Secrets Wonderful and Cruel

111

I came across this article that first appeared in the LA Times in 1997. It is a good description of the making process and how the history of the maker, player, instrument model and wood comes together to create a new violin. Enjoy!

By DUANE NORIYUKI, August 31, 1997

http://articles.latimes.com/1997/aug/31/magazine/tm-27440

First is the music of leaves, of branches bowed by incessant wind. Before Bach or Beethoven, before horns or strings or written notes, this concert wafted through the forest like seasons through time. The tree offers song in swell and wane until, in a mighty crescendo, it is felled to the stillness of its winter shadow. Then there is silence. * Decades may pass before venerable wood, precisely cut and properly dried, reaches the hands and wits of the violin maker, who carefully gives new voice, and the musician, who gives new life--who return music to the wood. * If wood could talk, this maple Rena Weisshaar holds in her hands would describe its journey from the Bosnian forest, its passage to America in the possession of a man she loved, sometimes feared and never fully understood, but who is ever-present in her mind as she feels its smooth grain--gently, as if stroking the temples of a dreaming child.

It is precious in its paucity and magnificent in its appearance, strong and feather-light. It is, she says, like gold.

Only wood could explain the mysteries of this centuries-old craft, how Antonio Stradivari created masterpieces that improved in tone over 250 years, creating the ultimate voice for the works of great composers. And it is the nature of this craft that laureled makers die before their instruments, as the mother dies before the child. They never realize how time and virtuosity slowly bring forth full measure of their creations.

The wood could tell stories of legendary musicians and thieves, of a man named Erich Gruenberg, whose Stradivari violin was stolen as he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on July 24, 1990. His words expressed death-like devastation. "It is irreplaceable," he said. "It is my life." Police found it nine months later in Honduras.

It could tell the story of Julian Altman, a strolling violinist at a Russian restaurant in New York--how he entered nearby Carnegie Hall wearing a bulky overcoat and stole the Strad of Bronislaw Huberman while Huberman performed the Bach Concerto in E Major on another violin. Forty-nine years later, on his deathbed, Altman confessed his secret.

And it could tell the story of Vahan Bedelian, who in 1915 was to be sent to what is now the Syrian desert, where 1.5 million Armenians perished in an act of Turkish genocide. He defended himself not with gun nor sword. On the eve of his anticipated journey to death, Bedelian picked up his violin and performed mournfully and passionately before a Turkish general, who listened, then approached him with champagne and these words: "A talent like you we need. You should not be sent to the desert."
His life spared, Bedelian lived to teach the violin to many, including his son, Haroutune, who was accepted into London's Royal Academy of Music at age 15. For this son, Rena Weisshaar will make a violin, in part with this Bosnian maple, from ground now stained by blood of war and ashes of precious trees.

*

The maple was a gift from Rena's late father-in-law, Hans Weisshaar, one of the most respected violin restorers of his time. After World War II, he traveled often from his Hollywood shop to Europe to secure supplies and the finest wood he could find. Rena and her husband, Michael Weisshaar, worked for him prior to a falling-out in 1975.

Rena and Michael moved to Costa Mesa to live by the ocean and open their own shop. For four years, they didn't speak to Hans. Their only contact was through his wife and Michael's mother, Jansje, who visited despite the family's estrangement. Then in 1979, at Christmas, Michael and Rena appeared unannounced at his parents' front door, not knowing if they would be greeted by Hans' kindness or fury. Rena was pregnant with their third child, Marianne, who would be blessed with aptitudes not of the maker but of the musician. Hans invited them in and, over time, peace was restored with one unspoken rule: Business was not to be discussed.

At Marianne's baptism, the family lingered briefly in the church parking lot. Rena nervously pulled out a violin she had just finished and handed it to Hans, hungering for his approval. She watched his face as he examined it, front and back. "It's good work," he said, with characteristic reserve. "Come by the shop. I have something for you."

Later, Rena went to the shop and followed Hans to where he stored his wood. "Take what you want," he said. From Hans, praise sometimes was oblique, unlike his razor-sharp criticism, but Rena understood. This was his way of saying she was worthy of his finest wood--the ultimate compliment.

She chose two matching slabs of Bosnian maple and placed them beneath her bed to keep them safe and close. Rena showed Hans one more violin before his death. On Easter 1991, she went to the hospital where the old man lay ill with cancer. He carefully examined the new violin she had brought, placed it beneath the sheets and said playfully, "I think I'll take this violin to sleep with me." He died six weeks later. And still, the Bosnian maple lay beneath Rena's bed.

