articles & interviews

Playing Favourites

The Australian
July 2, 2011
By Leta Keens

For a violinist, she's not particularly unusual. When the price of a very good violin can be compared, crassly, with the cost of a Sydney apartment with views, it's hardly surprising many violinists can't afford to buy their own concert instruments.

"Rather than buying a nice violin, many of us end up buying a nice bow," she says. "You can get a very nice bow for $30,000, so that's still affordable." The best bows, she says, can cost up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Hers is a Sartori -- French, made in the late 19th or early 20th century. "It's an all-round bow that suits all kinds of instruments."

The Sartori has had to adjust to three instruments in recent years: the 18th-century Balestrieri Vanska played for eight years, on loan from a private individual who eventually wanted to lend it to someone else; more recently and for just more than a year, the Guadagnini, owned by the Commonwealth Bank and on loan to the ACO, where it is usually played by principal second violin Helena Rathbone. "I was babysitting it while Helena was on maternity leave nursing her own child," Vanska says.

In recent weeks the ACO has taken delivery of a Stradivarius, valued at $1.79 million, the first instrument bought for the orchestra by the Australian Chamber Orchestra Instrument Fund and believed to be the first Stradivarius in the country. Australian audiences will have a chance to hear it for the first time this month on the ACO's Baroque Virtuosi tour, which starts tomorrow and will feature Vanska playing Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata. The instrument is a composite, made up of the original front of one instrument by Stradivari and the original back and sides of another violin by the same maker.

Top Strads can go for well more than $10m, according to Simon Morris, director of Beare's, the London violin dealer that helped with the acquisition of the ACO's instrument and provided the authentication for it. "Sometimes when a front gets damaged, it gets replaced, and if you can put a part from another Stradivari fiddle, you still have the elements of the original maker," he says. "The key thing is, does it have the great qualities of sound that Stradivarius is fabled for, and it does; in fact, it was tried against several other violins, including complete ones and it sounded better."

In a nutshell, says Morris, the qualities of a Strad are "its silvery, clear bell-like tone. It can produce a whole range of tonal colours which you can project to the back of a concert hall."

When asked how necessary it is for violinists to be playing top instruments, Morris says someone such as Richard Tognetti, artistic director of the ACO, will sound good on any violin, "but you have to work hard to get anywhere. Great instruments allow you to play to the peak of your ability. I often make the analogy that if you're the fastest runner in the world, you can probably put on a pair of stilettos and still run faster than most people, but the fact is you want the best shoes for the job."

For as long as Vanska remains in the orchestra she will have unlimited access to the violin. "It's an ideal situation for a musician," she says, with understatement. It puts her in an unusual, and enviable, position. She tells of "world-famous violinists" who are dependent on benefactors for the loan of an instrument, which may be for only a year or two. "You're always stressed, wondering where the next one will come from." Some musicians she knows have taken out huge bank loans to buy their own instruments to avoid being in that situation. "Having to hand back a beautiful violin hurts. You get very attached to the instrument, so it's a tragedy."

Handing back an instrument may be a tragedy; losing one is a disaster of another sort. While it's under her guardianship Vanska will not be letting the Strad out of her sight. She will store it in a French-designed Bam case with coded lock and certainly won't be leaving it home alone (she will be practising on it at home as well as playing it in concert); for obvious reasons, she will not reveal where it will be kept at other times.

For non-musicians it's inconceivable that a musician would forget their instrument as Yo-Yo Ma famously did (and others have done before and since) in 1999 when, still exhausted from playing at Carnegie Hall the night before, he left his cello in the boot of a New York taxi. Luckily for him, it was tracked down 18 minutes later. "I made a stupid mistake and I just left without it," he said at a news briefing.

"When you're in the zone before or after playing, anything can happen," says Joshua Clarke, principal trumpet of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Recorder player Genevieve Lacey agrees: "It's completely possible, there are so many reasons it would happen: you're terrified about what's coming up, you're exhausted. You're so focused on something else and are a liability on multiple fronts." It's every violinist's nightmare, says Vanska, who reveals that as a teenager "and not thinking, talking too much to my friends", she left her violin on a tour bus, "but luckily got it back five minutes later. I almost died; it was a lesson I learned that was enough for me. Now it's very strange to travel without the violin. That's when you get worried, you're always wondering where it is." When she goes on holiday, she takes her own "good, honest violin", a modern one, made by a Japanese violin-maker in Italy, and which cost $10,000.

