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Beechview violin-maker crafts instruments from eyes, ears of his mind

| Monday, Jan. 12, 2009

Phillip Injeian grasped the tiny plane between his thumb and forefinger and pushed it across the violin's slender support bar, sending ribbons of wood cascading to the floor.

No need to measure its thickness. After 30 years of making and repairing violins, violas and cellos, he knew just how much to take off.

"When I see the wood, I can envision what it will look like and sound like when I'm done," he said from his shop on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District.

Injeian, 53, of Beechview works for about $133 an hour, considering he spends about 150 hours making a violin that he sells for $20,000. He spends twice that much time on a cello, which he sells for $40,000. Clients for such instruments range from elite professional musicians to world leaders.

Injeian does more than make and sell high-end instruments. He is an avid supporter of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's Young String Players Camp and sells instruments priced for students.

In addition to being a luthier, musician and world traveler, he is a teacher. A self-described "arrogant New Yorker," he urges students to "learn, learn, learn."

"I like to think I made a difference in the lives of young people," he said.

Injeian began studying violin at age 9. By the time he was 13, he had crafted his first violin under the direction of Vahakn Nigogosian at the Stradivari Studios on 57th Street in New York.

He honed his skills in France under master violin-maker Jean Eulry. He worked for Jacques Camurat in Paris and Wolf Dieter Fischer in Munich. In Munich, he was playing in a church orchestra when a young Catholic priest named John Ratzenberger asked to sit in on piano. Ratzenberger became pope in 2005 and took the name Benedict.

"We were rehearsing (Handel's) Messiah," said Injeian, who speaks seven languages.

He returned to the United States in 1982 and opened his first shop across the street from Carnegie Hall in New York.

But the big city took its toll.

"The beat of New York was beating me down," he said. In 2000, his sister, Geraldine Injeian, died of ovarian cancer at age 50, and his marriage fell apart.

He came to Pittsburgh to work with "one of the greatest symphonies in the world" and fell in love with "the only city I know where my name is easier to pronounce than most others."

His passion for his craft is matched by his passion for the music his instruments will create.

On a violin he was repairing, Injeian switched from a piece by Pennsylvania composer Samuel Barbe to a Cajun tune to a Greek-Armenian theme and to jazz, Celtic and bluegrass as easily as he can switch languages.

His shop is a welcome addition to the area, said J. Kevin McMahon, president of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

"It means a lot to us because it is what we're all about -- the arts. He helps make the arts possible," McMahon said. "It's a unique piece in the Cultural District."

Injeian likes to cook, ski, lift weights and travel. He's a voracious reader and regularly attends the symphony.

He has a dozen or so instruments in his private collection that he considers "significant" and won't sell. Among them is a violin on display in his shop and made around 1880 by Russian violin-maker Vladimir Ivanov for Czar Nicholas II.

Injeian isn't sure how to cap a career that includes jamming with a man who became pope.

"I've done everything I think I can do in life," he said. "If I die tomorrow, I die happy."

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