In June 1996, Rena received a phone call from Haroutune Bedelian. An associate professor of violin at UC Irvine, Bedelian, 52, had taught Marianne, now 17, from the time she was 8 until she left for boarding school five years later. In her violin case, she carries personal treasures--an instrument made by her mother, a photograph of Bedelian.

He asked if Rena would craft a copy of his violin, made in 1699 by Giovanni Battista Rogeri, who apprenticed with Stradivari under the master Nicoli Amati. Rena was stunned. She had never made a violin for someone so respected as both performer and teacher as Bedelian. Of course, she said, she would be honored.

Rena went home and reached beneath her bed. It was time, she decided, for this precious maple to sing again.

*

To make a violin is to walk a tightrope. disaster lurks with each step, with each millimeter. Each instrument is a journey fraught with unknowns. Expectations are high, but heartbreak is not far away.

The wedge-shaped maple slabs, 16.5 inches long and each barely half the width of a violin back, must be glued together seamlessly, thick ends in the center to allow for arching. When troublesome, the task can take a full day and reduce one to tears.

The wood begins with square corners and is systematically transformed into circular shapes. The two slabs of maple make up only the back of the violin. In all, 58 separate pieces compose this instrument, working together to transmit a precise traffic of vibrations.

Typically, Rena can complete an instrument with 300 hours' work. But to a violin maker, time is both meaningless and sublime. To spend a month making a feeble instrument is a wasted month. To spend a year or a lifetime making an excellent instrument, one that may produce superior sound for decades or centuries, is time well spent. The hours do not matter. "What's important," she says, "is that you feel it has been done right."

In her native Germany, Rena attended the violin-making school in Mittenwald. The daughter of attorneys, she had never held a chisel in her hand, but she was drawn to the school by her passion for music. There she fell in love--with the craft and with wood and with a student from America. She and Michael married in 1964. While he finished his studies in Mittenwald, Rena, who had graduated, came to the United States to work in Hans' shop.

Long hours and determination were her strengths. She worked six days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. "Sometimes lunch, sometimes not." She longed to build violins or do challenging restorations, but mostly she was assigned the mundane. It was hard to be patient. Once, while preparing advertising flyers for mailing, she inadvertently stamped them upside down. Hans turned furious. "He said it meant somebody would be murdered," she remembers, "that I intended for someone to be murdered. I didn't know what to say, but I didn't do it again."

Hans could be painfully blunt, but his capricious nature also yielded generosity and kindness. Rena would gauge his demeanor from a distance before approaching him, and some days she would merely stay away. But when it came to wood, she saw genius in his work, instincts evidenced even as a child. From the time he was 5, Hans wanted to make violins, and he, too, attended the violin-making school in Mittenwald, despite his father's objections. "You will not earn the salt to put on your bread," Hans was told, according to a brief biography in a book he co-wrote about violin restoration.

His father's words rang true. There was a surplus of old violins, creating little demand for new ones. He struggled in Germany, Switzerland and Holland before coming to the United States in 1937. In New York, he worked with Simone Sacconi, a famed restorer and maker. He also worked in Chicago before driving his family west in a Hudson to Hollywood, where dreams came true.

In 1947, in a small, crowded space on Sunset Boulevard between Highland and Ivar avenues, he opened his shop; there he stayed until moving to the Larchmont Village area in the mid-1960s. His work became well-known. Then it became legendary.

On Jan. 16, 1953, it rained in Los Angeles. Sascha Jacobsen, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, was driving along the Pacific coast when his car stalled in a swelling rush of flood water. Jacobsen frantically grabbed his violin case and climbed from the car to seek higher ground. The current claimed the case, containing a 1732 Strad known as the Red Diamond for its unusual brilliant varnish. Washed to the ocean and found partially buried in sand, it was soaked and lifeless when it was taken to Hans.

For two weeks he slept at the shop and worked furiously to rescue the Red Diamond. He built a tank for removing salt and grit from the wood, surgically dissecting the instrument, bringing it back to life piece by piece, developing techniques as needed along the way. In nine months, the Strad sparkled again, its revered voice returned and Hans Weisshaar became known as the man who saved the Red Diamond.

*

Each workday, Rena and Michael Weisshaar close their Costa Mesa shop from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. They change into swimsuits, grab lunches and go to the beach--to walk, to swim, to hear the ocean's song. It is a reminder that time is precious, that life is not made of wood and strings.

