Sunday, March 17, 2013


He was born in 1837, only ten years after the death of Beethoven. Born on the same continent, but in another country, born in another time. He probably thinks himself as a child of the Enlightenment, because that is surely when his kind began to achieve the finest of their voices. Their voices are many and they are powerful and fine. They soar and growl, sing and weep. They are the family of strings.

All things considered, he is one of the minor nobility. Being born in Bologna in 1837 (although there is dispute and it is thought he is older,) he is a poor cousin to the Cremona family of Amati, Stradivarius, Guarnieri, Storioni and Guadagnini. He is a Guidantus. Italian and a pure snob, even against the Strad violas. Only twelve Strad violas are still around and they were not his finest. Violas and violins have different ratios in terms of their sizes, just as cellos do. Wonderful violin makers don't always make wonderful violas and vice versa. Wolf holds his own against all comers and seems strangely oblivious and insouciant, much like his current partner.

His scroll and serif are unique. Seen head on, his scroll is off-center; a hallmark of Guidantus.

Meet Wolf. Sorry I don't have a picture of his front. My PD was too bad. This is from the Strad school.
The striping down the back is unique as well. Matched maple, called "tiger striping." I do not think it a formal term. I think Peter used that. Peter Psarianos, who cared for him, had great affection for Wolf. But, Peter loves all  the instruments under his care.

Wolf slept for a long time and his memory is vague regarding his earlier years. He’s not even sure when he came from Italy to San Francisco. He just knows he ended up there and in the hands of a young woman who played briefly in the San Francisco Symphony. His mistress fell ill with a peculiar muscular wasting disease. He went back to sleep for a long period of time. He awoke to find himself in a room with lots of others of his kind.

He ended up in my hands in 1974; bought by a maker/dealer in San Jose, California, by my mother. I was off to college and she wanted to be sure I had something nice-er to play than the hideous brick I had been fighting with for the last 3 years. I took him around in his beat up old case and played him for my new Viola professor and friends. The consensus? Not bad, probably a keeper. He hadn’t been played in a long time and he sounded… kinda pinchy, but that faded over time, as he regained his voice.

And boy, howdy, did he! He just wanted to be played; he was a teenage viola (137 years) in viol years by this time and he was tired of all this hanging about! Lots and lots of playing commenced and his voice grew and grew and grew. Smallish, but deep, the proportions are perfect for this instrument. It’s really easy to think in terms of a great big violin, but that just sounds horrible.

A whole bunch of instrument makers have tried a lot of stupid things to make violas better. Instead, they just made them into the butt of jokes: Q: Why are violas bigger than violins? A: They aren’t, the violinists heads are bigger. Q: Have you heard about the latest form of urban violence? A: Drive-by Viola solos.

Otto Erdesz viola, circa 1974. I almost unreservedly do not like modern instruments, either. They are too raw-sounding. It takes at least 50 years before they start to behave.
Welcome to strange and tubby. Try to shift positions on this bastard. Good luck. We'll see you in the ER when you yank a finger out of joint or bust an elbow. It got worse. See below.

Anyway, these loons, the instrument makers, like Otto Erdesz who makes beautiful viola bows made a bunch of violas that look like their asses are on steroids. I worked for a guy once, selling fine instruments and got to play some Amatis and Strads, which was awesome! Then, when I found their true worth or provenance, I hastily gave them back to the shop owner, Peter. He loved that game. "Here, Mary. Play this viola that just came in for sale on a commission." I'd play along. Beautiful tone; played like butter, I'd run up and down the finger board, play a bunch of double stops. "What is it?" I'd ask. He'd say, "Whadda ya think?" Smartass me, "Stanley Steemer. Italian, Cremona school. Guarneri?" He'd grin. "Storioni." I'd gawk. "O Holy Mother of God, take it back NOW!"

 And, I got to play some Erdesz violas. They go for about 14k. They’re beautiful to look at, but the C string, lower notes are just muddy, no clarity, no gruffness and if you play in upper positions on the C string, like I love to do for that intense sound, it sounds very weak. My Guidantus, which was bought for 1,500.00 in 1974 is much, much, much more expensive today. I had to have Wolf certified and insured when I had all of his pegs, chin rest, tailpin and everything refit. Wolf has bling-bling. Actually, I have bling-bling just being around him. The odd thing about him is his dating. Supposedly, he was born in 1837, there are some Guidantus violas around that time, but the school was thriving a century earlier and there are some Guidantus viol da gambas from 1737, but buttloads of actual violas. Another mystery, but Wolf has been certified by an appraiser due to provenance and that is damn hard to fake and why would anyone go to the trouble.