While top violinists often don't play their own instruments on stage for one reason, pianists rarely do for quite another altogether: simply, it's completely impractical to travel with such large instruments. What they encounter at the other end may be well below concert standard. Khatia Buniatishvili, in a recent interview with The Australian, noted that "I like this kind of adventure moment when you don't know what it's going to be. It makes it more intense." In Bruno Monsaingeon's book of conversations with Sviatoslav Richter, the Soviet pianist talks about a tour of the US that went badly, he says, precisely because he was able to choose, from dozens offered, which piano to use.

"I spent all the time thinking that I'd chosen the wrong one. Nothing is worse for a pianist than to choose the instrument on which he's going to perform. You should play on whichever piano happens to be in the hall, as though fate intended it so. Everything then becomes easier from a psychological point of view."

The best concert of the season, he says, was one he tried to cancel because of an unplayable piano. "I went out on the platform, thinking, 'To hell with the piano and the rest of them', and launched into Brahms's Sonata in F sharp minor." The pressure was off.

Pianist Kathy Selby, a member of the piano trio TriOz, uses a trick learned from her teacher in New York, Claude Frank, to help deal with the less than ideal instruments encountered on tour. "Every time I had a lesson with him, it was sheer pleasure, but also a nightmare because his piano was so horrible and so hard to play." She eventually got up the nerve to comment on it. The reason he kept it, he said, "was because it was so bad. He said: 'When I go out on stage, no matter what piano I have, I can do whatever I want because no piano is going to be as bad as mine.' "

At home in Sydney, Selby practises on a piano her parents bought when she was about 10, which has been to the US and back, and has had a split soundboard and a restringing. She has it tuned several times a year, which costs about $200 a time. One quote for a complete overhaul of it, she says, was $20,000. "It was quite difficult to contemplate and yet, if I sold it, it might only get six or seven thousand dollars," she says. "Then I'd have to buy a new one for 50 or 60 thousand. It's like renovating an apartment. Do you want to go to that expense or are you happy to live in it the way it is?"

It's not just the sound and feel of the instrument that a pianist has to get used to on tour, says Selby. "Each one is built slightly differently. The pedals are at a different height, for instance. At the end of a concert, after wearing high heels, my ankles are often killing me [because] I've had to go down so far with the pedals. There are lots of little technical issues that have nothing to do with the actual playing." It doesn't even bear thinking about the odd occasions she's presented with an upright piano. "You'll be thinking how you're going to play particular works on an upright; the technique used for playing is completely different. The strings are a lot shorter for a start."

As a member of a trio, Selby says she used to get "pissed off" that her violin and cello-playing colleagues travelled with their own instruments "which they're comfortable with and know how they sound", while she would have to adjust her playing every time to suit. But then, she says, there are certain things they have to worry about that are of no concern to her: changes in temperature and humidity, which can play havoc with tuning; restringing of their instruments, which they do at least before each tour (a set of strings for a violin costs about $100); and the whim of airline officials as to whether highly valuable instruments make it on to the plane as hand luggage.

"On our last tour, the violin and [guest] viola weren't allowed on to the plane so I had to buy two new tickets on another airline," says Selby. "You just hope and pray it doesn't happen the next day with the same airline."

Most musicians have horror stories of travelling with their instruments. For instance, cellist and viola da gamba player Daniel Yeadon, in a European student orchestra at the time, tells of watching as a harpsichord completely missed the conveyer belt as it was unloaded from the hold of a plane. "You could hear this terrible crunching as it splintered on the ground." After September 11, in particular, things became ridiculously tough for musicians on tour. There were tales of cellists having their endpins (spikes) confiscated as possible weapons and violinists being made to remove all the strings (potentially causing serious damage to their instruments), as they could be used to strangle airline crew.

