Magic of Maggini

Peabody celebrates donation of rare 1620 violin

  • Keng-Yuen Tseng, the head of Peabody's String Department, plays a violin from the early 17th century.
Keng-Yuen Tseng, the head of Peabody's String Department,… (Gene Sweeney Jr, Baltimore…)
September 16, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

One newcomer to the Peabody Institute this semester has a great figure, with a particularly attractive backside, and a very pleasing voice, too. Not bad for a 390-year-old.

This buzz-generating addition to the music conservatory is a violin made by Giovanni Paolo Maggini, one of the finest Italian instrument makers from Brescia and a major influence on Antonio Stradivari and other legendary craftsmen who came later. Genuine Maggini violins don't turn up too often. They aren't donated to music schools every day, either.

Karl Kostoff, who was a member of the Baltimore and National symphony orchestras in the early 1950s before going to work for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, recently decided to give the violin to Peabody, where it could be played and appreciated.

"It was just another violin to me," says Kostoff, 85, who lives in a retirement community in Montgomery County. "I didn't know what I was buying, really."

What he bought for $9,000 about 40 years ago turned out to be quite a gem. It was recently appraised at $350,000. Listeners will get to make their own evaluation Sunday when Peabody faculty member Keng-Yuen Tseng plays the first public recital on the Maggini.

"This is now the crown jewel of our instruments at the conservatory," says Tseng.

With its distinctive "double purfling" (the bordering along the belly of the fiddle) and unusual, elegant inlay on the back, the Maggini makes a strong statement before a note is played.

"The first time I played it, I thought, 'This violin doesn't want to suit you; you have to suit the violin,' " Tseng says. "It requires a mastery of the bow arm. About the beauty of the sound, there's no doubt. It has huge lungs, huge power. No violin today sounds like that. It reminds me of violin recordings from the 1930s and '40s. It sounds like it comes from another world."

The instrument was pretty much lost in another world for a good part of the 20th century, but its prior pedigree is well-established.

Before Kostoff purchased it from a dealer in the D.C. area, the last known owner was Laura Hawley of Hartford, Conn., who died in 1895. It was in a collection bequeathed to her by her husband, Royal de Forest Hawley. He was a major violin collector who purchased the Maggini in 1877 from French violin maker and dealer Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who had picked it up from Italian dealer Luigi Tarisio.

Somehow, the man Kostoff dealt with did not recognize the instrument's lineage, at least not at first.

"I went to him to have some bows repaired," Kostoff says. "He asked if I wanted to try a violin, and I said OK. I picked it up and played it. I saw the label, but labels can be quite fictional; labels don't impress me. I wrote a check right then and there. Don't ask me why. Two days later, I went back to pick up my bows and the guy asked me if I'd like to sell the violin back. I said no."

At the time he bought the Maggini, the Ohio-born Kostoff, a lifelong bachelor, was deep in lab work, having long since left the orchestra world because he "needed to make more money." He didn't give up music at home, though. "I played the violin, not every day, but almost every week," he says.

For the past four decades, Kostoff took meticulous care of the instrument.

"It's in fabulous condition," says Linda Goodwin, curator of instruments at Peabody. "We will make a few minor adjustments to it, open it up even more in terms of tone and sound. I don't think we've heard its full capacity yet. It definitely has a personality. All great fiddles do."

Details of who at Peabody will get to play the Kostoff Maggini, and under what circumstances, are being worked out. For now, the attention is on Tseng. His recital Sunday "is going to be a sort of celebration," he says. "I didn't want a program that was too heavy or too long. This concert will be purely entertainment." Pieces by Brahms, Dvorak, Kreisler and Gershwin are among the selections.

Will the man behind the Maggini make it to the recital?

"Absolutely," Kostoff says. "I wouldn't miss it."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

Keng-Yuen Tseng's recital will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Peabody Institute, 17 E. Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $5 to $15. Call 410-234-4800.

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