After 5 plus years I still have so many vivid Moennig era memories….One that struck me recently was a day that the great Japanese violinist Mr Toshiya Eto came to the shop. Mr Eto had been at Curtis in the late 1940’s early 1950’s and had developed a long standing friendship with Bill – and had a number of fine instruments from the shop over the years…and his students would come as well. On this particular day he had a very fine Pressenda that needed attention….among other things it needed to have the fingerboard planed rather dramatically. I started in on it by carefully taking down the set up/ bridge etc. ( This was something you got very careful about at the shop – you were always working on great instruments for great players …so you always had to be able to re-set up the instrument very,very accurately …..(both bridge placement and most importantly post position. I was always making markers to guide me.) Theses were players who had played these instruments for many years at the highest level… so there was no margin for any error or change.
The first thing to do was to sharpen my plane blade…if Bill would be walking behind you….and he heard the loud scraping sound of a dull plane blade he would tell you bluntly. Once I got started to plane the fingerboard I realized that Bill and Mr Eto were going to stand right behind me while I worked! Needless to say it was a stressful hour…trying to be as surgical, effecient and accurate as possible…while Bill and Mr Eto chatted amiably…..all the while watching every move I made. I know of no more delicate scenario than working on a fine instrument in front of a fine player….and getting it done well …and gracefully.
Another interesting thing about Mr Eto was that he was the first child pupil of the legendary Mr Suzuki….apparently the father of Mr Eto approached Mr Suzuki to teach his 4 year old son ….and a movement that swept the world was born.
I found this instrument laying dormant for, no doubt, generations. It still had its original neck set… which by modern standards is too short and too low. Its interesting to think that the whole concept of the neck angle has changed towards more tension … thereby producing more power. It also coincides with the rising of the concert A through time up to 440.
In order to bring this instrument up to modern standards the top block needed to be replaced (more beefy) and a foot and a heel need to be added to the neck stock. Its then set into the new block. Another thing that needs to be done is the fitting of a new stouter bass bar inside to handle the load of the greater string tension.
When all that is done you have a fine instrument that has all the mellow magic of an old violin with all the power and punchy clarity that players want today. This isinstrument is now in the hands of a talented player in Princeton, NJ…..she was about the first person to play it in many,many years
Spent an interesting day in the shop working on the cello to be played at the state funeral for the son of Vice President Biden. Interesting to quietly work on something that will be used in a vast, stately ,solemn event where the most important people in our world will be attending. It reminds me of the way that art begins in the silence and pushes out towards an end that you don’t often know….sometimes even dizzying heights….but wherever your work ends up contributing its spirit…for me it always grows out of the authentic , everyday and grounded work at the bench
It has been over 5 years since The Shop closed and every once in a while while working at the bench memories come back. One particular moment stood out for me the other day. My good friend Jesus Morales showed me his new cello by the Swedish maker Peter Westerlund. It is a copy of the world renowned cello played for many years by Orlando Cole – The “Sleeping Beauty” by Domenico Montagnana made in 1739.
It brought back the time when Mr Cole ( I could never call him Landy) brought his magnificent cello to us to sell on his behalf. Not only was it a wonderful opportunity to work on it and live with it for a while…it was a heady time when great cellists from all over the world came to explore it. One memorable moment in it all was the arrival of Heinrich Schiff from Austria ( who became the eventual owner of the cello). Mr Schiff brought with him the beautiful Mara Stradivari cello of 1711 that he was playing at the time. While trying the Montagnana cello upstairs in the try out room he left his cello for all to admire. While looking it over I noticed the top had a ripple effect that was curious….it was strange but not too alarming. Many instruments of this age have arching abnormalities that come from centuries of strain.When I had a chance to mention it to him he mentioned the unbelievable story that the cello had been on a river ferry in South America in the 1960’s that had sunk!….and that the cello had been submerged for a few days in the drink!
As I then learned by looking up the cello……”When hauled up from the depths in its case the the cello was said to be unrecognizable and completely in pieces”…..I should say! It was then taken to the famous W E Hill & Son shop in London for a heroic restoration. Needless to say I then looked at the cello much more closely for any and all signs of the work done to resucitate this drowned cello. As one looked knowingly you saw signs and hints….but the overall effect was to marvel at the painstaking skill that was lavished on wrestling this thin wooden skin back into shape. It was a dramatic example of the fact that these fine old instruments are often now a collaboration of the great makers who produced them and the great crafstman that keep them living ( and sometimes do CPR!)
When Mr Schiff took the cello to Austria part of the great Cole legacy went with him….but its interesting how it comes back indirectly. Ricardo Morales, the principal clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is passionate about the violin. He has acquired a beautiful Telesphore Barbe from me for his wife Amy Oshiro, who also plays in the Orchestra. He frequently talks to any of the visiting soloists about the makers they know in Europe and around the globe, He heard players talk of Peter Westerlund from Sweden and began collecting his work. Schiff had become friendly with Westerlund and had invited him to his home in Austria to view his impressive collection of cellos (see Westerlunds site) The one cello in the collection that stood out was the “Sleeping Beauty” and that is the cello he beagn to make….Well Jesus came to admire Westerlunds work through he violins of Ricardo and has become the owner of one of his cellos. So now I get to work on and admire a beautiful, faithful copy of the legendary Mr Cole’s broad, dark and gorgeous Montagnana.
Its always enjoyable to do a neck graft….its a fascinating mixture of old and new. Old instruments need a neck graft for a variety of reasons – old necks were shorter than they are today -they were set at a lower angle – they wear from playing by the hand eroding the wood etc. In this case the old neck was too short and set too low.
First the scroll is cut off the old neck – the pegbox is then chiseled out with the sides feathered to receive the new wood of the graft. The graft is fashioned in a wedge shape so that you fit the scroll down through the tapered graft. Its crucial that all surfaces fit exactly – in the photo you can see that I am almost there
Once the scroll is glued to the graft – the pegbox is chiseled out – the fingerboard is glued on and the neck stock is prepared to set into the corpus of the violin. When the varnish is restored it should look as if nothing has happened …and this fine, old French violin will perform better than ever….
An interesting instance of the collaborative nature of the many hands that enable an old instrument to have a long vibrant life.
This beautiful cello suffered a fall and developed a long crack on the top….a great time to get intimately acquainted with this French masters work. He was the nephew of the illustrious J B Vuilluame
The elegant scroll shows the gorgeous, deep red varnish and dramatic crackle worthy of the Vuilluame legacy.
The original ( rather skimpy) top block shows a rather shallow neck set and the characteristic French way of having a low overstand and sharp angle to achieve the right projection.
This fine violin is the first violin in a prominent quartet. It has the beautiful grace and delicacy of line that we always admire in the Amati workmanship. The sculptural arching of the top and back have an organic power that you often see copied in an antiseptic ,anemic fashion. The finely wrought scroll has the sharp clarity and living feel of a work of nature. The bold F hole has a remarkable sinuous power for something so curvy and delicate. Another testament to this instruments ageless quality is the fact that it still has the Wurlitzer bridge on it that has been on for probably 50 years!
Its always satisfying working on an instrument like this….something made in Cremona when Stradivari was a young man….and though the legend of him working in the Amati shop has been called into question…its a great story to think this could have been made in the shop when he was there….and maybe even had his hands on it and studied it as an example of violin making at its very best.