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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 2 years ago

Perfect Harmony: Rare violin brings renewed inspiration to Sarasota Orchestra

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No two violins are the same. In a special loan, Sarasota Orchestra Concertmaster Daniel Jordan found his musical match in a love story more than 300 years in the making.
by: Nick Friedman Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

Love at first sight. Soul mates — call it what you will. But when you find The One, you just know.

For some, it takes a lifetime. For Daniel Jordan, it took less than 15 seconds. From the moment the Sarasota Orchestra concertmaster first dragged his bow across the strings of the ex Humphreys Guarneri of Mantua, he knew he had found the violin of his dreams.

Dan Jordan with the 1695 ex Humphreys Guarneri, named after Sydney Humphreys, the violinist who last played the rare instrument. Courtesy photo.

The introduction took place in fall 2015 — 320 years after famed Italian violinmaker Pietro Guarneri first built the instrument. With the rare benefit of being highly skilled as both a builder and a professional musician, Guarneri distinguished himself from his father and brother, both noted violinmakers, by building his instruments with a higher body arch, creating a distinct sound he hoped would emulate the human voice.

More than three centuries and countless players later, the rare violin — one of only about 60 the master built — was in Jordan’s hands onstage at Holley Hall.

He, along with Longboat Key philanthropists Paul and Sharon Steinwachs, master luthier Ric Heinl, renowned violinist James Ehnes and other orchestra staff, was at the concert hall for a private blind test, in which he sampled six rare antique violins. It was part of a unique philanthropic investment by the Steinwachs Family Foundation to donate a rare violin to the Sarasota Orchestra.

Unlike most antiques, a violin requires regular playing to maintain its condition. Daniel Jordan would be that player.

But as musicians, collectors and experts will tell you, no two violins sound quite the same. And the Steinwachs wanted Jordan to find the perfect fit.

So Jordan took the stage, and one by one, he sampled the six violins — some of the finest in the world, valued at millions of dollars.  But the test was blind, and the instruments were only referenced by number.

“It’s kind of like meeting a spouse,” Jordan says. “You can have all the boxes checked on paper, but if you don’t have that immediate connection, it’s just not the right fit.”

Although he says the Guarneri  wasn’t the easiest violin to play, Jordan connected with its sound right away.

The violin, by his own admission, had its faults. It needed extensive restorations. There were more valuable instruments in the selection. But Jordan knew he had found his match.

And he wasn’t alone.

“After Dan had played all the instruments, I knew there was a magic to this one,” says Ric Heinl, president of Geo. Heinl & Co., who was sitting in the balcony during the test. “They all had their merits. Some kicked right to the back of the hall like a laser beam, but I told Dan that this one was different. It sounded like it was playing — almost speaking — directly to me, and me alone. Mrs. Steinwachs leaned over and said, ‘I thought it was playing just to me!’ That was the aha moment.”

 

AN INVESTMENT WITH IMPACT

Antique instruments can be good investments. In the 1980s, an antique Stradivarius could fetch somewhere around $300,000. In 2011, one sold for $15.6 million.

Jordan’s violin is insured for more than $1 million, a fact that “is not lost on me,” he says. 

Unlike a typical investment, however, one can’t simply purchase a hundreds-of-years-old violin, place it in a vault and wait for it to appreciate.

A violin, in fittingly poetic fashion, must be played to be preserved. The vibrations created by dragging the bow across the strings keeps the wood healthy — without a player, the instrument will eventually deteriorate.

Paul and Sharon Steinwachs have been purchasing rare antique violins for more than 20 years, often anonymously loaning them to orchestras around the country.

In fall 2015, through the Steinwachs Family Foundation, they wanted to do the same for the Sarasota Orchestra. For them, it was more than an investment. It was an opportunity to have a career-changing impact on a musician and benefit the orchestra and Sarasota’s arts community as a whole.

Once they chose the violin, they also purchased two bows: a rare Dominique Peccate from the 1840s, which is reserved for special performances, and another, which serves as Jordan’s workhorse. Unlike the instruments themselves, bows eventually deteriorate with use.

“We’ve come to enjoy this so much that we don’t look at it as an investment anymore,” says Paul Steinwachs. “It’s a way to help out the arts. These artists are so talented. Having the opportunity to play on an instrument like this can change their whole career. When Dan told me how the violin has allowed him to create sounds and express himself like he never thought possible — it sent chills up my spine.”

In an initial agreement with the foundation, Jordan gets to play the violin for three years, with the flexibility to renew.

Once a year, the violin is sent to Geo. Heinl Violin Experts in Canada for maintenance.

For Jordan, the whole thing feels like a love story — he jokes it’s like something out of a far-fetched romantic comedy.

“It’s like a relationship,” he says. “The more I discover, the more I connect. It’s rejuvenated me, inspired me as a musician and totally changed the sound of our string section. I’m able to express a whole range of color and interpretation I never knew was possible. The team of me, this bow and this violin are able to play more than just the notes — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

How exactly does a violin come to last hundreds of years? Unlike most antiques, violins actually benefit from use. Playing the instrument creates vibrations crucial to what experts call “memory.”

And not all violins are cut from the same musical cloth — some, depending on their origins, inherently stand a better chance of lasting for centuries.

Master luthier Ric Heinl, president of Canadian violin experts and antiquarians Geo. Heinl & Co., explains.

"WHEN YOU PLAY a violin, it vibrates, flexes and moves in an optimal fashion. It’s made of wood, which has memory. So the more you exercise it, stretch it and flex it, the better it gets. But if the vibrations aren’t there, it goes to sleep and loses that memory. If you put a bow on the strings, you can wake it up. But just like you, if you lay in bed for a year, then jump up to run a marathon, it’s not going to happen.

"THEY ACTUALLY CONTINUE to get better. Wood is a natural product, so unless it’s abused or altered, it’s not going to deteriorate. If it’s properly maintained and exercised, it will get better and better with age.

"WHEN YOU THINK of great violinmakers, these weren’t just makers selling wares. They enjoyed the eye of the court — dukes and kings. These instruments were commissioned and slated to go to first-rate players, then passed down from one great player to another. So with lesser makers, the chances are smaller that a fine artist will play it, maintain it and protect it.

"WHY IS the paper trail not better on this violin? The answer is world conflict. Throughout history, with wars taking place and boundaries moving, people are fleeing with their family jewels. The physical history gets lost, and in many cases, intentionally destroyed. People would take the labels out, so they wouldn’t be discovered and confiscated. It’s important for us to do research and make sure an instrument is not connected to atrocities. But it’s just like the art world; people are still finding paintings misattributed to one master. The element of mystery is always there.”

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