Although September 11 hysteria may have died down -- and many airlines have policies supposedly allowing instruments as carry-on luggage -- musicians often find themselves having to put their instruments in the hold. Clarke says, depending on what he's playing, he may need to travel with up to four of the 11 trumpets he owns (his collection is needed for different repertoire). The trumpets are packed in special travel cases, each costing about $900. An airline official "on a bad day can enforce the law" as the cases are an odd shape and don't fit neatly into the bag gauge at the check-in counter.

"You then make the mistake of looking out the plane window and seeing the baggage handlers throwing the suitcases on and off, and just hope your instrument makes it to the other end." He tells of a French horn player colleague who was told he couldn't take his instrument on board because of its strange-shaped case. His solution was to swap the contents of his carry-on luggage with the horn, take that on board and let his clothes be checked through in the horn case.

Even Lacey occasionally has to check her recorders through. While those of us who learned the recorder in primary school remember it as about the length of a ruler, Lacey owns "25 really beautiful handmade ones", ranging in size from one small enough to fit into the palm of her hand to the largest, which is taller than she is and can never travel as hand luggage. She has had cases badly wrecked, but so far there has been no damage to her recorders. "It would be shockingly traumatic. You really love them, you spend so much time with them and they really are like little creatures, they have their own personalities."

For each of her best recorders she has a double to use during recording sessions. If you think of the recorder like a voice, she says, "the voice will get husky if you use it all day, and it's the same with a recorder. Because they're wooden and get wet when you play, you need to give them a rest. In a recording session, you try to plan it so you can get through one concerto on one, and use another for the next piece."

She also has plastic versions of each "for when I just need to teach my fingers something". On top of that, they are "completely laden with emotional association", she says, depending on pieces played on them and where they have been played.

Musicians, much as they love their instruments, are often on a quest for something else, something better. As well as being in the market for new trumpets -- a good, custom-made one can cost up to $8000 -- Clarke is also looking for a new mouthpiece to add to his collection of about 100. He's been in email correspondence with "a Zen master Japanese mouthpiece maker. I sent him a three-page email outlining my perfect mouthpiece." The maker's reply said he needed time to think about it, followed by another email some time later saying he thought he had discovered the key and would need two more months. "That was three months ago and I'm still waiting to hear back."

Lacey has just had a tiny sopranino recorder made by Melbourne-based recorder maker Joanne Saunders for particular repertoire in her current Musica Viva concert tour with Concerto Copenhagen. She picked it up a few days before she spoke to The Australian and could play it for only 30 minutes at a stretch for a week before gradually building up its stamina, in much the same way cars used to have to be run in. "I literally have to put an alarm on because I lose track of time."

Selby says she learned a lesson early in life, that to upgrade a piano means trading in the old one. "When my parents decided to get me a grand piano, I was horrified that they had to sell the old one -- I was horrified. I didn't know until recently that someone in the Blue Mountains bought it and loved it. I was happy to hear that." She and her husband went to an open-house inspection in their neighbourhood 15 years ago and, rather than buying the house, bought the Bechstein upright "which reminded me so much of my first piano and of my first teacher who I loved passionately". The piano, says her tuner, is not worth keeping; it can't hold a tune. "But I can't even contemplate selling it. It's a beautiful piece of furniture and I feel terribly attached to it."

To Clarke, his trumpets are "maps of my musical life, they're my way of expressing myself". Some days, he says, "they're my friend, other days my nemesis. They're like people, really, in the way that one day you get on really well with someone, and the next day just the way they say 'hi' annoys you." Although he feels there is less mystique with a trumpet than a violin, when he accidentally kicked one across the room recently, "it was like kicking one of your children, quite heart wrenching". Luckily, there was no lasting damage.

While the ACO Stradivarius is set to outlive all of us, some instruments improve with age only to a certain point. A descant recorder Lacey is particularly fond of, bought second-hand when she was a student, is coming to the end of its natural life. "I'm aware of its potential mortality. It's incredibly poignant," she says. "I don't know how much longer it will last, but I'll do anything to keep it going for as long as I can. These are much more than tools for our work."