Aged to Perfection

At the Peabody, a 300-year-old Italian violin offes a rich reward to those lucky or good enough to play it. The gift of a former conservatory student, it is a timeless beauty.

July 24, 2000|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,SUN STAFF

In 1689 - soon after Newton discovered the laws of motion and just before the Salem Witch trials - a violin was crafted in Bologna, Italy.

Surviving perhaps 15 to 20 musicians, its spruce and maple body becoming looser and drier, the violin has aged as well as a bottle of premium Bordeaux.

Three centuries later, it resonates at the touch of Peabody Conservatory student Igor Yuzefovich, who earned the right to play the $160,000 violin by winning the school's annual Marbury Competition. The rare Tononi violin had been donated to the school four months earlier by violin virtuoso and former Peabody student Doris Horwitz Rothenberg.

For its value, age and sound, the Tononi is a unique addition to the Peabody collection. Even among student-owned violins, only a handful of instruments can come close to rivaling it. Until he graduates next year, Yuzefovich will be the latest in a long line of musicians to play this violin that grows in value and timbre as time passes.

In the early 1960s, Doris Rothenberg spent a year and a half in New York searching for the right violin to suit her. The Baltimore native was petite, 5 feet tall, and needed an instrument with a neck narrow enough for her to hold. It wasn't easy to explain what she was looking for: a sound both warm and brilliant that would blend in well with string quartets. She looked at violin after violin, sometimes spending weeks with one, playing each for her teacher. The decision wasn't to be made lightly.

"There's something in you that likes a certain sound," Rothenberg says. "The violin can express almost as much as the human voice."

Even in junior high school, Rothenberg dreamed about that sound. She used to take her homework to the Peabody library. There among the marble columns and arches she would pretend she was a Conservatory student, enrolled in the college of music.

She studied at the Preparatory on a scholarship from Baltimore public schools, earning another scholarship there to attend the Conservatory.

Growing up on Linden Avenue, she played a $250 violin, which was rather expensive for the time. But when she left home in 1946 for the Juilliard School in New York City and performed with several orchestras - including the National Orchestral Association, Queens Symphony and Long Island Symphony - she wanted to play something better.

After 18 months of searching, she found the Tononi. Besides the qualities she'd been looking for, the violin came with a bonus: a sound with the depth and sonority to carry to the back row of a concert hall.

It was almost as beautiful to look at as to hear, with a maple back showing strong "flame" markings, a spruce top and a reddish-brown finish.

Play it often

When she played in the American Youth Orchestra, Rothenberg received a copy of a Titian portrait from conductor Dean Dixon that had reminded him of her. "In the portrait he gave me there was a soulful look on the person's face," she says. "I had a feeling he thought I was a serious, serious person. It made sense at the time."

Her late husband, Martin Rothenberg, had suggested she leave the violin to the Peabody in her will. But Rothenberg, 75, whose back operation two years ago has kept her from playing in chamber orchestras as often as she used to, wanted the Tononi to be played regularly and as soon as possible.

"A violin gets better as you play it," says Rothenberg, whose poster of the Peabody library still hangs in her Manhattan living room. "Older violins should be played on."

She still coordinates the Suzuki-method violin program she founded at the Lucy Moses School for Music and Dance in New York City, and plans to find a less expensive, but quality instrument.

A month after she gave the Tononi and a bow to the school, Rothenberg saw the film "The Red Violin," which traces the history of a 17th century violin made in Cremona, Italy. It saddened her to realize she didn't know anything about the past of her violin except that it was made in Italy more than 300 years ago and had crossed the Atlantic - at least once.

Violins appeared in Italian artwork as early as 1508, its ancestors including the rebec, the lira de craccio and the viol. But the violin proved to be the only survivor. It had four strings, which could easily be played by four fingers, and f-shaped sound holes as well as a tailpiece and bridge suited to an instrument played with a bow.

Major force

Its status rose from a lowly dance instrument in the early 17th century to a force to be reckoned with in Western culture a century later. The violin's capacity for trills and cascading notes influenced the style of the time so that even singers in the early 18th century had to rival its flexibility. Virtuosos serenaded courtiers and played at public concerts.

The instrument reached its modern design largely by the efforts of Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), who perfected the proportions of the violin in Cremona and concocted a unique reddish varnish that some say added resonance.

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