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Laurie Niles

The Art of Sound -- Modern Violin Exhibit This Spring in Omaha

March 9, 2012 at 10:55 PM

With all the talk about the sound of modern violins rivaling the sound of seasoned Stradivaris, one might wonder: Who are today's up-and-coming violin makers, and how do their violins really sound?

If you seriously wish to explore that question, you might consider a trip to Omaha, Neb., for The Art of Sound, an exhibition of new violins and violin-making competitions that will run March 31 through April 21 at A. Cavallo Violins.

The 22-day exhibition will include about 150 violins representing 90 violin makers -- all living -- from all over the world. Among those will be about 30 violins to be evaluated in a competition that right before the exhibition. Judging for the violin-making competition will begin March 29, culminating in an awards dinner March 31. "The Art of Sound" exhibition has taken place annually in Omaha for five years, said Alex Ross, owner of A. Cavallo Violins, and the violin-making competition is a new part of the event this year.

Alex Ross

"We wanted to do something a little different," Ross said of the competition. Only violins made by professional makers will be entered in the contest -- no cellos, basses, or bows. Two panels of judges will evaluate the instruments over the course of three days: a panel of violin makers, and a panel of professional violinists. Members of the violin maker panel will be John Waddle, Amos Hargrave, and Stephanie Voss. Members of the playing panel are to be announced.

"All prizes are going to be given by consensus. There will be the playability judges and the workmanship judges, and they're going to decide on the grand prize together," Ross said. There will be an overall Grand Prize, a gold medal; and five certificates of merit for: overall workmanship, best original model, best antique replication; acoustics; and best violin by a maker under 30 years of age. Playing judges will be looking for more than tone; "They'll be looking for playability, accessibility, ease of execution on the instrument -- things that are important for the player," Ross said. In addition, the judges will be free to give out certificates of merit in other categories of their choosing.

Then all the violins will be on display through April 21, with a closing event April 20 called "Violin and Wine Tasting."

These days, the level of violin-making around the globe is well worth celebrating, Ross said. A new "Golden Age" of violin making has produced fine violin makers who are practicing their craft in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

"Do you know why there was a "Golden Age" (of violin making) around 1700 to 1750?" Ross said. "Because there was relative peace and prosperity in Europe, so there was a demand and there were resources. We're seeing now that there's a worldwide demand that's increased."

Why is that? Ross feels that many of the older fine instruments are reaching the effective end of their lifespans. "Some of the great old Strads, and older instruments, especially Amatis, are really reaching in the end of their lifespan," he said. "They can't be restored any more -- there's been restoration on top of restoration."

Stephanie Voss, a violinmaker who will serve as a judge in The Art of Sound violin-making competition, said it best, Ross said.

"She did a workshop for us, four shows ago, and she presented to the audience a whole lecture about styles, materials, workmanship," Ross said. "At the end, she was answering questions, and someone asked, 'Do you know the secret of Stradivarius?'"

People say it's the varnish, or it's the way the logs were floated up the river from Venice -- "none of these things is true," Ross said. "He used several varnish recipes, eight models of violins, how many molds did he use? -- there's no consistency, really."

But Stephanie said, "Yes, I know the secret of Stradivarius. Do you want to know what it is?" Everyone leaned forward to hear her potentially earth-shattering answer: "He was a damned good violin maker!"

Ross laughed, "I thought that was a great statement. And I think that, right now, the level of damned-good violin-making is really up there."


"I think it's economics, I think it's technology," Ross said. Thanks to the Internet, people can readily communicate with makers all over the world, and they can shop around.

Unfortunately, "there's also a lot of shysterism out there." Faked certificates, Chinese white violins standing in for bench-made ones…and yet the fraud is nothing new. The Internet just allows it to flourish in new ways. "In the violin business, there's a tradition of sliminess."

The nice thing about a modern instrument is that there is no doubt about the instrument's origin -- you can confirm it with its living maker.

"I also love the diversity," Ross said. "There are some makers that are very technologically-oriented, they do tons of testing. John Waddle does CAT scans, density testing on the wood, resistance testing…and his product is beautiful. Then there are other makers like Keith Hill and Doug Packs, who are completely intuitive workers. And they do beautiful work, too. There's a wide range of how people achieve great violins, but I think the level is high, no matter how they achieve it."

"My favorite thing is discovering a new, pending superstar, and we've got a couple of those right now," Ross said. "I just sold a Christopher Ulbricht violin; he's a really good maker in Indianapolis. I have a Christopher Jacoby that I just bought, a magnificent maker in Salt Lake City."

For a violinmaker to become a maker of fine violins, "they've got to make a lot of violins," Ross said. "There are a lot of makers who are kind of stuck in school mode. They've finished at a really good place like Salt Lake (Violin Making School of America) or Chicago (Chicago School of Violin Making) or Boston (North Bennet St. School.), and in the last five years they've made three violins. Their work is kind of nice and interesting, but then there are those like Chris Jacoby, who at age 30 is on violin number 50, or Mark Womack, who's made 300-400. We bought one from Ray Melanson at VSA, and I talked to Ray, and he was already on the fifth or seventh violin after that. These guys are really productive."

