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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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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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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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Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado (

Born on 26 June 1933, Claudio Abbado never actively sought a music director position. He didn’t need to; orchestras recruited him. He was associated with the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic. Opera, too: La Scala, the Vienna State Opera. Here in the States, he was noted for his work with the Chicago Symphony.

Claudio Abbado died today at his Bologna home following an extended illness. He was 80.

The Guardian has a thoughtful and detailed remembrance.

[H]e raised a superband of players all gathered together for his sake, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, to heights that many listeners have never experienced in other orchestral concerts.

A recording producer defined his special gift as a sense of "absolute pulse" – more precisely, an unerring sense of the right and natural tempo relations in a piece that could give shape and meaning even to the most seemingly amorphous of works, and within that a supple life to the individual musical phrases that no contemporary has equaled.

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Minnesota Orchestra Hall
Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall (Gerald Mertens)

Last October, Minneapolis had a newly renovated Orchestra Hall – and, for the second season, no music to fill it.

In 2012, the Minnesota Orchestra Association, claiming the orchestra faced crippling deficits, had proposed a contract slashing musicians’ salaries by 35 percent. The players, skeptical about the board’s financial claims, turned thumbs down. In response, the board locked out the musicians and axed the entire 2012-13 season.

When the musicians said no to 25 percent reductions in early October 2013, management also cancelled this season. Concerns deepened about the orchestra’s future.

With talks at an impasse, some of the musicians left town for other gigs. The remaining players, determined to keep classical music alive in Minneapolis, carried on with concerts at other locations, performing as Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. They had even proposed a 10-concert series for this spring.

But in recent weeks, board members who hadn’t previously been involved in negotiations began quietly meeting with musicians’ representatives. Board member Doug Kelley said these informal discussions eventually led to formal talks that "felt like traditional labor negotiations."

The settlement will bring music back to Orchestra Hall in early February (2014). It calls for initial salary cuts of 15 percent. The players will also have to pay more of their medical insurance costs, but this will be partly offset by small raises in the next 2 years.

Both sides compromised in other ways.

The musicians agreed to changes in their work rules, but they earned the right to a greater say in artistic decisions. Some musicians, troubled by a growing trend toward more popular music concerts, got management to agree to 20 weeks’ worth of classical performances per season.

Management landed more flexibility in hiring musicians. They got salary concessions, though smaller ones than they’d originally sought. They also gave the nod to an extraordinary revenue sharing provision: the players will receive additional compensation if the orchestra’s endowment’s investments return at least 10% on average over the 3-year life of the contract.

Board chairman Jon Campbell will step down, but Michael Henson will remain president and CEO.

Despite the pay reductions, the agreement keeps the Minnesota Orchestra in the "top ten" salary tier. The musicians said that was crucial for attracting high-caliber colleagues.

Attracting talent is a problem the orchestra will face immediately. The new contract calls for an ensemble of 95. The orchestra is now 18 short of that number. Time will tell whether the US’s longest orchestra labor dispute ever will have lingering effects on hiring.

What’s more, management has committed to hiring only 7 more players over the 3-year contract term. For now, substitute musicians will fill the gaps. The agreement allows them to be paid less – 90% of the orchestra’s base salary.

The personnel issue that looms largest: the music director. Right now, the orchestra has none. It lost noted Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska in October. Vanska resigned in part because of the cancellation of the orchestra’s scheduled Carnegie Hall appearance. Now that the dispute is settled, will he return? If not, who will replace him?

Many other questions remain, including how (or whether) to fold the orchestra’s scheduled independent concerts into the official season.

One big question: how to rebuild the damaged relationships between the musicians and the Minnesota Orchestra Association. A musicians’ union representative mused, "You don’t lock out people from their jobs for this long without there at least being some lingering feeling." Board member Kelley acknowledged "a little scar tissue." Still, "There is a lot of love for this organization as a whole," said clarinetist Tim Zavadil. "We always knew we could get this done."

Further exploration:

Dispute is Over at MPR News

Orchestra Deal Ends Walkout at Minneapolis Star Tribune

Deconstructing Orchestra Debacle at Classical Voice North America

Letter to Our Friends and Community at Minnesota Orchestra Musicians

Musicians and Board Ratify New Contract at Minnesota Orchestra

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