That wood entices and sometimes betrays is part of its nature. It holds secrets wonderful and cruel. In early August, two months into the Bedelian violin, Rena discovers a hidden pocket of resin in the spruce top. The spruce, from southern Europe, is at least 60 years old, the time measured in years since harvest. Rena could continue, and the spruce would still look beautiful on the surface. But music must come from within the wood, as it must come from within the musician.

And so she begins again.

As the new year arrives, the violin is, perhaps, half-done. Rena prepares the new top for purfling, a thin wooden lining set into a groove around the violin's circumference. It protects the instrument, absorbing vibration and the force of inadvertent impact against its sides. Its elegance speaks of the maker. Progress has been slow. She and Michael work alone, and during the busy holiday season, she has been counted on to help at the front counter, answer phones and make repairs.

Now she is settling back into her work on the Bedelian violin, longing for uninterrupted hours with the wood. She sometimes comes in when the shop is closed, to be alone with her work.

Rena seeks beauty in both tone and appearance. While some makers experiment with different materials, techniques and designs, the craft largely is built on pursuit of the past, striving toward standards established by the Cremonese--notably Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati.

Little was written about how they made their violins or the materials they used. Many of those secrets were buried with the makers. Scientists have researched the violin, and some believe they know what made the great old instruments unique. They have studied the varnishes to determine their contents, the wood to determine molecular composition.

Rena is not impressed by those findings. She relies primarily on instincts and traditional ways, using few electrical tools in fear that excessive violent vibration will damage the wood. "I don't know what a scientist would say, but I don't care," she says.

The Weisshaars' Costa Mesa shop is fashioned from a small three-bedroom house. The front counter is in the crowded living room. The workbench, where Rena and Michael sit, is in the kitchen, behind the counter. They have neither fax machine nor computer. Hanging on walls above the workbench are tools with wooden handles worn smooth by time. Dates and numbers for each instrument Rena has made since opening their shop are scribbled on the wall. The Bedelian violin will be No. 27.

Retail sales and repairs provide most of their income, so Rena is able to make violins without financial distraction. At age 57, it is a good time in her life. The children are older, and she is able to focus on making instruments and enjoying her life with Michael. She sees this time as a luxury.

All three children were home for the holidays. Their oldest, Nina Surber, 31, is a physical therapist; Daniel, 29, is learning to make violins in Chicago and, perhaps, will take over the business someday. The youngest, Marianne, who studied violin at Idyllwild Arts Academy and is a freshman at USC, grew up in the shop. On the wall of the front room is a black-and-white photograph taken of her at age 3. She stands knock-kneed, holding a small violin, a short bow. The instrument she used until recently was made by Rena.

"[It's] a feeling of history and wholeness, completing a circle rather than [having] an instrument a lot of people have touched," Marianne says of the violin. "You never know those people whole and intimately. You don't know what the maker was like when he was making the instrument, and you don't know what he was thinking every day, and I got to witness all those things when my mom was making the instrument. I got to see her, and I know who she is. The product of her and the product of me form the performance when I play the instrument."

Throughout the process of making a violin, Rena takes time to examine the wood in sunlight, holding it carefully to study shadows indicating unevenness. Southern California light is the light of Cremona, she says, unlike northern Germany, where there are long periods of gray, a history of gloom.

Retail sales and repairs provide most of their income, so Rena is able to make violins without financial distraction. At age 57, it is a good time in her life. The children are older, and she is able to focus on making instruments and enjoying her life with Michael. She sees this time as a luxury.

All three children were home for the holidays. Their oldest, Nina Surber, 31, is a physical therapist; Daniel, 29, is learning to make violins in Chicago and, perhaps, will take over the business someday. The youngest, Marianne, who studied violin at Idyllwild Arts Academy and is a freshman at USC, grew up in the shop. On the wall of the front room is a black-and-white photograph taken of her at age 3. She stands knock-kneed, holding a small violin, a short bow. The instrument she used until recently was made by Rena.

"[It's] a feeling of history and wholeness, completing a circle rather than [having] an instrument a lot of people have touched," Marianne says of the violin. "You never know those people whole and intimately. You don't know what the maker was like when he was making the instrument, and you don't know what he was thinking every day, and I got to witness all those things when my mom was making the instrument. I got to see her, and I know who she is. The product of her and the product of me form the performance when I play the instrument."

