Sunday, July 26, 2015


We are writing about objects that we cherish and have so much meaning in our lives. Mine is my viola, named “Wolf” by his luthier, who cared for him, when I lived in Detroit, Michigan. Fine instruments are given names by luthiers; I am not sure why that is. I acquired Wolf when I was eighteen years of age, getting ready to start college, and my mother didn't want me to start on a “block of wood” as she termed it. The luthier in San Francisco who sold us the viola, bought “him” from an estate sale, of a woman who had died in her late 70s. She had developed something like MS or some motor disorder and had been a young violist in the San Francisco Symphony. Wolf was found in her closet after her passing.

The one time I don't want a picture of the cat, she sneaks in; the bow is German-made, by Richard Grunke, and at 72 grams is the heaviest viola bow made.

She had all of his papers and provenance, so there is no question that he is a Guidantus Florenus of the Bolognese school of violin making, not the Cremonese school, which turned out the lovely Stradivarius, Amati and Guarneri instruments. You can go on for days and days about different makers, houses, schools, blah blah blah. I have all the viola I need right here. When I first played Wolf, I could not believe the sound that came out of this small, unassuming looking instrument. It was huge! The lower notes were full and rich, the higher ones were sweet and piercing without stridency. I had to take this instrument to my professor to have him listen. There is an adage: "Don't buy the first instrument you play" and naturally, this was the first one I played!

Florenus had some odd little things that he would do with his instruments; here, he has managed to match up 2 pieces of maple so that Wolf appears to have "stripes" the length of his back.

I took him to my professor, the good and kind, late Dr. Jakey and we went to the concert hall. I played Wolf, while he walked around the hall and listened. He had me turn my back to him, because conversely, the viola's sound is projected through the back of the instrument, due to it's size, and not the f-holes, like the violin (probably more than you want to know, but there it is) and he walked up and down, back and forth. Then, he played and I did pretty much the same thing. There wasn't a false note on the instrument, no matter how high up the register, or high up you played on the lower strings. The viola was just solid and so rich. Wolf "plays easily" too. By that I mean, he's a dream to play. I had a viola once that I was trying to sell for a friend, and I felt like I'd been in a cat-fight every time I played it.

Another "hallmark" of Florenus' house (usually several members of one family worked on a "bench" or for a "house" - Antonio Stradivarius passed on his fiddle-making to his sons) is that his f-hole work looks like cavemen chiseled them out with rocks. Interesting, since he took such care with the backs, but then, wait until you see the scroll!

Before Wolf got his name, I had to have some work done on him. I took him to my luthier in Detroit, Michigan. I needed to have all of his pegs changed out to rosewood, his fingerboard was beveled as was the custom in the 18th century and needed to be smoothed out and evened, I wanted to have him outfitted with matching chin rest and end pin to match his pegs. He also had a tiny, tiny crack on the front and that needed to be fixed. The luthier, Peter, said he could do all of that, but would have to take the top off. I went into a near-frenzy. I think all players do that. He said, "relax, just going to put a tiny cleat on that crack underneath". 

Wolf is small compared to most violas; 15 and 7/8" inches, instead of 16 1/2, or 17 inches, but because he is "fat" between his front and his back, he is able to project the kind of sound much larger violas produce. He can pretty much out-shout bigger ones, but then I have a "heavy" arm and have had to learn to back off and play with a lighter arm, when necessary. Now, that I'm back playing symphonically and no longer a free-range violist, I actually have to pay attention to the dynamics. When I toured with rock 'n' roll bands, like Styx and the Moody Blues, no one gave a hoot about dynamics. 

He went off to do his voo-doo, while I paced around and fretted. Peter came back in a bit, and said, "come here, I want you to see this?" I'm thinking, "oh geeze, he's gonna tell me the thing's got termites." So we go back into his inner sanctum, and he's taken the top off of Wolf. First off, there's a dust bunny in there, that's been there so long and is so huge, it's viola-shaped. Just kidding. Peter shows me where he fixed the tiny crack and the set of pegs, chin rest and tail or end pin, that he's picked out for Wolf. Wolf is not a deep red, or mahogany; he's blond and his varnish is also a softer varnish. That's another thing string people yap about; varnish. For days. 

This is a true Florenus scroll. It's out of kilter. It looks like something that got left out in the sun and kind of melted. There is no symmetry and I laugh every time I see it. If I were to have no provenance or proof of Wolf's lineage, an appraiser would look at this, his f-holes and his back and go, "yep, Florenus". They're all horrible. It's like Florenus just didn't care, at least about the head-on part of it. 

Anyway, Peter is looking at Wolf's scroll and his front, deep in thought. He says, "Mary, I've seen this viola before." I'm like "Orly?" in my head. Peter goes to his catalogs. Luthiers have very, very expensive catalogs that are updated every so many years with notable string instruments. He hunts around for a certain year and pulls out this book. It's huge and it's heavy and he flips through it to the "F" section and there is my Florenus. I was pretty shocked. I told him I have the bill of sale. I had to have the instrument authenticated and insured, but Peter named him "Wolf" because of his huge, at times gruff sounds on his lower strings. Another weird convention: Wolf is a "him" because I'm female. This is not etched in stone, it is more a tradition that has gone on through the centuries, among luthiers and string players. 

Wolf and I have been a team now for nearly 41 years; that's longer than any of my marriages have lasted and longer than the time I had my father in my life. Wolf is by my side pretty much all the time, and we have had our adventures, and our disasters, although I make sure that if it's gonna get physical, I take the brunt of it, like falling off a stage. Ribs can heal; it's damnably hard and expensive to fix an Italian Aristocrat. This happened to a friend of mine; I completely understand his “tuck and roll” move.

I do have to give Florenus this much. When it came to the serif and the profile, there were few better. The sweep from the serif up to the crest is gorgeous. The only prettier one I've seen is on a Gofriller cello. All in all, Wolf is a spectacular instrument! I'm so fortunate to have him.

In an eery coincidence, several years ago, I developed a motor disorder and it was though that I would not play again. Understandably, this may have been caused in part by about 10 or 15 years of total hell – went blind, had congestive heart failure, during which time, husband got a girl friend, left his cheating ass, tried to buy a house with the settlement, lost it in econ meltdown of 2008, got sick AGAIN and HOMELESS, this time – and at one point, I just wanted to lay down in my traces like a tired old cart horse and not get up. But, that's not what we do in my family. We come roaring back, and are usually made stronger by whatever set us back on our pins in the first place.

But, the motor disorder, is in fact inherited and I had been displaying symptoms for many years. They just chose to become overt and I was unable to play. Well. Shit. After two years of fighting with a bunch of quacks who call themselves “neurologists” I was set up through the Parkinson's Foundation with a world-class neurologist, who had me diagnosed and out the door in well under 2 years. Understand, that neurological problems typically take from 6 to 10 years for a diagnosis. Within a year, I was playing again. I joined the local symphony and took it head-on. We started our season with Beethoven's 5th Symphony (Oh, I should mention, Beethoven is my muse, not just for music, but for life) and ended with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony for Big Orchestra, and gave a seminal performance. I am so thrilled to be able to make music again on this level! It was just a dream, but to have Wolf? Icing on the cake and I'm making up for lost time!

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