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|July 8th, 2007, 07:25 AM||#1 (permalink)|
Friend of Leo's
Join Date: Mar 2003
Location: Sydney, Australia
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National broadcasts a short science and society program on Sunday morning called Ockham's Razor.
The host is Robyn Williams (not the actor) who can be though of as the antipodean version of David Suzuki. I'm not sure which of them has been at it longer though.
This morning's program was on a $10,000,000 violin which recently came into the hands of Richard Tognetti - one of Australia's foremost classical violinists. The guest speaker discusses the marginal return on that last $9,980,000 and his thoughts on what it all means.
I couldn't help thinking of electric guitar equivalents although as you will read, expensive violins seem to attract the interest a much broader, but no less gullible (possibly more?), audience.
You can hear the program online for the next few weeks at the website, or read a slightly shortened transcript below.
Robyn Williams: Of all the artists who struggle to succeed, writers and musicians have the toughest deal. But of the two, an author can get away with paper and pen, or maybe a cheap laptop. But a musician also needs a good instrument, and what do you do if you are a violinist and your fiddle can cost up to $10-million. Is it worth paying even a 100th of that? Can you actually hear the difference when a priceless instrument is played?
Here's composer and musician, Jon Rose.
Jon Rose: Someone once said that selling the latest piece of unnecessary technology junk to Australians was like 'shooting fish in a barrel'. The metaphor stands up well, too, when you consider the nonsense surrounding violinist Richard Tognetti's recent acquisition of a $10-million Guarneri del Gesu violin, purchased for him by some anonymous but extremely rich film star or businessman, one presumes. The perfect sales pitch was handed to the gushing Australian Chamber Orchestra PR person who sounded more like she was selling mobile phones to teenagers or package holidays to grannies than entering any debate on the musical worth of headlining a program of classical music as 'Revolution'. Unlike the Eroica Symphony which was also performed in that concert, Beethoven's Violin Concerto wasn't revolutionary in its day and certainly represents the antithesis of anything radical or revolutionary in the 21st century.
Wild horses couldn't drag me to pay out at the Australian Flagship's box office, so I heard the concert on the ABC. Hence, I could witness the adjectival overkill pouring forth from the radio in the interval. Something like, 'Yes, it's standing room only as the capacity audience wants to hear what $10-million sounds like'. As I said, like shooting fish in a barrel. 'All the other orchestras have their expensive violins, why shouldn't the Australian Chamber Orchestra have its very own?' she luxuriated all over the airwaves. Why? Because the world has heard great orchestras like the Leningrad Philharmonic, the Gewandhaus Leipzig, or the Czech Philharmonic, all playing with a great string sound and without one expensive 17th century Italian violin in sight. That's why.
I was talking to a fan of Tognetti's who travelled for over three hours to hear the $10-million wunder. She confessed a mixture of shock, guilt, and self-doubt that when the great maestro demonstrated his three violins on stage to the charged up and compliant audience, she couldn't tell any audible difference between them, despite the price tag differential. She needn't have worried.
As any honest violin dealer will tell you (and there are a few) the sound of a violin can be priced in a range from $50 (bad, but playable), to $10,000 (good-sounding) to $20,000 (extremely good tone and projection) to $100,000 (simply over-priced). The rest is snotty-nosed hubris. As has been proven on a number of occasions, most notably by the BBC in 1975, a well-made, top modern violin can sound just as good if not better than the prized golden age models. In a recording studio, behind a screen, the violins of Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Charles Beare were played back to them. The instruments were a Strad, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume, and a Ronald Praill (a modern instrument less than a year old). None of the esteemed violin experts really had a clue which violin was which. Furthermore, two of them couldn't even tell which was their own instrument. They were left mumbling platitudes about the personal relationship between fiddle and player - bloody obvious if you spend most years of your life playing the violin.
Fast forward to a new century of spurious violin evaluation, and who was the expert London dealer who dumped this multi-million dollar wunder violin on the Australian fish in their barrel? Why, none other than Charles Beare, the violin dealer and expert who on the BBC blindfold test had trouble telling the difference between a Strad, a Guarneri del Gesu, a Vuillaume and a Ronald Praill. As my partner, US violinist and composer Hollis Taylor will tell you, a violin dealer like Beare will not even look at a great sounding violin unless it has the correct nametag. How very contemporary, it's the name not the content that counts.
In 2003, the Texas A & M University biochemist and amateur violin maker Nagyvary set up a blind test duel between one of his recently finished instruments, and a Strad. On the Prokofiev Violin Sonata in D, 57 music experts picked the Strad, 129 were not sure, and 290 got it plain wrong (in the sense that they picked the modern instrument over the Strad.
A blind test took place in Sweden two years ago in which three modern Swedish violins were compared to a Stradivarius, a Gagliano, and a Guadagnini. The six instruments were played by two professionals and judged by members of the European String Teachers' Association. A modern Westerlund violin got the top score; the Strad came last.
Question: Can any improvements be made to the basic 17th century violin design? The experts always say no, no never; innovative makers of string instruments think differently however.
US violinmaker Carline Hutchins, for example, devoted her entire life to creating an octet of modern violin class instruments based on the viol family. The project drew on heavyweight scientists from across the States and beyond to arrive at arguably the most efficient and powerful acoustic string instruments yet made. There are three complete sets of the Hutchins' Octet in existence, and they produce the most dazzling string ensemble sound to be heard. Of course, the instruments are not standard size Italian, so none of this innovation will ever make it into Violinworld, home of the most reactionary and conservative forces in classical music.
If there are $10-million available for Australian music, then spend it on the music and the musicians, not antiques or real estate. Oh, you jealous guy, you are just saying that; if you had a $10-million violin, you would keep it, surely? Wrong. As it happens I sometimes played on a Guarneri and a few other expensive Italians violins owned by rich kids when I worked at the Royal Academy of Music, London, in the early 1970s. Yes, they were better than my $500 German violin, but not hundreds of thousands of dollars better.
So any Strad in my hands would meet with an accident and the insurance money used to fund the missing concerts of new living music throughout this century. Australia doesn't need this violin cringing nonsense, particularly when it is blessed with such superb (and inexpensive) makers as the brilliant and prolific Harry Vatiliotis of Sydney, to name but one.
Let's spell it out. The sound of a good violin depends as much on the player, the space, the bow, and the context as it does upon its construction. As for the performance by Tognetti of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, did the multi-million dollar violin make an audible difference or was it still a swag full of screw ups? I leave that for the critics to decide.
The notion of a $10-million violin sounds out the ugly and unacceptable face of capitalism, applauded by all the fish in the barrel, as they love to be had. The classical music industry, basically a bunch of dodgy antique dealers, aided and abetted by Hollywood, promotes its existence through delusions and myths about Strads (film - 'The Red Violin'), Mozart (film - 'Amadeus') or Tchaikovsky (film - 'The Music Lovers'), ad nauseum.
When Stern and Zukermann were asked why they prefer Cremonese violins to modern instruments, they replied 'Security'. A truthful reply. Yes, it's Wall Street that shouts out dollar numbers in the millions, not a musical instrument.
Robyn Williams: Yes, but I still think Tognetti's a genius, whatever his instrument.
Jon Rose, with that telling critique. He's a composer.
I'm Robyn Williams. Keep fiddling.
Last edited by Robin Nahum; July 8th, 2007 at 08:26 PM.
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