‘Violin Maker’ probes music, history and craft
Sam Zygmuntowicz, a 40-something Brooklynite and the center of John Marchese’s nonfiction book “The Violin Maker,” has been asking questions about the centuries-old craft of violin-making. Those questions revolve largely around the mysteries of what took place in the early 18th century in Cremona, a midsize city in north-central Italy.Why, wonders Zygmuntowicz, did violin-making reach its apotheosis 300 years ago in Italy’s Po River Valley, a time and place that produced the most-prized instruments ever, those made by Antonio Stradivari and several generations of the Guarneri family? How can he duplicate the craft and materials – and even the magic – of a period that has been unmatched for three centuries?Perhaps the most intriguing question probed by Marchese is the one that is not often raised: Are those Strads and Guarneris really that incomparable? Are those violins, which now fetch up to $5 million – putting them out of the range of many of the masters who might play them – really better than, say, Zygmuntowicz’s instruments, which could be had for $27,000 a few years ago?Marchese describes himself as a low-level professional trumpet player, but in “The Violin Maker” he is a first-rate journalist. In a swift 219 pages, he brings into focus not only the art and the craft of violin-making, but most everything associated with the topic. With a few quick strokes, we get a sense of the meticulousness of the violin-makers’ work (where variations are measured in millimeters), the feel of present-day Cremona (where the phone book lists more than 100 instrument-makers), the elusive history of Stradivari (who made violins at 91, but never bothered to write down his secrets), and the relationship between a violinist and his instrument (a far more intimate one, Marchese concludes, than for probably any other musician).Marchese brings history alive, condensing the years between Zygmuntowicz’s New York City shop and Stradivari’s in Cremona.And Marchese’s is a living history. “The Violin Maker” follows the unfolding story of Gene Drucker, a violinist with the Emerson String Quartet who is looking to replace his Stradivari – known as the Rosgonyl, after a Hungarian who owned it a century ago – with a Zygmuntowicz. (Aspen plays a key role in the plot; it was here that the Rosgonyl became temperamental, adjusting to the arid mountain atmosphere.) Marchese traces Drucker’s dealings with Zygmuntowicz from the minute shavings of wood to the stage, to see if a 21st-century, American-made fiddle can stand up to a Strad.Spoiler alert: The answer is, sort of. By book’s end, Drucker is on the fence about his Zygmuntowicz – but his Emerson mate, violist Larry Dutton, was impressed enough to commission his own instrument.Postscript: Since the book was written, Drucker has sold his new violin to Joshua Bell, who may play it in his pair of concerts this week at the Aspen Music Festival.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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