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Shop(ping) Talk

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I went to yet another violin shop this weekend. The fine violin shop cliche is a beautiful space in a prime location with oriental rugs and antiques peppered throughout. A fancy 19th century time machine. As a poor college student I was very intimidated by the whole experience. "Umm, is all of this overhead getting rolled into the price of my new viola?" I still worry about that.

Within moments of my arrival on Saturday, I was greeted with, "Masumi! Just thinking of you! I have something really special for you to try." I find myself playing one of the most beautiful bows I have ever seen. "Wow! How much? Aha...$225,000?! Well, uhhh, maybe later, ok? So, got any sexy violas in the shop?" ...and here it comes...

If you call on any violin shop in the world and ask for a fine old viola, they will laugh at you. Invariably. At least a little chortle that can translate as, 'You poor sucker, don't you wish you played the violin right now?' They might try to play it off as if they are laughing with you but, I stopped laughing years ago. The problem is, great old violas of nice size and proportions hardly exist. They will have the odd huge or misshapen beast with a hormone problem or they might have the itty-bitty viola that sounds like scraping tin. Poor us.

When his laughter subsides my dealer friend tries to make amends and offers to show me some goodies. A pair of goddesses are paraded into the showroom. A stunning Stradivarius and a glorious Guarneri del Gesu but, alas, they are violins. I study and caress them anyway and even embarrass myself to no end by attempting to play them. Incredible. "Or how about this fabulous Goffriller? Amati? Guadagnini? Bergonzi?" The violin treasures come out of the vault one by one like an instrumental burlesque. This hurts me deeply.

Let's talk fiddles for a moment so you can better understand the violist's perspective on life, music, and viola shopping. Here's a bit of Viola 101:

-Due to the obviously beautiful and radiant quality of the viola, it was originally the main instrument of the violin family. 'Il violino' is the endearing diminutive term for a cute little baby viola.

-The old violas from the 16th and 17th centuries were built to fill the central middle voices in ensemble music. A quartet might have two violas in the middle and a quintet, three. The violin and violoncello might flank and if there was a contrabasso, the more the merrier. There were violas of varying sizes to fill out the entire middle range. The small contralto violas would play higher notes and the large tenor violas would play lower notes - violas weren't all tuned to A,D,G, and C as they are now. There weren't a whole lot of do-it-all medium sized violas being made.

-Besides some rare 'period' instruments, all old instruments of the violin family have been altered over time as the acoustic requirements of larger concert halls and more technically demanding music have required change. Longer necks, fingerboards and metal/synthetic strings result in higher tension on the body so the inner structure had to be adjusted as well. It is just about impossible to find a pristine fiddle in original baroque form.

-Around 200 years ago or so, Luthiers (instrument builders) started futzing with the older Italian instruments to 'improve' them. Wood was removed and added- mostly to the interior. In adapting violas to modern playing- the large tenor violas had to be made smaller. They were often considered too large to negotiate through higher positions. This usually involved a fair amount of butchery. Can you imagine cutting into a beautiful Strad?! Yikes!

-There were excellent makers trying their hand as luthiers in other countries but the Italian makers are now generally thought of as the best. It is the dream of most players to play on an old Italian instrument.

I borrowed an old Italian viola as a student. It was a beautiful Gasparo da Salo ca. 1580. That was so long ago that he could be known simply as that dude 'Gasparo' from the town of Salo! It was cut down to my favorite size of 16 3/8". It would've commanded something in the neighborhood of 1.5-2 million bucks on the open market back then.

The first month I had it, I hated it. My modern viola was rewarding to play with its big and reliable sound. This thing was...weird! However, after that first month with it, I suddenly had a revelation in sound and there was no turning back. This wonderful viola had so many more layers of color than I was used to looking for. I could dive into it with my bow and found I had moved from a pond to an ocean. It was like a real voice with incredible possibilities for nuance. I was in love.

After that deliciously cathartic year, I had to give the Gasparo back. My voice was gone and I was incredibly frustrated but I had learned something. I lean towards old instruments. This is a highly personal topic. Many great players actually prefer the reliability of modern instruments over the finicky older ones (among other reasons.) I think it all boils down to, if you love what you play on and are comfortable, you will sound your best.

So, now where does this put me in my search? I am looking for the impossible! I want to buy a beautiful sounding old Italian viola in the right size and proportions for me and I don't have 2 million bucks just sitting around...no wonder the dealers are laughing at me!

To be continued...