Musicians are a cruel lot. I would never walk into a rehearsal with this. This shouts, "I can't PLAY. Put me in the handicapped section!" Oh, wait, I'm a violist; I'm already IN the handicapped section. Joke, I play viola like a violinist. This was so it would make it "easier to shift positions." If you have to make it easier to do something that the rest of the "human" race and I use that term politely, 'cause musicians, you're on the wrong track. What's next? A stick and a washtub with twine. They tried that. It sucked.

So, working in the shop was fun. I got to play a bunch of different violins and violas. It turns out that Wolf, my first viola I ever played when I went looking was the one. Violins? Feh. I’ve played some killer violins. They make me sound great. They still suck. It’s a violin. The only thing that would make that worse is playing Mozart on one.

So, when Wolf and I aren’t out terrorizing viola sections, or hamming it up in the Tampa Bay Chamber Orchestra, we were off playing Styx’s “Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto,” or Alan Parsons Project or Moody Blues stuff. Turns out I had way more fun playing Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” Man, does that cook.

But back to these here instruments. Turns out the damn things have personalities. Makes sense. The wood is alive. There was this guy who wasn’t a professional violinist, but could easily have been; he was a dentist, but prided himself on his musicianship and was in a few of the local groups, around Detroit. He bought himself a Strad. He was happy with it for a while, then I noticed he didn’t talk about it much. I asked him what the problem was. “The damn thing hates lights. I can only play in a dark room.” I nodded sagely. “I can relate. Wolf hates the cold. He loves Florida.” The dentist looked at me. “And this is a problem?”  I said, “Well, yeah, every time I have to tour up north, we fight.” I got the impression the dentist thought I was making this up. So, I said, "It's complicated." I got an even stranger look. "We've been together longer than I've been with any of my husbands." Dentist laughed uneasily. "Ha ha, good thing I'm married." M'kay, I'm shutting up now.

I had to explain that Wolf found a way to make 2 strings go out of tune precisely at the down beat. Pain. In. My. Ass. So, I remembered Nathan Gordon’s old trick of the warm-up to the warm-up. No more sliding in under the down beat. It worked, but honestly, Wolf loves Florida, but does NOT like ceiling fans. His 440 A becomes like 441. Don’t ask. How we suffer for our art. So, it’s basically turn off the fan in the room I practice in. No biggie. 

What was a biggie was this asinine German violin I bought and a damn nice one. Beautiful tone and easy to play. Made in 1845. No real wars going on, so I figured they could spare a few years and make fiddles without screwing that up. The violin was for gigs and I was playing with Manhattan Transfer at the time. Well, this violin had a serious eating disorder. It ate E strings Iike I eat string cheese. Strings aren't cheap. At the rate this thing was going, I was replacing 2 E strings a month, at 10 bucks a pop.  During our Manhattan Transfer tour, the conductor who was a hell of a pianist and I were improvising on Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme by Paganini" just goofing. There's a lot of down time on tours. I improved all the time with people. Anne Murray's side men and I played a killer "Ashokan Farewell" riffing it. 

These evil bastards are everywhere, dreaming of Mozart.

Anyway, I guess my stupid violin didn't want to play Rocky, so during one of the Transfer tunes that damned violin ate his E string. I was playing 1st violin, which I hate. I improvised by playing all that high shit on the A string. I was pissed. After that tune and while the Transfer schmoozed with the audience, I was off that stage, changed the string, tuned it and back in my chair in time for the next tune. Conductor Yaron Gershovsky told me later, he'd never seen that in all his years of conducting. I asked him if he wanted to buy a violin.

I have a friend who owns a Gofriller cello. It is magnificent. Their scrolls are unique. So are their value. 1 million US the last time I heard. Since I don't play cello, I just look. I tried once, it just sounded like "Singapore's Greatest Hits." Everything was quarter-tones.

My favorite story is the guy who brought in his cello for repair. It had a perfectly round hole through the front. His son threw a fast ball in the house and it went right through the front. The cello was a Gofriller. Ouch. That was several thousand dollars and months to repair. I’ve had exactly one repair done to Wolf and Peter had to remove Wolf’s front, or his face. There was a viola-shaped dust bunny in there, that’s how long it had been. He sounded much better without his “pal” the viola-shaped dust bunny. Peter asked me if I wanted to see him without his face. I passed on that one. How strange, but it’s just too… something. Wolf is my alter ego, husband, friend. Peter asked me if I wanted his dust bunny. I said no to that, too. Just reunite me with Wolf.  
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