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Luthier Troy Milleker works on a restoration in the workshop at George Heinl & Co Sep 20, 2012. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Luthier Troy Milleker works on a restoration in the workshop at George Heinl & Co Sep 20, 2012. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

MUSIC

How a violinist can play a $4-million Stradivarius, no strings attached Add to ...

The thing Andréa Tyniec wants is not to come last. This is not the kingdom of God, after all, where the last shall be first. No. It’s the slashing arena of ambitious concert violinists, and the Canada Council’s triannual Musical Instrument Bank contest.

For more than a week, the country’s most promising string players have been vying for the right to borrow a priceless instrument, at no cost for three years, from the instrument bank. The contest is down to 13 finalists for 13 violins.

If Tyniec comes last, she is stuck with what is left. If she wins, she has first pluck of the bank, which includes three Stradivarius violins – some of the oldest and therefore best violins left on Earth, coveted handmade anachronisms in a technologized world because they can make a musician feel music in a way nothing else can. Unlike the rest of us, the finest violins can improve with age.

That, in any event, is the theory. In fact, in blind tests, audiological analysts and concert violinists alike have had difficulty distinguishing one fine old fiddle from another. Whatever else this year’s contestants are competing for – the chance to play a piece of history and find the richest expression of their musical voice – they are also contributing to the Great Romance of the Old Violin. The more valuable we say they are, the more valuable they become, especially in a world where there are more and more violinists.

The winners will be announced on Sept. 26. In the meantime, the finalists each have an hour alone to play the 13 violins lined up on a shelf on the second floor of Geo. Heinl & Co., the downtown Toronto music shop where the instruments are stored, repaired, tuned up and maintained. If you did not know Heinl’s was here, you never would: Amid the panhandlers and Ryerson University students outside on Church Street, only a coat of arms announces its presence.

Clad in a black catsuit and floaty see-through top and green wellingtons, Tyniec again and again races through the same passages – a note-clotted stretch from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a sprightly snatch of Mozart and a patch of Prokofiev – each time on a different instrument, trying to find the violin that best expresses the sound she hears in her head.

Her first go, a $300,000 beauty made by Januarius Gagliano in Naples in 1768 (his father worked with Antonio Stradivari: the original label is still inside the violin), has a tone so rich you could condition your hair with it.

But the fiddle she comes back to is the $4-million Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú violin, made in 1729 in Cremona, the spiritual home of all violins.

It’s the bottom of the del Gesú’s range that can make your jaw ache, that gives it emotional gravity. “Some musicians say the vibrations from the del Gesú are so strong that their vision becomes blurred,” Ric Heinl, the impeccably suited fourth-generation owner of the business, says from his desk, where he watches the progress of all the contestants.

Heinl is a master at making old violins sound sublime. He likes to ask the players to play their own violin first. Then he gives them a chance on one of the old beauties. Then he tells them to play their own violin again. “These pieces open doors for them,” he says. “When they go back to their violins, they realize what they can’t do.”

There are an estimated 500 Stradivarius violins extant in the world today. As recently as the 1970s, they were selling for less than $300,000. In 2011, the Lady Blunt Stradivarius (named for Lord Byron’s granddaughter) was hammered down for $15.9-million (U.S.) at auction. The Strads in the Canada Council bank are insured for $4-million each. A period bow alone can now bend a collector out of $250,000.

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