Thursday, October 17, 2013


This is not a check in as we ROWers know it to be. But this is the face, or rather the scroll of Wolf. Look at him carefully, for you will notice one or two rather odd things, that are shared with all Florenus stringed instruments; his two sides do not match up evenly and not one of them do. I was going to take picture of his f-holes, but he may have said we don't know each other that well yet, it only being 38 years out of his 176 years on this planet. Sigh, 2Shy. 

Anyway, the f-holes on these instruments are not elegantly cut, as they are on Stradivarius violins, and violas; they appear to be almost hacked out with chisels, as if the makers of the Florenus bench (Italian fiddle-makers went on for generations and are often referred to as "benches) couldn't wait to get inside to let the music out.

The bottom swoops out to a point, a "serif" before curving in to form the beginning of the neck. The work here, as like a bow maker's needs to be as smooth through the curve and sure as possible, so that no weakness exists. 

The reason is that when you put this whole contraption together (sorry, Wolf) body, neck, endpin, sides, bridge, fingerboard, nut and string it up, the pounds per square inch exerted in pressure, on a 16 and 7/8" viola (mine is 15 and 7/8", but he's fat and phat) are anywhere between 41 to 58. The problem with forgeries or fiddle-makers who try to make a great-sounding fiddle (this also applies to cellos, violas; string basses are made, or were made by cabinet makers) is they don't follow the laws of physics and finicky fiddles and are left with toothpicks, after the implosion.                                                                                                               
                     MY NEW PRACTICE AREA

This actually happened to a friend of mine up north, after he spent a great deal of money on a "2nd" viola. During an intermission during the concert, he laid it on on of the tables set out for that purpose and "ka-boom!" There went his new toy. I never felt the need for a 2nd viola, except for a junker if I was going to play out in something unusual. Then, 50.00 from the Rent-a-Wreck joint is fine for me. There's probably one or two in my storage unit.This actually happened to a friend of mine up north, after he spent a great deal of money on a "2nd" viola. During an intermission during the concert, he laid it on on of the tables set out for that purpose and "ka-boom!" There went his new toy. I never felt the need for a 2nd viola, except for a junker if I was going to play out in something unusual. Then, 50.00 from the Rent-a-Wreck joint is fine for me. There's probably one or two el-Cheapos in my storage unit.

My viola bow, made by a modern maker in Germany. name of Grunkë. At 72 grams, it is the heaviest of viola bows (I can't use a violin bow; I have a naturally "heavy" arm) but is so delicately balanced, it easily responds to light spiccato bowing to the heaviest, most brilliant passage work by Richard Straüss.

But you can't argue with physics. You can't change the way the bow exerts pressure on the string, nor the way the string resonates to that pressure. To get the best sound possible, there are no shortcuts and these old bastards from Italy figured it out. There are some good Chinese violins and some older Japanese ones from the early 1900s that are wonderful. Found gold, but the Italians; hands down, still the best. 


! am definitely not a pro photographer by any means, but if you look at the left hand photo, you can see by the definition of the light, how deep the front of the body is on Wolf. All of his fittings are in Rosewood, Chin rest. pegs, tail piece and only one tuner. All of his strings are perlon, with composite core and silver-wound. Thank God they last a while, because they're about a hundred bucks a set. As a working musician, you can write off 2 sets of strings per year.

I have a friend who owns an Ungarini (Cremona) viola; he flies to New York with her every 3 WEEKS to have her strings changed. Every 3 WEEKS! And yes, in care you're wondering, he buys her a seat next to him. Ungarinis are glorious. He asked me, "would you like to play her?" She's 17 and 1/4" with lightning bolt purfling; slim and elegant. We swapped. I played up-bow, noodle-noodle, down-bow, noodle-noodle and stopped. A message from God. I watched as my friend tore around on Wolf. He stopped; "Don't you like her?" I cleared my throat, "OhyesindeedyIdo." He just laughed. A truly awesome instrument, is the Ungarini viola.

