world, they’ll let you borrow and test the violins you’re considering buying.) Factoring in its repair-free condition, the Romanian came out the winner. And only $850; an amazing bargain, particularly once I’d let go of my attachment to owning an older violin. You pay $$ for the privilege. $1350, in this scenario.

Post-purchase, I showed my new acquisition, now nestled in its $250 case, to friends and associates, watching their jaws drop at the mention of the bargain price. But the surprise was now on me: what I’d considered to be a bargain was, to many of them, a staggering cost. They’d had no idea violins cost so much. (Case in point: my own $200 starter violin. And the bargains found on eBay and at Amazon, where $43 will get you the case, bow and rosin, to boot. And plenty of satisfied buyers, apparently. http://amzn.com/B000FB6TV8. But, um… buyer beware.)

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I also noticed this omigod, I’d had no idea reaction to stringed instrument prices when I discussed my novel, Off Balance, with friends and readers. Off Balance features a violinist as a secondary character and, with it, a glimpse of the violin world at the soloist level. Which means expensive violins, wealthy investors who will buy and lend out top quality instruments, and the sacrifice required for a soloist to own their instrument (decision time: buy a house or buy a Stradivarius).

Let’s talk about the makers of these million-dollar violins for a moment. Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737) wasn’t the only one creating masterpieces, although his is the name most people will recognize. The other big, big name you should know — and some will argue his violins surpassed even those of Stradivari — is Giuseppe Guarneri (1698–1744), also known as Joseph Guarnerius del Gesù. ( The term “del Gesù,” meaning “of Jesus,” comes from his labels, which always incorporated the characters I.H.S. and a Roman cross.) Other top names would include Amati, Guadagnini, Maggini, Ruggieri, Gagliano, Stainer, J.B. Vuillaume.

What instruments are the top violinists using? Here’s an article that answers that question wonderfully. Meanwhile, here’s me, back in November 2007, holding a $600,000.00 Guadagnini (1748) from luthier Claude Lebet’s shop in Rome. It felt way cool in my hands. But even this $$$ instrument doesn’t come close to being considered a top-dollar violin.

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Just how expensive do expensive violins get? Brace yourself. (Prices, based on auction sales, were gleaned from articles around the Internet and might have changed since the article’s publication.)

  • The Vieuxtemps Guarneri*, 1741, $16- $18,000,000
  • The Messiah Strad, 1716,  (almost never been played, on permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, valued by some at $20,000,000, but, really, priceless)
  • The Lady Tennant Strad, 1699, $2,032,000
  • The Hammer Strad, 1707, $3,544,000
  • The Molitor Strad, 1697, $3,600,000
  • Il Cannone Guarnerius, 1743, (Niccolo Paganini’s violin and again, not for sale, but stored in an Italian palace vault. Insured for $4 million, but is surely worth 4x that now. Again, it’s priceless, in the end.)
  • The Lord Wilton Guarneri Del Gesù, 1742, $6 million
  • The Mary Portman Guarneri, 1735, $10 million
  • Ex-Kochanski Guarneri, 1741, $10 million
  • Carrodus Guarneri, 1743, $10 million
  • The Lady Blunt Strad, 1721, $15,900,000

*The terms “Guarnerius” and “Guarneri del Gesù” are used interchangeably when these violins are mentioned in the media, although there were luthiers within the Guarneri family who did not produce “del Gesù” violins.

And these are just a few, from among the many violins priced over $1 million.

I know, right?

“Why are they so expensive?” people always ask. Well, because they’re little works of art, hand-crafted with the highest quality wood and varnish, and there are a limited number of the old ones. Stradivari created 1100 violins, 650 of which are accounted for today. The violins from his “golden period,” from 1700 through 1725 are among the most valuable, with extraordinary acoustic properties in addition to peerless workmanship.

