A taste of Cremona

February 11, 2009, 12:31 AM ·

Cremona, Italy – it's the city where the great Antonio Stradivari made his famous violins, and it remains a world center for violin-making.

That's why I was rather intrigued when I was invited to attend a demonstration of instruments from Cremona, held last week much closer to where I live, at Metzler Violins in Glendale, California. Owners Tom Metzler and Barbara Don brought together more than 70 instruments made by nearly as many luthiers, mostly Cremonese. It's the 11th year in a row that Metzler Violins has held a "Cremona Exhibit."

Cremonese Violins

"If you visit Cremona, you will never see so many instruments from Cremona all in one place," said Don, who played bits of Bach, Bruch and other sonorous violin melodies that cover four strings quickly, on 56 violins, all in a row. (There were also 11 violas and four cellos). Seated around her were about 30 people from the LA area, including teachers, professionals, students, and parents of violin, viola and cello students. I chatted with a professional violinist friend who simply liked to check in every on the value of her Cremonese fiddle. (How was it holding up? Better than most people's stock portfolios...) I also met teacher who was curious about the possibilities for her students. Some attendees where adult students themselves, who took the chance to try out the Cremonese fiddles in practice rooms at the back of the shop after the demonstrations.

The instruments ranged greatly in age, with the oldest made in 1743 and the newest in 2008. Most were modern fiddles. Listening to 56 violins in a row was – well I imagine it was like a wine-tasting event, where you're a bit on the tipsy side by the end. Also, it required some imagination when coming up with descriptive words, like "richer, more fluid voice; darker; sweet; buzzy; even sound; focused sound; thin but sweet; warm; milky and easy to play; contained; mature sound; too much in the basement; meh; sounds studenty; strong voice that projects; nice overtones; even in all ranges..."

Oh no, I'm not telling you which was which. I'll tell you the few instruments that were my favorites, though. The quotes are what I wrote upon hearing them, and a few of them I played also: a 1968 Mario Gadda (this man's father was Stefano Scarampella's only student); a 2006 Giorgio Grisales ("even in all ranges"); a 2007 Ada Quaranta ("milky, gentle tone"); a 2006 Edgar Russ (Guarnerius copy, master made, "very clear, projects"); a 2005 Maurizio Tadioli ("mature sound, and really pretty graded color;" I played it and found it responsive); a 2007 Francesco Toto ("smooth tone"); a 1976 Filippo Zanisi ("strong voice, responsive; beautiful varnish, like yellow and brown clouds that blend together").

For folks who don't have $10,000 to $75,000 to spend on a fiddle, Metzler Violin will present a different tasting menu on March 1. It's an event in a similar format only this time "it's instruments for people on a tight budget – which is everybody," Don said. "This year, the economy warranted this kind of event."

They'll show instruments in the $1,000 to $9,000 range. "We have a lot of instruments in stock that are one-of-a-kind, but we decided we also needed some brand names that people could recognize as well." Representatives from Eastman Strings, Heinrich Gill and Vivo USA will speak to potential buyers about how to pick out instruments and how to discern the varying levels of craftsmanship.

For example, "There are a lot of instruments that are hybrids," Don said. That is, the instrument is made in the white in, say, China, and finished in Belgium or Germany. "Historically, that happened a lot between Germany and Italy," Don said, with instruments made in the white in Germany and finished in Italy. Such instruments are of lower value than instruments made entirely by one luthier. "If these instruments are labeled honestly and correctly, they will say, 'from the workshop of....'" These instruments can sound good, while being more affordable, she said.

I appreciate the idea of this kind of event, and the Metzlers did a nice job of encouraging curiosity: presenting each instrument with a bit of history as well as the opportunity to hear and even play it, and all without the pressure of being there just to buy. I'd encourage violin shops to think about doing this kind of educational outreach, and for string players and teachers to take advantage of these opportunities to learn about our instrument, which is its own work of art. Unless you are a collector of fine instruments, you probably won't be buying a new one on any kind of regular basis. Having the opportunity to learn about the origins of various instruments, to hear many of them, to be able to test them, allows string players to eventually be educated buyers; both in their own tastes and in the history and craftsmanship of the instruments.


February 11, 2009 at 01:16 PM ·

I love the Metzler violin shop.  It was where I took my violin to get it refurbished when I started playing again when I was living in Pasadena.  It was also where I bought my violin case, that I still use (the blue Musafia).  Unfortunately it looks like they started doing this workshop only just after I moved away from the area.  :(

February 11, 2009 at 06:19 PM ·

Thanks for the report, Laurie.  I attended last year's exhibition but stayed away this year to avoid the temptation to upgrade from the violin I purchased there 4 years ago.  Good shop, very nice folks, and a wonderful opportunity to hear and test many fine instruments.

