Although I play viola in the Minnesota Orchestra, I also work in a wonderful museum—one of amazing historic musical treasures that I get to marvel at every day. I’m talking about the rare stringed instruments played by my colleagues. Assembled in front of you is a remarkable collection of violins, cellos and basses of antique vintage, a few of which date back to the late 1600s. (You might notice that I didn’t mention violas. More on that later.) The point is, much of the “lumber” you are listening to is of coveted Italian ancestry and centuries old.
The first name people think of when it comes to old Italian instruments is of course, Antonio Stradivari, still the gold standard in violin making. Although there aren’t currently any Strads in the Orchestra, until very recently, there was an even older violin, made in 1683 by Niccolo Amati, Stradivari’s likely mentor in the small village of Cremona. Think of that for a moment: a violin made two years before J.S. Bach was born, still in use today as a “work tool”! It was carried around every day in a nondescript case like everyone else’s, securely taken care of, for sure, but without any drama.
My interest in historic instruments is newfound. You see, even though I’ve played either the violin or viola since I was four years old, it always bothered me that I was so ignorant about the rarefied tools we wield to make music. I would posit that this is true for most string players. As performers, we focus so closely on our specialized skill set that we learn scant little about our tools, save for the basic information provided by the dealers who sold them to us.
Yes, the burden of acquiring an instrument falls to each musician. We aren’t required to buy the finest Italian antiques—in fact, there are many fine modern instruments out there that are infinitely more affordable. But the desire to play on the great old Italian-made treasures is fairly universal among us. Why? Because in the eyes and ears of both the players and the public, the old Italians are thought to have qualities of sound that just can’t be found anywhere else.
Many have tried to explain the mystery of the “Italian sound.” Speculation runs the gamut from secret components in the varnish to exotic ways the wood was treated. But I’m skeptical of these theories. Research confirms that makers all across Europe had access to the same sources of freshly-cut wood, free of mysterious additives, and the varnish ingredients used in Cremona were certainly available and in wide use by other fine makers as far away as London.
So what do I believe? That, simply put, the old Italian makers were supreme masters of a long tradition that originated in Italy and was perfected to high art as it was passed down from craftsman to apprentice in the tiny village of Cremona. Their singular success created a mystique that remains powerfully strong today.
To come back to the viola question, sadly, there are currently no vintage Italian violas in the Orchestra from that elite group of makers, due to scarcity: there simply weren’t as many violas made as there were violins and cellos (that’s a story for another day!). Nowadays, with demand high and supply low, vintage Italian violas often end up in the hands of investors and collectors who keep them locked away, unheard by the public. (Note to collectors: lend them out!)
The crown jewel of our string section is probably not one instrument but a collection: the amazing basses that make us the envy of the orchestral world. Acquired from a collector by Kenneth N. and Judy Dayton and Douglas W. and Louise Leatherdale, who donated them to the Orchestra in 2001, these basses represent a “Who’s Who” of the great Italian makers of the last four centuries. And in the hands of our skilled bass section, they contribute mightily to the Orchestra’s signature rich string sound.
So the next time you enjoy that lush, silky sound at Orchestra Hall, you’ll know why an evening with the Minnesota Orchestra is like a Night at the Museum—work for me, pleasure for you, precious for us all.