“Why the price leap in the past thirty years?” other people ask. Well, when demand is high,  that’s what happens. Here’s a link to a great article that not only discusses the most expensive violins today, but illustrates that dramatic price jump, especially in recent years. Prior to 2005, the prices that made people gasp were along the lines of $2.03 million, the record-breaking price of The Lady Tennant 1699 Stradivarius sale. Now The Lady has been left in the dust, behind a half dozen violins that have cleared the $5 million mark, then the $10 million, and in 2013, $16-18 million (the Vieuxtemps Guarneri, bought and loaned out to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, for life, by an anonymous donor). What a great loan, huh? Except, imagine the stress of leaving your house with that sort of liability, making your way through daily life, worrying about its welfare. Ask violinist Min-Jin Kym, who set down the case holding her $2 million Strad next to her feet in a sandwich shop in London’s Euston Station, and in the blink of an eye, someone had stolen it. Read that story here. Ask Frank Almond, who was shot by a stun gun in a parking lot at night, post performance, and while he lay on the ground, dazed and paralyzed, the thieves grabbed the violin (a 1715 Strad, valued at $5 million) and ran. (Story here). Or David Garrett, who tripped on slippery steps, post-concert, fell and crushed his 1770 Guadagnini (Roughly $1.6 million). Ouch. You gotta read this story. Warning: if you’re a violinist, it might give you bad dreams. For life.

If you’re looking to buy a violin yourself, here are some tips to consider. And about that breaking news I referenced above? On Thursday, Aug 6th, a thrilling story came out; another a million dollar Strad retrieved. Renown NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg not only wrote and reported the story, she experienced it firsthand, through her father, Roman Totenberg, a violin virtuoso, whose Strad was stolen 35 years ago. Read the story here. (It’s SUCH a great story, and so well delivered, but what do you expect, from the wonderfully eloquent Nina Totenberg.

Speaking of stories, why don’t I finish off the subject with an excerpt from my recently released novel, Off Balance, that ties right in with the theme of “the world of million-dollar violins.” The scene is a posh party. Alice, dancer-turned-administrator, is there with her boss, Gil, to try to woo performing-arts philanthropist Andy Redgrave into a $250K grant for the West Coast Ballet Theatre. Andy has invited them to a private gathering in his home, celebrating the recent acquisition of an 1872 Renoir painting and a 1684 Stradivarius cello, to be played by a trio of internationally acclaimed soloists (one of whom is Alice’s violinist friend, Montserrat). Gil, contrary to the plan, has brought along Lana, a love interest and a new rising-star dancer to the company, which throws Alice off balance in more ways than one.

