'Strad Fest LA' features 8 Stradivarius violins in performances
LOS ANGELES — Xiang “Angelo” Yu is holding the nearly 350-year-old Stradivarius violin casually by the neck and explaining why he'd like a little more time to make its acquaintance.
“It's always an adventure,” says Yu, 25, who has played six or seven Stradivarius violins over his career. “I only have one or two days to get used to it. Feels like a wild horse — you never know what's coming.”
The violins of Antonio Stradivari, arguably the most famous instruments ever made, have an almost mystical reputation for beauty and heavenly tone. This week eight of them have been brought together in the City of Angels.
“Strad Fest LA” is a four-day series of performances culminating with a Saturday charity concert.
“I think we're really giving a gift to Los Angeles,” said Margaret Batjer, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “To gather this many instruments under one roof, to be played night after night, is an extraordinary event.”
Yu called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the festival, he's playing the 1666 “Serdet,” the earliest known existing Stradivarius violin.
“Somehow I feel like every violin has its individual soul, that when I press down my fingers I could feel the soul of that violin itself,” he said before a Thursday rehearsal.
“It's one of the most extraordinary and expensive and beautiful instruments,” said violinist Chee-Yun, holding a 1714 “Leonora Jackson.”
“The minute I started playing a note on it, I felt like I was floating in the air. It's like a dream come true. It's beautiful.”
Philippe Quint held the 1708 “Ruby.”
“Growing up, my dream was always to be able to time travel,” he said. “And a couple of years ago I realized that I've had this time machine in my hands my whole life. These violins have traveled for centuries and have been in the hands of some of the most incredible violinists.”
“When I play on this instrument, the sound has so much depth and mystery and history,” he said.
Stradivari made violins, guitars, cellos and other stringed instruments in his workshop in Cremona, Italy. About 650 survive and they can sell for millions of dollars.
The violins are revered as extraordinary (despite some experiments where listeners have been unable to distinguish them from less-renowned instruments). Researchers have offered innumerable suggestions to explain the rich, resonant tones of the best Stradivarius violins.
“There was a certain magic that happened in Cremona, in northern Italy at that time,” Batjer said. “And people argue all the time: Was it the weather, was it the climate, was it the conditions, was it the wood, was it the craftsmanship? It's probably a combination of all of those things.”
Throughout his lifetime, Stradivari kept experimenting, changing and refining his instruments, and each has a different voice.
Playing one is “like getting into a relationship. You respond to each other” in a process that can take months or even years, said Cho-Liang Lin, holding the 1715 “Titian.”
“The violin will become part of your voice and at the same time, you're learning what the violin can do. And you probe further and further,” he said. “The violin kind of responds in kind, and that's a lovely thing. It's almost like a marriage — except that the divorce procedure's a little easier.” The violins being played at “Strad Fest LA” include some from Stradivari's so-called “Golden Period” in the 1700s and the 1720 “Red Mendelssohn,” whose whereabouts were unknown for 200 years. That violin, with its distinctive color, is believed to have inspired the 1998 movie “The Red Violin.”
Some of the performers own the violins, while others have been loaned.
Pasadena businessman and philanthropist Jerry Kohl bought the 1716 “Milstein” that Batjer played eight years ago for a sum he won't disclose.
Most of the time, the Stradivarius lives in vaults. Kohl only loans it out 10 or 15 times a year so that the instrument won't take a beating. Kohl hopes it will be around for another 300 years.
“It's like your child,” he said. “After a while, you know you can hear the difference. Last night they played five violins. I could close my eyes and tell you which one was mine.”