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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

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.

"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.

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.