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Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu

It’s all over the news: In a recent study, Claudia Fritz of the Institut Jean le Rond d’Alembert in Paris asked 10 well known violinists to play six old Italian violins – five Stradivari and a Guarneri del Gesù – and six new violins.

Salon says the study "showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old."

"Violinists can’t tell new violins from old," USA Today trumpets.

The normally sober CBC posits that "new research suggests that Stradivarius violins may not deserve their legendary reputation."

Even the National Geographic gets breathless over this one, headlining their story "Stradivarius violins aren’t better than new ones."

What’s really going on here?

First of all, the study found that given a limited time with old and new violins – and not having been told which was which – a specific group of violinists showed some significant preference for two modern violins, and clearly disliked one historical Stradivarius violin. It also found that after playing an instrument for 30 seconds, musicians were able to identify it correctly as "old" or "new" only about half the time.

Note carefully how that statement compares with the headlines above.

Secondly, this study follows an earlier one which was widely criticized for its small sample size and its location – violinists were asked to play the instruments in a hotel room, not a concert hall. The study published yesterday (7 April) doubled the number of violins and gave the musicians a chance to play in a practice room and on a concert stage.

This study, unlike the previous one, identified the participants. This time the violinists evaluating the instruments were Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc.

So far, so good. However, one thing doesn’t seem to have changed. Like the earlier study, this one tapped collectors for the loan of their valuable historical instruments.

This is a problem. Most collectors these days are investors, not musicians. They don’t play their violins, certainly not the way a working musician would. An instrument that isn’t played regularly will never be in top shape.

Furthermore, the researchers weren’t allowed to make any adjustments to the historical instruments. They couldn’t even change the strings. What professional musician would accept that restriction for the violin he or she plays daily?

As Steven Isserlis pointed out in discussing the earlier study in The Guardian‘s music blog, "A tiny movement of the sound-post – the little stick inside a string instrument that lies close to the bridge – can alter the tone completely. In Italian, this sound-post is called the ‘anima’ – the soul … players travel across continents to have their sound-posts moved a fraction of an inch.

"The shape, thickness and height of the bridge have to be right, too, in order for the instrument to vibrate freely. The strings have to be top quality. And then there’s the bow, which is almost as important as the instrument. Presumably the same bow was used for every violin in this test; but different bows react differently to the same instrument. It is the correct combination that matters most."

The Strads and Guarneri del Gesù in this study were effectively hobbled.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I suspect a classic case of confirmation bias in this study.

I can’t help thinking of something that audiophiles argue about endlessly. Thirty years on, they’re still debating the sonic differences between LPs and CDs.

They can bicker all they want. My ears tell me that the very best LPs played with the very best equipment beat out the best CDs.

Now, there’s a problem with this. I would put the number of truly sonically superlative LP titles in – perhaps – the hundreds. What’s more, the equipment you need to really hear them at their best can be absurdly expensive and frustratingly finickly. If the stylus is a bit dirty or worn, or the tonearm is slightly out of adjustment – forget it. (Sound familiar? Read Steven Isserlis’s comments above about the violin’s sound-post.)

I treasure the few acoustically stunning LPs I own. But the truth is that the music I genuinely love mostly isn’t on those LPs. It’s on CDs, and the average CD on my record shelf is head and shoulders above the average LP.

My guess – and mark well, I am not a violinist – is that something akin to this is at work in the violin world. The very best historical instruments, carefully maintained and well played, are probably close to unbeatable. But in the real world of harried touring, maybe – just maybe – a well made and finely configured modern instrument can hold its own.

If that be true, let’s celebrate! That’s really good news for many thousands of musicians – the ones who will never be able to spend a 7 or 8 figure sum for the tools of their trade.

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William Blake: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)
William Blake: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)

NOTE: This week’s In Performance (Sunday 6 April 2014) will extend past the usual end time of 10pm.

HISTORY

Felix Mendelssohn might almost have been born to compose the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Certainly his love for Shakespeare was in full bloom long before his teenage years were past.

Felix, it must be said, was no starving artist. He was the son of a wealthy banker. The family lived outside Berlin on a sumptuous estate of 10 acres. Their palatial home even included a theatre. When the weather was fair, they held concerts in their vast gardens – not outdoors, but in yet another concert hall which seated hundreds.

To get his last three symphonies performed, Mozart had to rent a casino; all the young Mendelssohn had to do to hear his music played was walk a few yards. He and his immensely talented sister Fanny were regular features on the concert stages, too.

