Monday, December 3, 2012

Culture comes to the hinterlands (updated wth video)

One of the things that I have really missed since moving from Sacramento to Roseburg is a lively classical music scene.  The Real Doctor and I were spoilt rotten by the concert programming at UC Davis—the yearly series by the Alexander Quartet, the recitals by Garrick Ohlsson and Joshua Bell and the like.  The scene here is considerably colder, as might be expected in a town of 20,000.  Roseburg’s nearest neighbor with artistic aspirations is Eugene, over an hour away, and beyond that, there isn’t much less than three hours away.  Roseburg gets a yearly visit from the Eugene Symphony, which is the best orchestra in the southern Wilamette Valley.  There is a Community Concert series, whose offerings tend to be jazz or pop-classical.  There is the Umpqua Symphony Association, which focuses mainly on local talent for its handful of concerts each year.  If we went to every concert that could be filed under “classical music” this last year, we’d have seen less than 10 events, of wildly variable quality.

Given that, here’s a big shout-out to the proprietors of MarshAnne Landing Winery, who have seen fit to invite some classical musicians to have recitals in their tasting room/gallery.  The space can hold thirty people or so, making it quite cozy; the “stage” is nook with a decent-but-not-fabulous upright piano and room for a string quartet or a single very expressive violinist.  The concerts are the personal effort of the winery’s proprietors, so programming is necessarily modest.  Joshua Bell won’t be playing there, and the two recitals we’ve seen may be all for the season, but they’ve been thoroughly appreciated.  I don’t feel like being the music critic here; my attitude is more gratitude than judgement.  So, I’ll go on about some externalities.  

One program featured the violinist Lindsay Deutsch, playing a very casual show of Gershwin, Piazzola, Vivaldi, Brahms, and De Falla (the pianist played one of the Debussy Images while the violinist took a break).  The concert reflected the cultural stereotype that when you go out into the sticks, you have to play pop or light classical stuff.  It was pretty clear that there were a few audience members who would not be satisfied with any violin show that did not involve some of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—and “Winter” was duly served up, to audible sighs of contentment.  The Brahms concerto was presented, but with apologies about its length and (to prevent boredom, I guess) as isolated movements separated by shorter, snappier pieces.  It was nice to get the Piazzola; it’s a little off the beaten path, and I really enjoyed the De Falla “Suite Popular.”

The concert by Chamber Music Amici of Eugene was a bit more “Serious”; a Mozart violin sonata, a cello sonata by the 20th-century Portuguese composer Luis Costa, and a string quintet by Bruch that, while written in 1918, had only been published around 1980.  It was so nice to hear unfamiliar stuff presented straight up; the cello sonata was convincingly delivered and the Bruch made me go home and buy a recording.  The performances were good; the Amici have day jobs, and though most are connected with music, the violinist for the Mozart is a practicing physician. 

A couple of the instruments being played were of interest to the Real Doctor and me.  We are both a bit geeky about violins, and sometimes my attention to the music can be diverted by attention to the violin it’s played on.  In this case, the instruments were both inspired by Guarneri “del Gesu”, but took the inspiration in different directions.  The first, from across the room, really had the look of a del Gesu, but as it was played, it just didn’t seem to have the same tonal oomph.  It (and the player) was clearly aspiring to tonal richness, but it just was not really there.  The second instrument looked del-Gesu-ish, maybe early 1730’s, but just didn’t seem visually to be abused enough for a violin of that age.  However, its sound was rich—not as rich as the best del Gesu’s, but much more satisfying than the first violin.   

There are different schools of thought about what makes the difference between a good and a great violin.  Being who I am, I tend to think in graphs.  Here’s what some people like, which happens to be the first violin:
On any note, at any volume, the violin can only produce a limited number of interesting tones; however, it’s extremely uniform across the entire spectrum.  There’s also this:
Combine that with the fact that it tends to sound good under the ear of the person playing it, and you have what some people—including big names such as Hahn and Tetzlaff—find satisfying. It should also be noted that the brown line for your average student violin rarely gets as high as the brown line above. 

Here’s a rather different sort of violin, which happens to be the second violin, and also is more like the violins of Stradivari and del Gesu.
Few or no notes are wanting in tonal richness, and some regions are positively oozing with the stuff.  But,
It takes a lot of work to pull that stuff out of the violin.  It’s harder to play, and effectively use the entire endowment of the fiddle—but if the player has the skill and patience to exploit it, the results are amazing. 

The violin is a tool, a physical entity.  So what makes this difference?  The musicians giving these concerts were generous enough to let us take a closer look at their instruments and tell us about them. 

The first violin was a Vuillaume, made in the mid-1800’s.  Vuillaume enjoyed a reputation for making the finest copies of the finest violins, so it’s not too surprising that the fiddle visually announced itself as “del Gesu” from across the room.  However, close-up, a couple of details emerged.  One was that the arching was very low—if you looked at the fiddle side-on, it was several millimeters skinnier than a classic Cremonese instrument, which bulges out 15 or more mm front and back.  Another structural detail that affects sound was the absence of recurve as the arch blends into the side of the violin; if you were an ant, marching from the bridge to one of the sides, your trip would be downhill all the way, rather than pitching up for the last few paces.  These structural details—and lack of tonal richness--are pretty characteristic of Vuillaume.  Now, these are not horrible fiddles; I wouldn’t reject one as a gift, and one recently sold at auction for over $200,000.  They are just not my thing.

The second violin of note was an American instrument made by Carl Holzapfel in Philadelphia in the 1920’s, who was (it turns out) the great-grandfather of the violinist.  It had nice arching and nice recurve.  As I mentioned, it also had terrific sound; according to the violinist, it won a slew of awards and was the pride and joy of its luthier.  Holzapfel has some limited recognition as a good maker, and despite the obvious quality of the instrument, it will never sell for a tenth of what the Vuillaume will bring.  Go figure.

This raises a couple of questions.  The obvious one is why does sound mean so little in the sale price of a musical instrument—but the answer there is probably like the answer to why a 500-square foot apartment in downtown New York costs as much as our farm.  Another question, to which I don’t have a good start of an answer, is why Vuillaume made the copies he made in the way that he made them.  Was he aware of arching, and discounted it as meaningless?  Did it just not register in his eye?  I just don’t know.  To emphasize the point, I’ll close with photos of a different Vuillaume and a real Cremonese violin (alas, I can’t remember its identity; I think it’s a Petro Guarneri; the photos were taken during the 2012 Claremona workshop).  
And here, courtesy of Michael Darnton, is a video of a Brothers Amati violin that really illustrates the classic shape I'm talking about: Go watch this!

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