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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 longer an instrument is played,” explains Pinchas Zukerman, the celebrated violinist, conductor and music director of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra, “the longer oxygen goes through it, the more vibrations that come out of it – all that makes the instrument better. And that’s one of the problems: We don’t live long enough to tell how the new instruments being made today will do in 200 years. We don’t know what the hell these mothers put in these instruments in the 1600s.”

The maestro himself owns (among other rarities) the famous 1742 Dushkin Guarneri del Gesú violin. He still remembers “meeting the instrument” for the first time in 1964 (he did not purchase it until 1984; “I’m the fifth owner,” he says, a fact that clearly still moves him, though he refuses to say how much it has appreciated). Part of its appeal was that Zuckerman began to play music when he was 4, but “didn’t have my own instrument until I was in my 20s.” What did he play on in the interim? “Pieces of [insert excremental slang here]!”

So Zukerman understands the thrill of playing a storied violin, and believes that it can reveal a talented player’s expressive range. Whether an audience can hear the difference is widely debated.

“Listen, “ Zukerman admits, “I have one of the few really great instruments. It’s like a good wife. You meet finally a good wife, you stick with her.” He should know: he is on his third, cellist Amanda Forsyth, who replaced actress Tuesday Weld.

The rarity and skyrocketing price of old instruments has inspired what Heinl refers to as “a renaissance” in violin making. “I think we can thank the Pacific Rim for that,” he says. There are 11 million violin students in China alone.

The modern Stradivari may be Samuel Zygmuntowicz, a 56-year-old Philadelphian who handcrafts world-renowned instruments in Brooklyn.

A graduate of the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, Zygmuntowicz uses ancient and digital techniques to hand-build what he hopes will be a perfect copy of the Stradivarius sound. Each customized instrument goes for a relative song: $50,000.

Barry Shiffman, director of chamber music at the Glenn Gould School of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory, owns two Zygmuntowicz violins. (Zygmuntowicz is so busy that the second one won’t be finished until 2015.) Shiffman first used a Zygmuntowicz in the 1990s.

“People would come up afterwards and ask what I was playing on,” Shiffman remembers. “And sometimes I would admit it was a Zygmuntowicz. But more often I would say, ‘I own a Strad from 1727.’ And they would say, ‘Oh, we could tell.’ Not to say Sam’s violins are as good as a Strad. But people hear what they expect.”

The advantages of a Zygmuntowicz – other than price – are that it looks like a Strad, is exceptionally responsive (it “speaks quickly,” as professional violinists say) and (unlike many Strads) projects well enough to be heard at the back of large modern concert hall by distracted modern audience members. “They’re not that beautiful-sounding under the player’s ear,” Shiffman admits, “but when you get 20 feet out and away, they are.”

But even a realist like Shiffman admits that a great Stradivarius delivers something extra, something sublime. The tonal range of “the best of the old Strads are like the Crayola 64 pack with the sharpener. You get the full six-colour range at every level of the spectrum. In a modern fiddle, you don’t have the option of all six options.”

Why is hotly debated. One current theory is that the years 1645 to 1750 saw a stretch of global cooling, resulting in the especially dense Bosnian maple wood used by luthiers such as del Gesú and Stradivari.

Whatever the reason for the difference, if in fact there is a difference, it doesn’t matter to violinists: They believe what they need to believe.

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