But it was the idyllic garden itself that really captivated young Felix. He spent hours there, reading, imagining, composing. One evening in the summer of 1826, he told his English friend William Bennett, he discovered Shakespeare in that garden.

There his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream had its first stirrings. Not even a month after falling under Puck’s spell, Mendelssohn had already composed an overture. He had also effectively invented the concert overture – a musical form that doesn’t introduce a specific opera or other theatre piece, but rather stands for a literary work. Mendelssohn’s work arguably points the way to Liszt’s symphonic poems and Strauss’s tone poems.

He was 17 years old.

By 1842 Mendelssohn’s career was fully established. He was music director of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He was also Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Friedrich’s Royal Theatre was planning a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: would Mendelssohn compose the music?

In all, Mendelssohn created 12 new pieces for the play, introducing them with the atmospheric overture he’d crafted as a Shakespeare-smitten teenager. What’s remarkable about the music he composed at the age of 33 is how seamlessly it fits with what he’d written 16 years earlier.

The production’s premiere in November was a complete success. The music has never faltered since. Today the suite from Mendelssohn’s music is a beloved part of the standard orchestral repertoire, but it’s a rare treat to hear all the music Mendelssohn composed in the setting that he intended – woven into a theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (In fact today you should consider yourself fortunate to hear a live orchestra accompanying any stage production.)

Following on to last season’s collaboration with Groundworks Dance Theatre in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Akron Symphony and music director Christopher Wilkins undertook a project at least as complex.

In early March (2014), A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought together on the E J Thomas Hall stage noted regional actors, Ballet Excel Ohio (formerly Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet), and the Summit Choral Society Children’s Chorus. To keep the length of the performance in line with the realities of modern classical concert practice, the play was presented in an abridged version from Murray Ross’s Theatreworks of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

SYNOPSIS

Duke Theseus and Hippolyta are preparing for their wedding. Their courtship has been – shall we say – unconventional: Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazons, whom Theseus has just defeated in battle. He is captivated by her charms. She is a captive.

Egeus arrives with his daughter Hermia. It seems that she too is involved in a somewhat complex courtship: both Lysander and Demetrius seek her hand.

The truth is that Hermia loves Lysander. However, Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. He is here to get his wishes enforced by the duke’s iron hand. Meanwhile, Helena is in love with Demetrius. (Following this so far?)

Egeus is fabulously successful; the duke grants his wish. Hermia has a month: she must do as papa says or face death! – or at least the ascetic life of the convent.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away. They will meet in the forest. But Hermia makes a grievous error: she tells Helena of their plans.

Remember, Helena loves Demetrius – but Demetrius doesn’t love Helena. Here is some ammunition for Helena: maybe if she spills Hermia’s secret to Demetrius, she’ll win some favor from him. So she does. Demetrius takes off in hot pursuit of the desperate couple, Helena at his heels.

In the forest, fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania are scrapping over which of them should have a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Titania refuses to give him up, so Oberon exacts his revenge. He commands that his servant Puck find a rare flower, its juice a love potion. Puck drizzles the philter on Titania’s eyes as she sleeps. When she opens them, she will fall madly in love with the first creature she sees.

Demetrius, seeking Lysander and Hermia, has instead found Helena. He is not pleased. Helena’s visible anguish at his rejection softens Oberon’s heart. He directs Puck to apply his love potion to Demetrius’s eyes.

Just then Hermia and Lysander arrive on the scene. As ordered, Puck anoints the Athenian’s eyes. When he opens them, his heart surges with passion for Helena. There is, however, a bit of a problem. Puck has confused his Athenians. It is Lysander who’s fallen for Helena! He instantly abandons Hermia as if he’d never met her.

Meanwhile, players set to perform at Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding have made their way to the forest to prepare their play. Puck listens nearby as Nick Bottom and Company rehearse. He can’t resist a bit of mischief, and bestows an ass’s head on poor Bottom. The actor’s comrades flee in terror. Titania awakens – and who should her lovesick eyes spy but ass-headed Bottom!

Hermia, bereft at losing Lysander, is sure that Demetrius has killed him. He denies it, so she goes to look for her beloved.

Oberon sees the tangled state of affections and realizes: this is all Puck’s fault! He orders Puck to find Helena and bring her hither. He paints Demetrius’s eyes with the love potion.