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The party took place in Hillsborough, tucked into the foothills of the coastal mountain range paralleling Highway 280. Andy Redgrave’s home was impressive, more of a mansion than a house, the white sandstone exterior making it look like an Italian villa. A team of valet parking attendants hurried to open Gil’s car doors and take his keys. At the massive carved-oak front door a sharply attractive woman with a professional demeanor greeted them, checking Gil and Alice’s names off the invitation list before directing them into the two-story entryway. The last of the evening’s light glowed through the windows while strategically placed track lighting illuminated the high ceilings and the rest of the room.
“Showtime,” Gil murmured to Alice, who nodded. Lana nervously chewed her lower lip.
“Maybe this dress was the right call,” she said to Alice.
“It was.”
She’d harbored anxiety that Lana, even with the dress, would stand out as a liability, but that wasn’t proving to be the case. Lana comported herself well, moving through the entryway like the graceful dancer she was, taking in the statues, the marble floors, the staircase’s elaborate carved molding in a sweetly nervous, deferential manner. Gil excused himself to go hunt down Andy, and Lana stayed close to Alice as they entered the living room. When an announcement circulated that the musicians were going to perform shortly, they made their way to a salon where several dozen padded folding chairs had been set up to face a platform in the front of the room.
Alice claimed three seats but as she was searching around for Gil, she turned to see, instead, Andy Redgrave.
“Hello, Alice,” he said in that cool way of his. “Glad you could make it. Gil here, as well?”
“Actually, he’s looking for you.”
“Well. Here I am.”
Tonight Andy was dressed more casually, in a pin-striped button-down oxford shirt and navy trousers, simple elegance that probably had cost a thousand dollars. He was more tanned than when Alice had last seen him; probably a day out on the yacht. The tan highlighted his blond hair and pale blue eyes. He looked handsome and all-powerful, like an Old Testament angel tossed down to earth, thrown into contemporary clothes and told to “act mortal but not too much.”
She introduced Andy to Lana. “Lana’s a soloist with the company,” Alice added as they shook hands.
Andy turned back to regard Alice in amusement. “Do you always bring your product with you on a sales pitch?”
Alice assumed a breezy confidence she didn’t feel. “Only when they’ll agree to climb into my briefcase. But this is pleasure tonight, not business. Lana’s, um, my friend.”
“Well, I hope you ladies enjoy the performance. Alice, I know you will. This is going to be the highlight of your evening, I think you mentioned.”
This time she was prepared. “Oh, no, Andy. The highlight will be when you grace us with more of your presence.”
He smiled. “Gil’s been coaching you.”
He left to greet another guest. Lana and Alice settled into seats, Alice glancing around anxiously until Gil reappeared.
“Where did you go for so long?” Alice hissed as he took the seat next to Lana.
“I told you. I was looking for Andy.”
“He was here. Right here.”
“So. You chatted?”
“Of course.”
“And you said Lana was your friend?”
“Yes.”
She was somewhat heartened by the fact that he looked worried. He would be taking tonight seriously, after all, in spite of Lana’s presence. Not until the track lights dimmed and the three musicians strode out to the platform, however, did she begin to relax.
Applause broke out, particularly at the sight of Matthew.
“Hey,” Lana whispered as the musicians arranged their music on their stands. “That looks like the guy from the American Express commercial. The musician they did a documentary on last year.”
“That’s because it’s him,” Alice whispered back.
Lana’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oh!”
Alice kept her own eyes focused on the violinist, her friend Montserrat. She was attired in a long black evening dress that added drama and height to her petite frame. Her dark hair was held back with a gold clip, her honey-brown eyes serious as she studied the open page of music before twisting around to murmur something to the pianist. Matthew rose to greet the audience.
Matthew was a warm, boyishly handsome Japanese-American, a concert hall favorite for years. He shared a few details about the Stradivarius, Andy’s new acquisition, that he was playing tonight, which would thereafter be loaned out to a deserving San Francisco-based cellist. He gave a quick rundown on the pieces the trio would be performing. Once he’d finished and returned to his spot, the lights in the back of the room dimmed further. The pianist and Montserrat watched Matthew, who, once his cello was tuned, met their eyes, gave a quick little lift of his chin, and they began.
The first piece was a favorite of Alice’s—one of Saint Saens’ piano trios, a lively, engaging crowd-pleaser from the Romantic era, the melody continually passed around from instrument to instrument. Most of the listeners, Alice sensed, were focused on Matthew and the Stradivarius. The cello’s allure was undeniable. It roared, it purred, it vibrated with intensity and warmth. Alice’s focus, however, remained on her friend and her instrument, the golden antique perfection of her Vuillaume, which could sound sweet and angelic one moment, husky and imploring the next.
This form of artistry was a mystery to Alice, just as Montserrat herself was, even after knowing her for six years. She didn’t like to talk about her past; Alice knew only that she’d had an unconventional youth, shuttled around Europe by actor parents, and that she’d always had to work very hard for her craft, six to eight hours of daily practice, even now. The violin, she’d told Alice, wasn’t something you learned once, and coasted along after that. It was a lifelong, consuming endeavor.
Alice, habituated to creating art through her body, pondered the implications of being a professional musician. You had to take good care of an instrument, true, but you could store it away and relax. You could break your leg and still the instrument would play sweetly. If the instrument were destroyed, you could get a replacement, although Montserrat had told Alice her violin, an 1862 J.B. Vuillaume worth $120,000, was irreplaceable to her.
Following the Saint Saens, the trio performed a lively, syncopated tango, the violin singing in staccato double-stop bursts, almost like an accordion, the cello sounding jazzy and sexy. For the final piece, Matthew played unaccompanied Bach, the famous “Prelude” from his Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. The sound was rich, deep and pure, the aural equivalent of a fine old Cognac. Even Alice had to admit it was a showstopper. The other listeners, classical music fans or not, were all riveted. Lana gave a little gasp when he’d finished and they were all clapping.
“I’ve never heard anything like that before,” she exclaimed to Alice.
“No, I’m sure you haven’t. Not this close up, certainly.”
“And you said these musicians are friends of yours?”
“Montserrat is, and I know Matthew through her.”
“And he’s so famous. Wow.”
“It couldn’t have been cheap to engage him.”
“How much do you think he makes?”
“For tonight’s performance, probably around 40K.”
“Forty thousand dollars?” Lana’s voice rose to a squeak.
Alice grinned. “Welcome to the major leagues. Imagine what he gets for a big concert.”
Gil leaned over, his eyes glowing. “Alice. Introduce me to him later?”
The double doors leading to the living room were opened. In wafted irresistible smells of roasted meat, garlic in melted butter, baked pastry puffs. The caterers had set up a buffet while the guests had been listening to the music. Alice’s stomach growled, as if on command. Time to indulge, courtesy of Andy Redgrave.

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