To the right, is a Stradivarius viola, approximately 16 and 3/4" long, with a one-piece back. Wolf is 15 and 7/8" long and has a HUGE sound, most notable on his lower, or "C" string. The primary reason for this, is he's "tubby," not graceful nor slender like his more aristocratic Cremonese cousins. However, there are only 12 Strad violas in existence, and none of them are notable. However, Wolf is easy to play and is a beauty, otherwise.

Speaking of backs, fiddles have either one, or two piece backs. This Strad has a two-piece back, although it's hard to tell. Although it doesn't affect the sound one way or the other, there is an aesthetic preference as to one-piece back, or two-piece back and sometimes, I think it has to do with what we all started playing as little kids. I started on violin and switched to viola, when I reached the age of reason. My first nameless, lost to the ages, 3/4-sized rental violin had a 2-piece back. I've preferred them ever since. 

I did own a pretty okay violin, made in Germany in the 1700s, for a while, with a one-piece back, but it was nothing special, but for the fact that it ate E-strings at a ferocious rate. Once, during a Manhattan Transfer concert, it chewed one up. Right in front of an audience of 5,000 or so. I was off the stage at the end of that number, changed the string, tuned it, and back in my chair before the downbeat of the next number. Boy, was I pissed. 

Later on, the group's conductor and pianist, Yaron Gershovsky, said to me, "I've never seen cool like that; that's pro!" I said, "Thanks, ya want a fiddle, cheap? " We used to improvise on "Variations on a Theme of Paganini," by Rachmaninoff, which was a neat trick, because I'd never played it on violin, just the viola part, for orchestra, nor had I improvised much. Noodle, noodle.

This is Wolf's 2-piece back and his upper left shoulder. He has "tiger stripes," which many luthiers work very hard to match up, if the back is 2-piece, or set very dramatically, if the back is 1-piece to bring out the "flames" in the maple wood used. Again, this type of striping is typical to several luthiers, either running parallel, or convergent. Again, it's a matter of aesthetics. The luthiers have other ways to make the wood "sound" which I'll reveal in further posts.

Wolf is pretty blond for a viola, or a violin for that matter. My German E-string eater was dark brown and also, had a harder varnish. But, before I end this and bore everyone completely to death with my alter ego (one of many; I seem to be schizophrenic) I must point out the patina, or lack thereof on Wolf's upper left-hand shoulder. That has been caused by years and years upon years of the heel of my left hand as I play in the upper register on his fingerboard. 

Maxim Vengerov, playing his Stradivarius violin

Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Maxim Vengerov violin, Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony

This type of playing is referred to as "tessitura playing" and is used by string players to intensify the emotion of long passage-work, typically associated with romantic or tragic music. Mahler, Barber's "Adagio for Strings," and Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," are great examples of this. Because these instruments are non-fretted, playing in highers positions, higher on the finger board, shortens the string length, and intensifies the tone. It is up to the player to apply nuance, vibrato and turn the notes into art. It's awesome and I love playing this way. It takes tons of control. The best example of this is towards the end of the 1st movement. It's heaven.

Every so often, I know I do this, most musicians revisit past pieces, to refresh our skills and make sure we're still on top of things. Musicians tend to be long-lived; Mischa Mischakov played his last concert in Detroit at age 100. Although, he was no longer concertmaster, he wasn't ga-ga. 

I've started my rehabilitation, as it were. While it is no where near what I used to be, there is promise, by the end of the first 15 minutes, things were starting to gel. My "sight-reading" exercise is a trip, because I keep trying to get ahead of myself. Ha! All the moving parts are present and accounted for.

I will share more about what I know about the arcane world of luthiers and fiddles and their secrets. Having been a part of it for so long, I had forgotten how truly secretive and mysterious it all must seem to people who have never been around non-fretted, wooden instruments. So, I'll tell you about how luthiers "sound" wood, bow makers; a different breed of cat. The ones I've known up close and personal have all been aeronautics engineers, which is a clue as to what shape a violin, viola or cello bow is patterned after. Last, but not least, this is a new "trend" in augmentation for non-fretted strings. It sucks. 


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