Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Musical Instrument Bank

Whenever I see a particularly noxious piece of music journalism, i.e. most of them, I like to comment on it. But the flip side of that is that I also try to give credit where credit is due. There is an interesting story in the Globe and Mail today about an excellent project of the Canada Council: their musical instrument loan program.

Aspiring young violinists have a huge problem trying to find an suitable instrument that most other instrumentalists just don't have. As a young guitarist, just starting to really come to grips with developing my skills as a performer, one of the things I had to do was replace my student guitar (Yamaha, about $200) with a real concert instrument. You can't learn to expand your dynamic and timbral range without an instrument that can actually do it. My solution was I flew to Madrid and purchased a Jose Ramirez 1a (meaning "primera", i.e. top level concert instrument), the same that Segovia and others had played. The cost, in 1974, was a mere $650! I'm not sure what they cost now, but probably somewhere between $5000 and $10,000.

But if you are a violinist, or cellist, you are faced with a problem of a whole different magnitude. What would it cost to purchase a violin of the finest concert quality? Would you believe $4,000,000? Yes, I'm afraid so. So the Canada Council has a wonderful program to help young violinists. Every three years they hold a competition to win the opportunity to borrow a concert violin from the Musical Instrument Bank. There are thirteen violinists vying to possess thirteen different violins ranging from fine instruments worth $300,000 built in the 18th century, to the heights of instruments built by Guarneri and Stradivari! It is hard to find anything wrong with a project like this.

There are some errors in the story. The claim is made that:
 in blind tests, audiological analysts and concert violinists alike have had difficulty distinguishing one fine old fiddle from another.
which is not exactly true. The 'tests' referred to were promoted by a builder of new violins who was eager to show that his instruments were just as good as those old ones. Several question marks hover over how the test was conducted and quite a few very knowledgeable people disagree strongly. All the great concert violinists of today prefer to play the old violins built in Cremona and it isn't just because of the name of the builder. But with only some 500 of the Cremona violins still available, and especially with millions of young Chinese violinists coming along, modern builders are striving to build instruments that will measure up to the best of the 17th and 18th century ones.

Isn't it fascinating that the finest violins ever built, so far, were built in a little town in Italy, Cremona, by three builders, Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, largely between 1700 and 1750? I can't think of any other example of technology of which this is true. Let's hear one of these violins:

1 comment:

Heather McAfee said...

Hello Bryan,
I read your blog with interest. I have a question for you. Could you please call me?

Heather McAfee
Public Relations
Canada Council for the Arts
613-566-4414 x4166