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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 ...

Nikki and Aaron-Timothy Chooi, two violin-playing brothers from Victoria, are both in the Canada Council competition this time around. Nikki, 23, came third last time, and has spent the past three years with the big-bottomed del Gesú. Before that, he borrowed a workaday, 110-year-old, $70,000 violin from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he and now his 18-year-old brother have been students.

“It’s a good fiddle, but only what I put into it comes out of it. With the del Gesú, I had to find the right way to play it, but what comes out is amazing. This may sound ridiculous, but it feels like it has a personality. And it reacts to the way it’s played.”

Walking around with a $4-million violin made him slightly nervous at first. He never let it out of his sight, as if it was his treasure. “I treated it,” he remembers, “like it was another human being.”

The bank’s high notes

The Canada Council’s Musical Instrument Bank was founded in 1985 with a $100,000 gift, and has held a national competition for the use of its instruments every three years. The 20-odd instruments in the bank are now insured for more than $28-million. They include:

1900 Stefano Scarampella violin. Scarampella was a luthier based in Mantua, and one of the most important late-19th-century violin makers. The instrument was purchased for the bank this year for $160,000.

1871 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin. An exact copy of the famous 1716 Stradivarius that Vuillaume extracted from Italy after the death of its owner in 1854. Another of the “second-generation” violins whose quality has improved vastly in the 100-plus years they have been played. Vuillaume was based in Paris. Valued at $250,000.

1729 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesú violin. Made in Cremona, Italy, by Antonio Stradivari’s great rival. Now insured for $4-million.

1715 Dominicus Montagnana violin. Venice was another important instrument-making centre in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and Dominicus Montagnana was one of Venice’s best violin makers. The bank’s rare surviving example of his work was once owned by Guglielmo Marconi, who collected violins when he wasn’t inventing long-distance radio transmission. It’s worth $800,000 today.

1689 Baumgartner Stradivari violin. A classic example of how fine violins travel. An early Stradivarius, it has been owned by Robert Masters, the concertmaster of the Bath Festival Orchestra; a Frenchman in Paris, an Englishman in Folkestone, and a Swiss in Basel. Gordon Jeffrey, a scion of the family that founded London Life Insurance Company, eventually left it to the University of Western Ontario. Valued at $4-million.

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