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Take heart Middle America and The World!  All the talk about Washington, D.C. bureaucrats having a tin ear has actually been proven to be true.

A few years ago the onetime child prodigy violinist, Bloomington, Indiana-born Joshua Bell, then a mere 39, had most certainly arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso.

[Joshua Bell]

Mr. Bell set out to discover whether federal workers (paper-pushers?) had, well, a soul.

On a mid-January Friday morning at 07.51, the middle of the morning rush hour, Mr. Bell set up his shop, so speak next down in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro (tube) station.  He stood next to a wall and beside a rubbish bin.

In the next 43 minutes, as this superb violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job.

L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

In the, say, three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven (7) people stopped what they were doing to pause and take in the performance, at least for a minute.

Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a miserly total of $32 and change (£19.72, €24.75).

That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

On that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of self-absorbed busy tin-eared people on their way to work.

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this early morning effort.

Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.

[Antonio Stradivari]

“Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete,” Bell said, “but he, he just . . . knew.”

Bell doesn’t mention Stradivari by name. Just “he.” When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. “He made this to perfect thickness at all parts,” Bell says, pivoting it. “If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound.” No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.

The front of Bell’s violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.

[Violin with Stradivari’s signature]

“This has never been refinished,” Bell said. “That’s his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula.” Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.

One of the best pieces, in my view, which demonstrates this violin’s sound is the solo violin version of Vincenzo Bellini’s aria, Casta Diva, from his opera Norma.


(If this fails to play, my apologies. Please click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJKrg1LbeeA)

Here, this Stradivarius literally sings and as if it were the soprano for which this was written.   To me (perhaps with the Guarneris), these are the optimal realization of the violinmaker’s art.

It is with some hefty skepticism that I forced myself to consider this recent piece from The Economist newspaper (London)

Magic mushrooms – Violins constructed from infected wood sound like those of Stradivari

A FEW years ago Francis Schwarze noticed something unusual. Dr Schwarze, who works at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, in St Gallen,knew that sound travels faster through healthy wood, which is stiff and

[Map of Saint Gallen or Sankt Gallen in Swiss German]

dense, than it does through the soft stuff left by a fungal attack. But some fungi, he found, do not slow sound. Moreover, the acoustic properties of wood so affected seem to be just what violin-makers desire. So Dr Schwarze had some violins made from the infected wood and discovered that they sounded like a Stradivarius.

[Prof. Dr. Francis Schwarze]

Dr Schwarze is now trying to standardise this fungal treatment in order to make what he calls “mycowood”. His hope is that it will endow modern instruments with the warm and mellow tones found in those made during the late 17th and early 18th centuries by Antonio Stradivari.

Exactly what makes a Strad so magical is contentious. Besides excellent craftsmanship, the master and members of his workshop in Cremona used different types of wood and, possibly, different chemical treatments.

[Map of Northern Italy with Cremona]

The period when they were active does, though, coincide with a cold spell in Europe’s climate that occurred between 1645 and 1715. In the long winters and cool summers wood would have grown slowly and evenly, creating a lot of stiffness. Which is exactly what a good violin needs.

Treating wood with certain fungi endows it with similar properties. The species Dr Schwarze lit upon are Physisporinus vitreus, a type of white rot, and Xylaria longipes, commonly known as Dead Moll’s Fingers. He applies them to Norway spruce (used for an instrument’s body) and sycamore (for the back, ribs and neck).

What is unusual about Physisporinus and Xylaria is that they gradually degrade the cell walls of the wood they infect—thinning them rather than destroying them completely. That leaves a stiff scaffolding through which sound waves can readily pass, without compromising the wood’s elasticity. When the fungi have done their work, Dr Schwarze treats the planks with a gas that kills the infection. He then hands the result over to Martin Schleske and Michael Rhonheimer, two master violin-makers, for conversion into instruments.

And it works. A blind trial conducted in 2009 by Matthew Trusler, a British violinist, for example, compared modern violins made with treated and untreated wood from the same trees with a Stradivarius made in 1711. A jury of experts, and also most of the audience, thought that the mycowood violin was the Strad.

Tonal quality is a subjective measurement, of course, and Stradivarius violins vary in their tones. But, in music, subjective experience is what actually counts.


Hands up all those who are so easily convinced?

If you remain agnostic or just want to pay an homage to the Master himself, do take the trouble to get to ancient, magical, historic Cremona which sits beautifully alongside the River Po.

[Cremona’s early 12th Century Doumo (Cathedral) and Square]


Hat Tips to:

Joshua Bell, Mr Bell’s website

(For a soul-redeeming chance to hear the aria Casta Diva as it is meant to be sung, please give an ear to the Romanian rocket soprano, Angela Gheorghiu, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZOVyyRTans&feature=relate

If this fails to play, my apologies.  Please click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZOVyyRTans&feature=related

Angela Gheorghiu, Twitter: @angelagheorghiu, website: Miss Gheorghiu’s website

The Economist  http://www.economist.com/node/21563276

City and Province of Cremona Tourism (most helpfully, their website is in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German): Cremona Tourism website For most of us, flights into Milan are simplest and then south by car or train.

September 2012 was meant to see the opening of the brand-new il Museo del Violino, Museum of the Violin whose website (Italian & English, only) is here:  Museum of the Violin in Cremona

When in Cremona, allow me to recommend the Ristorante Centrale located a short distance from the Cathedral and with heavenly fare: Ristorante Centrale

City of Bloomington Indiana, home to Indiana University, http://bloomington.in.gov/