Puck brings Helena to this scene. She’s trailed by Lysander, imploring her to return his love. Just as Oberon planned, Demetrius awakes to the sight of Helena and is overtaken by passion for her. But what’s this? She’s also pursued by Lysander? Now Demetrius really will murder his rival! He and Lysander challenge each other to a duel.

Helena, utterly bemused, is certain that she must be the victim of an elaborate ruse. Hermia is simply heartbroken.

There shall be no bloodshed in this fairies’ wood. Oberon has Puck imitate Lysander’s and Demetrius’s voices, leading them on a futile chase until they fall exhausted into a deep sleep. Puck washes Lysander’s eyes with an antidote. When he awakes, he will again be in love with Hermia.

Puck declares that all will be as it should be when the lovers awaken: Lysander and Hermia will be a couple, and Demetrius will love Helena as she loves him. As act 3 gives way to intermission, all four slumber to the strains of Mendelssohn’s gentle Nocturne.

As act 4 opens, the four lovers remain asleep in the dark, magical forest. Titania, however, is still pursuing Bottom, ass head and all. Oberon, now possessed of the changeling he sought, decides Titania has suffered enough. He lifts the love spell from her. Puck relieves Bottom of his ass’s head.

Theseus and Hippolyta, on an early morning hunt, stumble onto the slumbering quartet. He wakes them with his hunting horns, and hears them out.

Theseus, his heart warmed by their tale of confusion, reverses his decree. Egeus’s desires are as nothing compared to love. Lysander and Hermia shall marry, and so shall Demetrius and Helena. In fact, they’ll join in the festivities of his own marriage.

Bottom and company return from Athens to perform at the lavish wedding feast in Theseus’s palace. Theseus asks them to present the play Pyramus and Thisbe for the lovers. All retire for the night.

All but the fairies, that is. They sing and dance. Oberon blesses all three couples.

And who has the final word? It’s impish Puck, of course: "If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear … So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends."

CAST
 
Theseus and Oberon John Hedges
Hyppolyta and Titania Elana Kepner
Egeus A Neil Thackaberry
Lysander William John Liptak
Hermia Natalie Welch
Puck Stuart Hoffman
Nick Bottom Bob Russell
Peter Quince Terence Cranendonk
Francis Flute Andrew Knode
Snout Mark Seven
Snug Ryan Nehlen
Starveling Michele McNeal
Cobweb Marybeth Hobson
Peaseblossom and Philostrate Catie Hewitt
Moth Karla Cummins
Mustardseed Anna E White
 
The Akron Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Christopher Wilkins
Director Craig Joseph
 
Ballet Excel Ohio
Artistic director Mia Klinger
Choreographer Eric Yetter
 
Summit Choral Society Children’s Choir
Director Heather Cooper
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Lipinski Strad
The Lipinski Strad (Michael Darnton)

Police in Milwaukee today (Thursday 6 February) confirmed that a violin recovered from the attic of a house in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood is the rare Lipinski Stradivarius stolen from the Milwaukee Symphony’s concertmaster last Monday (27 January).

Three people were arrested Wednesday, apparently in connection with the theft. One was later released. As of Thursday, no charges had been filed, but that’s expected on Friday.

Concertmaster Frank Almond had been shot with a stun gun. Police say that information from Taser International led them to a Milwaukee resident. On a tip, they also detained a man previously convicted of a 1995 theft from a Milwaukee art gallery.

One of the suspects led police to an acquaintance’s home. There, armed with a search warrant, they found the violin in a suitcase, apparently undamaged. The special custom-made violin case that Almond had used to protect the instrument had earlier been found empty near the scene of his attack.

Almond has scars on his wrist and chest from the stun gun used to assault him, but he’s otherwise physically unharmed.

The recovered Lipinski Strad is back with its anonymous owners. Prior to 2008, when they allowed Almond to use the instrument, they’d kept it in a bank vault. Almond expects to be reunited with the violin this weekend.

In recent years, more rare instruments have become investments for wealthy collectors. This trend is pricing fine historical instruments beyond the means of many working musicians.

However, when collectors lend those instruments to musicians, the instruments grow in reputation and value. Regular use and maintenance also keeps them in better shape than if they were stored away.

Some concern remains that this theft might prompt some collectors to think twice before lending their instruments. Musicians and orchestras also worry about its effect on already-high instrument insurance premiums.

On the other hand, indications are that this was strictly a local job, not a major international heist. That and the speedy recovery are good news for musicians and music lovers.