Throughout the process of making a violin, Rena takes time to examine the wood in sunlight, holding it carefully to study shadows indicating unevenness. Southern California light is the light of Cremona, she says, unlike northern Germany, where there are long periods of gray, a history of gloom.

*

By late February, Rena has begun the most physically demanding part of making a violin. She braces herself--right foot forward, left foot back. The maple secured into place, she begins working with a gouge, freshly sharpened, to hollow out the inside of the maple. Her strokes are quick and explosive. She must bring the wood to different thicknesses throughout the back, ranging from 2.3 to 4.6 millimeters--a difference of less than a tenth of an inch. If the back is too thin, the violin may sound wonderful at first, but the tone dies quickly. If the wood is too thick, the sound will be muffled.

She approaches the work cautiously: "Like Churchill smoked all his life and never had lung cancer, so you can also say there are violins that are very thin somewhere and still sound great," she says. "But I wouldn't count on it."

Thin, even curls of maple swirl from Rena's blade. The tone of steel against wood changes in pitch as she thins the back. Natural lines, like stripes on a tiger, begin to reveal themselves. Rena stops periodically to hold the wood close to her ear and tap it with one finger. She is listening for F-sharp, leaning toward G.

The final shaving will be done with small planes, some no larger than a thimble. This requires courage. "By the time I use the planes, I'm worried about tenths of millimeters . . . I get almost sick with fear," she confides. "It's that important."

As in life, it's a moment where one must move forward and alone to confront fear and doubt. It is a measurement of one's self as much as the wood. Like her father-in-law, the wood is unflinchingly honest. Perhaps that's what Hans did. He groomed students, a generation of makers and restorers, to adhere to the integrity of wood, knowing that what emerges from a violin is truth.

*

In early March, eight months into her work, Rena enters the final stages. Throughout the process, she has followed precise measurements taken from Bedelian's Rogeri. She refers to them again as she prepares for her favorite task: cutting the sound holes, shaped like f's, on the spruce top, now translucent when held to the lamp on her workbench. She soaps the blade of the hand jigsaw for lubrication and begins following the insides of lines, drawn from a pattern. Rena then uses a knife to achieve the precise dimensions.

As she nears completion of the instrument, she becomes nervous. There is no way to know how it will sound until it is strung and played by a knowledgeable musician. Even now, after months of work and years of closeness to this wood, she guards her trust in it and her own abilities. "Who knows," she says, "maybe it sounds like a pot." After almost an hour of work, the holes are cut. She lets out a deep breath. "There. Suddenly it has a face."

Adding to her nervousness is the fact that Haroutune Bedelian expects much of himself, of his students. He will expect as much of this violin. He knows little about violins, and if you put one in front of him, he couldn't tell where it was made or how old it was. Bedelian's knowledge of the instrument begins from the time he places it against his chin and lowers the bow to its strings.

The violin has always been an important part of his life, he says, even before he was born. "I didn't choose it," he says. "It became part of my language, my life. If you took away the violin, I wouldn't know what to do."

Bedelian learned to play largely by instinct. Music seemed to pour from an unknown place inside him and flow naturally from his violin--like wind through trees. In his 60 to 70 performances a year, it was as though he was in a trance, as much an instrument as the violin.

By 1966, however, the air was stilled. His achievements seemed facile, and he felt as if he was playing the violin without knowing how or why. He had built a castle on hollow ground. "My playing reached a level where instinct couldn't take it any further," he says.

During that struggle, Bedelian first played the Rogeri. In 1971, the violin was brought to the Royal Academy, where one of Bedelian's cousins, Manoug Parikian, was teaching, and another, Levon Chilingirian, a student, played it. Both cousins, while complimentary of the instrument, readily dismissed it. But when Bedelian played it, something within him stirred. "I was drawn to the sound and the way it responded to me physically," he recalls.

Three years later, he met the man who would change his life, the late Nathan Milstein. The renowned soloist took Bedelian under his wing. They spent entire afternoons together philosophizing and practicing, and, slowly, Bedelian began to rebuild, unraveling the physical from the emotional, coming to understand music and himself.

"You are not playing only because it makes a good sound or you physically enjoy it," he explains. "You play because you are serving music." Milstein taught Bedelian to think more about the music and reinforced the dedication music required. "He would say, for example, that music was more important than religion, that it overwhelmed him."

There was new vigor in Bedelian's performance, and he continued to tour. What stopped him was perhaps the only thing in life capable of altering his intense focus, total commitment and daily discipline to music. In 1988, the first of his two children was born.