Why is productivity a plus? For one, a maker needs to get his or her instruments into people's hands in order to establish both a reputation and a market value. Also, there's that old saw, "Practice makes perfect."

"There's a lot of intuition in the process of making a violin, even if you're a very scientific maker," Ross said. "I don't think you achieve that level of intuition unless you're repeating the task more than a few times. "

What is the price range for a modern fiddle?

Instruments by living makers start at about $6,000-7,000 and go up to the $50,000's or so, Ross said."Typically, most average makers are between $7,000 and $25,000."

Are there regional differences in violin-making?

"I have to say, some of the Eastern Europeans are brilliant," Ross said. "It's a very interesting school, there's a whole list of Polish makers who are brilliant, like Wojciech Topa, Dimitar Dimitrov. There's a lot of individuality expressed in them; they're not quite so rigid. Probably the most rigid tradition is the German. They show the most discipline in their making, generally speaking. And that's a good thing! But it also limits them sometimes, too."

"The Italians, on the other hand, are pretty free," Ross said. "Interestingly, in Mittenwald (violin-making school in Germany), if you do the master's exam, it's very rigorous. It's very time-oriented, and you have to do all these skills by a certain time in the exam or you don't pass. It's very tough, and it's a long period you have to go through. In Italy, if you want to be a Cremonese master, you go and work with Maurizio Tadioli or Luca Salvadori, or one of those guys. You work with them, and then one day they say, "Oh, you're a master," and then you're a master! That tells you a little bit about the training, and there's a beauty in both ways."

Many buyers, after looking at eBay, expect extraordinarily low prices for violins. But there is a reason why a handmade instrument has a higher price tag than a cheapie fiddle on the Internet.

"The good violins are good, whether they are Chinese or German or Italian or American, it doesn't matter," Ross said. "There's great German stuff and there's bad German stuff, it goes both ways with any country."

A dealer who knows the difference can be very helpful. Ross cites the example of a customer who had purchased a bargain cello online for his son, for $300. "Our entry-level cello is $1,350," Ross said. First the customer came in because his son couldn't keep the cello in tune. So they put in some better pegs, better-fitted. Two weeks later he came back: the bridge had broken. Carving a bridge is pretty expensive, so that was a few hundred bucks there. The third thing that happened was the tailpiece broke. Finally the customer walked in and said, "Look, just let me buy something from you guys!" He bought it a new cello, and with a warranty.

"The problem is, you can't buy something sight unseen," Ross said. "It's not reasonable. It's not a good idea, it's not advisable. You need a dealer who will stand behind the instrument, and that should be in writing."

* * *

Here is a list of the violin makers (so far) whose violins will be in The Art of Sound violinmaking contest. For a list of all the 90-some violinmakers whose instruments will appear in the three-week show, go to this page.

Pablo Alfaro, Decatur, Georgia
Daniel Arlig, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Peter Bingen, Portland, Oregon
Travis Blacik
David Chrapkiewicz, Washington Grove, MD
Douglas Cox, W. Brattleboro, Vermont
Trevor Davis
Dirk Henry, Omaha, Nebraska
Martin Heroux, Sainte-Émélie-de-l'Énergie, Qc.
Patrick Higgins, Bellevue, Kentucky
Christopher Jacoby, Salt Lake City, Utah
Emily Kellerman, Minneapolis, MN
Leo McGarry
Raymond Melanson, Boston, MA
Gabor Molnar, Houston, Texas
Howard Needham
Peter Sappanos
Theodore Skreko, Indianapolis, IN
Wladek Stopka, Hickory Hills, IL
Patrick Stover
Chris Ulbricht, Indianapolis, IN
Sara White, Tucson, AZ
Mark Womack, Omaha, Neb.
Kelin Zhang, Plano, TX
Le Zheng

From Marc Butterlin
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 1:04 PM
The theory advanced by Alex Ross that the golden age of violin making was brought about by relative peace in Europe is an interesting one and certainly one I've never heard before, but hardly conclusive when considering the history of what is now Northern Italy between 1700 and 1750. It was actually a very tumultuous period for cities like Cremona, Brescia and Venice with the Spanish Succession war between 1700 and 1713 and ended up in Austria gaining sovereignty of Italy. The fight to control the region continued well into the 1730s with for instance Spain capturing Naples and Sicily from Austria in 1734.

It has also been documented that from 1730 onwards the output from the workshops left in Cremona was in decline, suggesting the demand for Cremonese violins was no longer what it used to be - possibly because workshops elsewhere in Europe were fulfilling that demand. Interestingly, it is the instruments produced during this low output period that are most in demand from international soloists (Del Gesus, late Strads). So it may not be necessarily true either to say that it is high demand that will produce a golden age of violin making. There was high demand for instruments in post-industrial Europe, which led to the mass production of trade instruments in places like Mirecourt and Mittenwald, but not to a golden age of violin making.

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