February 11, 2009 at 08:50 PM ·

Thanks, Laurie.  That was a great blog.  You were so lucky to attend.  That photo of all those violins practically made me drool.  I wish that some violin store near me would have similar events.

I found it interesting that the violins you liked the best were all made recently.

I especially like the event scheduled for lower priced instruments with experts around to explain things.  This is great outreach and education.  Perhaps it's just as well that there are no such events near me.  I don't know whether I could resist the temptation to buy one of the more modestly priced instruments.

Thanks again for the glimpse into violin heaven.

February 11, 2009 at 11:17 PM ·

What a fantastic event!  I hope it will begin a trend.  I also love the photo!   Thanks for the story.

February 12, 2009 at 09:40 AM ·

Hi Laurie, thanks for visiting the exhibition and writing about it (with your inimitable style!!).

You may or may not know that these Cremona exhibitions were an initiative of my brother Dominik and mine, to make contemporary Cremona instruments available in the U.S. on a try-out and buy-if-you-like basis. Before Cremona Exhibition, in fact, far fewer U.S. dealers carried contemporary Cremona violins and in addition you basically had to order, sight unseen (or make that, "sound unheard"!). 

Cremona Exhibition - A Living Tradition (the complete name of the event), which has been staged in multiple editions over the years, was a travelling exhibition that went coast-to-coast, bringing Cremona's current instrument production to major dealers countrywide, and was the largest show of contemporary Cremona instruments ever to be staged outside of Italy - year after year. My office handled the logistics in Cremona (the paperwork was frightful). I think I can safely say that this event made a substantial improvement of both the availability of Cremona violins in the U.S.A. and peoples' awareness about them.

While Cremona Exhibition as organized by us is no longer, some shops (such as Metzler's) that were part of the original circuit organize their own upon similar guidelines. I'm glad that my brother and I were able to make this contribution to the musical scene. And yes, the Metzlers are great people!

February 12, 2009 at 05:36 PM ·

That's wonderful, Dimitri! I am glad to know the history of the event. Indeed, something like this really helps acquaint performers and students with the work of modern luthiers. It's one thing to talk about these instruments, and quite another to hear them, see them, touch them, play them.

I do believe I saw some of your jaw-droppingly gorgeous cases there as well. ;)


February 12, 2009 at 08:15 PM ·

Dominik Musafia is still involved in our Cremona Exhibition!  He was and is our best source for contemporary Italian violins, as well as the beautiful Musafia cases.  We sell them on our website, metzlerviolins.com.  We are very grateful to the Musafia brothers for their contribution over the past ten years. Their organization was masterful!  Even though the exhibition no longer traveling across the U.S., the Metzler shop and the David Kerr shop are keeping it alive on the West Coast, so look for it again next year.  Barbara Don (Metzler Violins)

February 14, 2009 at 09:41 AM ·

Thanks for the excellent blog.  A matter slightly mentioned regarding violins holding their value better than a stock portfolio brought up an incident. 

One of the excellent violinists in our local community orchestra is also my cardiologist. He brings a new "date" to almost every rehearsal, and I stay after and  drool over each week's treasure.  In asking him how many violins he owns, he offers a wry smile and proffers that he has indeed converted his investments into violins.

Much the same as several years ago when the Ensemble Vien came to our town to play. I was questioning the members (All members of the Vienna Phil) about their violins and the most resentful loudly voiced that his Guadagnini was owned by the band of Vienna...and he added in the smuggest of tones, " Dey doan buy Golt ".....I assume they invested heavily in instruments even back then (circa 1998) As an additional sidelight, the giant bass player was most reluctant to admit that his huge flat back monster was made in "Detwoyt".

So perhaps it is a trend and hedge against financial ruin....think our govt. should start buiding violins rather than printing currency ? 

February 14, 2009 at 01:56 PM ·

Good God! If I were there I would have gotten into  serious dept in 1.35982 seconds! LOL, they would have had men in white suits carring nets chasing me!

}:^D Pant, pant, drool, drool!


Your Local Neighborhood Violin Nut!

February 15, 2009 at 06:25 AM ·

Thanks, Ms. Niles, for the beautiful descriptions of those modern and not so modern works of art.  I am certainly green with envy.  It would be priceless to be able to test drive any one of those beautiful violins. 

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