A Stradivarius Story

Sweet music: Eric Pritchard, top, plays for a packed house at Doris Duke Center.


Jared Lazarus

Outside the Doris Duke Center in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, on a perfect spring night toward the end of the semester, well-dressed young people stroll on the patio and in the surrounding garden, drinking white wine and mingling, a stray goose strutting among them drawing brief, bemused attention. Inside, on a small table, lie five violins, each with rich varnish, four strings, and two f-holes—but only one with the name Stradivarius.

Sweet music: Christopher Reuning, left, shows off a violin; the instruments' backs, are "the flashy part," Reuning says.


Jared Lazarus

While Stradivarius has become a household name, the genesis of its fame warrants a bit of clarification. Antonio Stradivari (Stradivarius, as most know him, is the Latinized form of his surname), of Cremona, in present-day Italy, made over a thousand stringed instruments—mostly violins, but also cellos and guitars—some 600 of which are still extant. His violins remain, after nearly four centuries, the touchstone by which all others are judged.

The Strad lying on the table, Le Vicomte de la Taille (its proper name), came in from Boston in the overhead bin of a commuter plane earlier in the day. It was escorted by Christopher Reuning, a representative of Tarisio, a leading dealer of rare stringed instruments. Like many Strads, it is known by the name of a prominent past owner, in this case a French nobleman who acquired it in 1879, one hundred and seventy-seven years after it was made, in 1702, during Stradivari's creative peak.

Reuning stands behind the table, explaining to a small crowd why, when displaying a violin, it's best to show the back ("it's the flashy part") or where the maple wood came from (it was probably imported). Some cautiously cradle the Strad like a baby, showing it to proud family members and having pictures taken. Others are more cavalier, plucking strings and turning it this way and that, looking through the f-holes trying to catch a glimpse of Stradivari's name on the label inside.

Today, at auction, a Stradivarius like Le Vicomte de la Taille can fetch prices in the low millions. Forty years ago, that wasn't the case. Musicians could afford a fine Cremonese violin—Guarneris, crafted by members of a family whose shop was across the piazza from Stradivari's, also are well-respected—for about the cost of a middle-class home. These instruments are de rigueur for securing steady employment in the upper echelons of the orchestral or classical music world; violinists are expected to arrive at rehearsals with a name violin, and it's not for the sake of prestige alone. The more a violin is played, and the more its wood ages, the easier it is to produce pleasing sound, as though the notes are somehow embedded within.

Settling into their seats, the overflow crowd is treated to the playing of Eric Pritchard, an associate professor of the practice of music and member of the respected Duke-based Ciompi Quartet. Pritchard samples each of the violins on display, but returns most frequently to the evening's star. He had played a Guarneri for a number of years earlier in life, he says to the audience, but had never spent more than a few hours at any given time with a Strad. "This," he says with a laugh, "is going to be a one-night stand for us."

A Strad is louder than newer violins, and its sound is more penetrating. Musicians speak of actually being in pain from having their ears so close to the instruments and of light bowing filling entire concert halls.

Modern technology has not been able to replicate Stradivari's craftsmanship. Fine violins are still made entirely by hand. The glue that holds them together is essentially unchanged, and the same tools—scrapers and vices and molds central to the process—have not been markedly improved upon. Some say the wood Stradivari used was especially dense owing to a mini ice age, while others suspect a different composition of the wood preservative, but neither theory has been proved conclusively.

The scarcity and concomitant high cost of fine Cremonese violins like Strads provide an unusual way of tracing the shifting economies of the past half-millennium: The rise of post-revolutionary France saw a migration of Strads there; industrialized England got them next; a great number were imported to the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; more recently, many have found their way to emergent powers like Japan and South Korea; and now they appear in petro-states like Russia. That also means that, unlike forty years ago, a first or second violinist in, say, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra can no longer afford to own the instrument he plays on a daily basis.

Enter Richard Brown M.B.A. '09, and his newly minted enterprise, Medici Violins. The event at Duke is his coming-out party of sorts, a prototype for a series he is planning for the fall, in order to raise visibility for the company. Brown studied violin until age twenty, when hand surgery cut short his playing career. He later graduated from Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management and worked in finance before coming to Duke. He continued playing violin on the side and studied under Pritchard at Duke.

While taking a class on philanthropy and nonprofits taught by Joel Fleishman, professor of public policy science and law, Brown began developing what would become Medici Violins. It's a mélange of for-profit and nonprofit elements that Brown says will fill a need that currently is unmet. To do this, he is seeking to connect three elements in the rare-instrument universe for mutual benefit: dealers, patrons, and musicians.

Brown compares his endeavor to thoroughbred horseracing. An owner must expend large sums of money to acquire a horse, a trainer must make sure that horse is fit to run, and a jockey must ride it across the finish line. In the end, they can achieve victory only through coordinated effort.

When it comes to Strads and other fine Cremonese violins, the coordination is among buyers, sellers, dealers, and musicians. Since musicians rarely can afford the instruments, the violins are owned by patrons—sometimes wealthy individuals, sometimes foundations or corporations. The patrons, in turn, need to find musicians to play the instruments, and musicians must have the instruments to perform. That's where the dealers come in. Like real-estate agencies, they send out representatives to act as brokers between the buyers and sellers.

Brown will act as an agent for the dealers, who are often violin makers or restorers and who do not often employ sophisticated business practices. He will offer patrons consulting services with the skills he honed at Duke, providing guidance on how to plan and broker acquisitions and materials for promoting the instrument's value.

For the musicians, the nonprofit arm of Medici Violins will supervise the patron-musician relationship, laying out clear ground rules to manage the interests of both parties and to prevent harsh or arbitrary terms that sometimes accompany that arrangement. For example, it's not unheard of for patrons to demand that musicians appear halfway around the globe to play private concerts on a day's notice, Brown says. Medici also can intercede for musicians whose talents lie elsewhere than in organization or scheduling.

"The end purpose of a violin, no matter how famous it is or who made it, is to be played," Brown says, "not displayed in a case." Medici Violins exists to ensure that happens and that the complicated elements in the stratosphere of rare instruments fall into careful alignment. He says that by understanding the interests of all parties involved, he will be able to succeed in his ultimate goal: matching great instruments with great artists.

Tonight, Pritchard joins the long arc of musicians who have tested Stradivari's artistry through time. After his performance, the hall clears, but a few people linger by the violins on display. Pritchard looks happy, if a bit winded. What was it like playing the Strad? "Acoustical and psychological," he says. "And even spiritual."

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