In the same way that life is not made of wood or strings, it is not made entirely of concert halls, applause or even music. Through his children, Bedelian is learning balance. Through teaching and periodic performances, he continues to serve music.

"You mature to a different level," he says, "and your experiences become richer, definitely."

*

By April, Rena has completed the woodworking. she takes the stem of an equisetum, a plant she finds growing wild near Balboa, boils and dries it, then softly rubs it with one finger against the wood. Its mildly abrasive surface leaves a glassy finish. With a patch of a cotton bedsheet, she gently rubs a layer of oil onto the surface, then hangs the instrument to dry on a clothesline in back of the shop. Secured top and bottom with fishing line, it shimmers in the sunlight, twisting and dancing in the breeze, casting a crisp, silent shadow on the cream-colored wall.

Rena watches it twirl, catching the light at all angles. "Such light," she whispers. "Such light." Her abundant caution cannot hide the hope and pride she feels for this instrument. With each violin she finishes, she remembers Hans' words and wishes that if he were still alive, he might repeat them: "It's good work."

Twenty-two coats of varnish will give the violin the color of chestnut. A final week is spent adding the chin rest, pegs and other accessories. Almost a full year after she began, strings are finally in place.

Rena plucks them and is hopeful. Husband Michael is the first to place a bow upon it. "It sounds just fine," he surmises, yet Rena remains circumspect. There is no way to know how the instrument will perform until it is placed in the hands of a musician who can explore its depths.

Rena asks a customer, Robert Schumitzky, first-section violinist with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, to test it. Schumitzky, 37, studied two years at Juilliard and graduated from the St. Louis Conservatory of Music. He arrives at the shop after performing in a children's concert with his 1694 Strad, the pegs and tailpiece installed by Hans Weisshaar. Rena becomes nervous when Schumitzky pulls it from the case, wondering how her work could possibly compare to such a fine instrument.

Schumitzky begins with his violin, then switches to Rena's, performing scales and portions of a Tchaikovsky concerto, moving back and forth between the instruments. Rena studies his face. A musician who is not impressed will play no more than five minutes before putting the instrument down and offering polite comment. Truth is in the face of the musician.

Rena's heart slowly fills as she watches and listens. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Finally, he hands the violin back to Rena: "He should be very pleased." Rena's confidence builds.

Bedelian is to meet his new instrument May 5. It is a Monday and the shop will be closed; there will be no interruptions. But on this, of all days, Rena's car gets a flat tire, and she shows up out of breath. When Bedelian arrives about 4:30 p.m., Michael and Rena greet him warmly and make small talk about a concert at UC Irvine the previous night.

Finally, it is time. Rena walks to the back and returns with the violin. Its varnish is brilliant, its lines smooth and elegant.

Bedelian holds it at arm's length, two strangers meeting for the first time. He studies its color and form and says it is beautiful. He places a white handkerchief on the chin rest. "So, here it goes," he says as he lifts his bow. He sprints through a few short scales, then stops abruptly.

Rena, standing at a distance, freezes.

"It feels just like my violin," Bedelian says. "It has exactly the same feel."

Rena breathes again.

He plays more, then again stops. "Number one reaction is that it's your sound," he says to Rena of the tone that attracted him to Marianne's instrument--velvety dark and rich.

"Really?" Rena asks in a soft voice. It's hard for her to speak.

He plays more, closing his eyes, moving the bow slowly, then accelerating, wistfully pushing it louder and louder, then gracefully bringing it back down to a whisper, opening his eyes.

"Excellent!" he says, smiling. "Great!" And finally, quietly, the ultimate response: "Bravo!"

Rena's smile is childlike. Michael appears with champagne. There is no talk of money, the $6,500 agreed upon without written contract. Bedelian takes the violin in a borrowed case. When he gets home, he will place the instrument in a double case with the Rogeri, he says, so they can get to know each other.

For Rena, there will be a period of emptiness now as the violin leaves her shop. She will sometimes wonder about it: Where will it be in 50 years, 100 years? She wonders if Hans would be pleased with this instrument. Even now, he serves as her standard.

The violin is the result of patience and faith, courage and perseverance and, most of all, a willingness to serve music. It is in many ways reflective of life--time and possibilities. Hope.

If wood could talk, this violin would speak of Hans and Rena, this year and this day, when it awakened in the embrace of a musician, a father--the day wind blew gently again and music returned.

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e-mail: albertus@bekkerviolins.com