Further Information:

Milwaukee Police Confirm Recovery at The Guardian

Art Thief Among Suspects at the Milwaukee Star-Tribune

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Scottish-born Frederic Lamond lived from 1868 to 1948. That was perfect timing for him to know many of the greats of the late Romantic Era, and yet be able talk about it in recordings. He was a student of Franz Liszt and described meeting him for the first time in 1885, a year before Liszt died. Lamond was seventeen.

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Lipinski Stradivarius
The Lipinski Strad (Frank Almond)

Recently, the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians and management resolved a long standing dispute partly fueled by the board’s insistence on cutting the players’ salaries. The board was pushing for a 35% giveback. The final agreement reduces the average musician’s salary from $135,000 to $118,000.

Let’s put that pay scale in perspective. The basic tool of an orchestra musician’s trade is his or her instrument. Today, the cost of fine string instruments can easily run into six to seven figures.

A few years back, WKSU arts reporter Vivian Goodman and I wrote about this problem in Instrument Unaffordable.

Part of the reason for the astronomical price tags: collectors. In recent decades, instruments have joined fine art as investment vehicles for the wealthy, driving the price of historical string instruments to record levels. The one bright spot has been the generosity of some museums and music-loving collectors in allowing noted artists – and, sometimes, promising students – to use instruments from their collections.

At 10:20pm last Monday evening (27 January), Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond left the auditorium at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He’d just finished playing Olivier Messiaen’s powerful Quartet for the End of Time, and had carefully wrapped the violin to protect it from Milwaukee’s subzero cold.

As he walked to his car, someone approached him. An instant later, Almond was on the ground, shot with a stun gun. His assailant snatched the rare 1715 Stradivarius Almond had been playing minutes before, then jumped into a waiting dark-red minivan and sped away.

Violins made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) – "Strads" – are prized for their distinctive tone quality.

The Lipinski Strad, formerly owned by 19th century virtuoso Karol Lipinski, and earlier by 18th century violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini, was on long term loan to Almond. Its current owners remain anonymous, but are described as having "strong ties to Milwaukee." Almond had had use of the instrument since 2008. At that time its value was estimated at around $3.5 million. Today it’s valued at around $6 million.

This is hardly the first time that a Strad has been stolen. In fact, of the 540 known to have survived, at least 19 are currently missing.

Some historians have speculated that the "Red Mendelssohn," the inspiration for the 1998 cinematic tale The Red Violin, was stolen shortly after its creation in 1720. It didn’t resurface until one of composer Felix Mendelssohn’s heirs purchased it in Berlin in the 1930s. Elizabeth Pitcairn now plays that violin.

The famed Joshua Bell also uses an instrument that once was "hot." It vanished from Bronislaw Huberman’s Carnegie Hall dressing room in 1936. Huberman never got it back.

Finally, on his deathbed, a minor New York session musician confessed to the theft. For nearly five decades, Julian Altman had been playing Huberman’s Gibson Strad in pickup gigs. He’d smeared it with black shoe polish to disguise it.

Altman had known better than to try to "fence" such a high-profile instrument. The crook who stole Min-Jin Kym’s Strad in a London train station in 2010 wasn’t as canny. Last year (2013), he tried to peddle it for £100. He was promptly arrested.

The Milwaukee theft is particularly unsettling because of the nature of the crime. The violence of the attack – Almond was left lying in the parking lot – has many in the music world rattled.

Furthermore, because it’s effectively impossible to sell such an instrument on the black market, some are wondering whether – as with Huberman’s violin in 1936 – an unscrupulous musician might be behind the theft.

Although the Lipinski Strad was insured, there’s also concern over what effect this loss may have on other collectors’ willingness to lend their instruments to working musicians.

On Friday, an unknown benefactor posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to the return of the instrument. The FBI and Interpol are both on the case, but if you have any knowledge of the attack, or can help identify the escape vehicle, you can call the Milwaukee Police at 414 935-7360. You can also contact the Milwaukee Symphony anonymously at 414 226-7838.


Further Information:

Stradivarius Stolen at The Guardian

Reward Announced at Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Frank Almond on the Lipinski Strad at All Things Strings

Stradivarius Violins from The Violin Site

A Violin’s Life: Music for the ‘Lipinski’ Stradivari, CD by Frank Almond at Arkivmusic

Disclaimer: WKSU receives no financial advantage from your use of any vendor(s) cited in this message. Recordings are available from a variety of sources, both local and online. Links are provided for your information and convenience. They don’t signify an endorsement.

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