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Aged to Perfection

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1689 - soon after Newton discovered the laws of motion and just before the Salem Witch trials - a violin was crafted in Bologna, Italy.

Surviving perhaps 15 to 20 musicians, its spruce and maple body becoming looser and drier, the violin has aged as well as a bottle of premium Bordeaux.

Three centuries later, it resonates at the touch of Peabody Conservatory student Igor Yuzefovich, who earned the right to play the $160,000 violin by winning the school's annual Marbury Competition. The rare Tononi violin had been donated to the school four months earlier by violin virtuoso and former Peabody student Doris Horwitz Rothenberg.

For its value, age and sound, the Tononi is a unique addition to the Peabody collection. Even among student-owned violins, only a handful of instruments can come close to rivaling it. Until he graduates next year, Yuzefovich will be the latest in a long line of musicians to play this violin that grows in value and timbre as time passes.

In the early 1960s, Doris Rothenberg spent a year and a half in New York searching for the right violin to suit her. The Baltimore native was petite, 5 feet tall, and needed an instrument with a neck narrow enough for her to hold. It wasn't easy to explain what she was looking for: a sound both warm and brilliant that would blend in well with string quartets. She looked at violin after violin, sometimes spending weeks with one, playing each for her teacher. The decision wasn't to be made lightly.

"There's something in you that likes a certain sound," Rothenberg says. "The violin can express almost as much as the human voice."

Even in junior high school, Rothenberg dreamed about that sound. She used to take her homework to the Peabody library. There among the marble columns and arches she would pretend she was a Conservatory student, enrolled in the college of music.

She studied at the Preparatory on a scholarship from Baltimore public schools, earning another scholarship there to attend the Conservatory.

Growing up on Linden Avenue, she played a $250 violin, which was rather expensive for the time. But when she left home in 1946 for the Juilliard School in New York City and performed with several orchestras - including the National Orchestral Association, Queens Symphony and Long Island Symphony - she wanted to play something better.

After 18 months of searching, she found the Tononi. Besides the qualities she'd been looking for, the violin came with a bonus: a sound with the depth and sonority to carry to the back row of a concert hall.

It was almost as beautiful to look at as to hear, with a maple back showing strong "flame" markings, a spruce top and a reddish-brown finish.

Play it often

When she played in the American Youth Orchestra, Rothenberg received a copy of a Titian portrait from conductor Dean Dixon that had reminded him of her. "In the portrait he gave me there was a soulful look on the person's face," she says. "I had a feeling he thought I was a serious, serious person. It made sense at the time."

Her late husband, Martin Rothenberg, had suggested she leave the violin to the Peabody in her will. But Rothenberg, 75, whose back operation two years ago has kept her from playing in chamber orchestras as often as she used to, wanted the Tononi to be played regularly and as soon as possible.

"A violin gets better as you play it," says Rothenberg, whose poster of the Peabody library still hangs in her Manhattan living room. "Older violins should be played on."

She still coordinates the Suzuki-method violin program she founded at the Lucy Moses School for Music and Dance in New York City, and plans to find a less expensive, but quality instrument.

A month after she gave the Tononi and a bow to the school, Rothenberg saw the film "The Red Violin," which traces the history of a 17th century violin made in Cremona, Italy. It saddened her to realize she didn't know anything about the past of her violin except that it was made in Italy more than 300 years ago and had crossed the Atlantic - at least once.

Violins appeared in Italian artwork as early as 1508, its ancestors including the rebec, the lira de craccio and the viol. But the violin proved to be the only survivor. It had four strings, which could easily be played by four fingers, and f-shaped sound holes as well as a tailpiece and bridge suited to an instrument played with a bow.

Major force

Its status rose from a lowly dance instrument in the early 17th century to a force to be reckoned with in Western culture a century later. The violin's capacity for trills and cascading notes influenced the style of the time so that even singers in the early 18th century had to rival its flexibility. Virtuosos serenaded courtiers and played at public concerts.

The instrument reached its modern design largely by the efforts of Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), who perfected the proportions of the violin in Cremona and concocted a unique reddish varnish that some say added resonance.

Rothenberg's instrument was crafted in the early days of violin making by Johannes Tononi, a Bologna-based luthier who worked from 1687 to 1705. William Henley eloquently describes the beauty of Tononi's instruments in his Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers, a set of well-regarded references written in the late 1950s.

"Each instrument has an assemblage of elegancies. ... Sound-holes accurately cut and very gracefully disposed. Quaintness and daintiness characterise (sic) the comparatively small scroll. Rich varnish of a golden brown shade, slightly tinted with red on a yellow ground of fine texture, brilliance, and durability. Tonal quality delightfully silvery and warm, also of clear penetrative force without, however, being completely full. ... Backs ... of broad flamed beauty and of one piece. Most minute examination will fail in finding a shadow of any sectional inaccuracy or imperfection, external or internal, on his magnificent violins."

Violins are made almost exactly the same way now as in Tononi's day, with allowances for synthetic strings. Today's violins also sound higher, or sharper, than instruments made at that time because strings can be tightened more with advanced tools.

But no luthier can finish the last and perhaps most important step: aging.

As the violin grows older, the resin in the wood slowly dries up. The body parts become looser and resonate more. The result is a more vibrant sound, which some musicians prefer.

Early luthiers and musicians quickly realized that the value of well-made violins increased with age. Stradivari's violins cost as much - relative to other prices of the times - as a new violin costs for an aspiring violinist today. Today, more than half of the almost 1,200 violins he made survive. Auction prices usually determine the price tags of such instruments.

"A lot of it is snob appeal, to put it honestly," says Kevin Cardiff, a Towson-based violin maker and restorer. "A lot of it is based on how much they're worth almost as a status symbol." Owners can keep their instruments in shape with tune-ups, careful handling and by following some trade secrets: tucking a saltshaker filled with rice into the instrument case on a humid day or filling that same shaker with a damp sponge on a dry one. With some luck, violins can have a long and varied history.

"With an instrument as old as [300 years], I can safely say it had 15 to 20 different owners," says Peter Prier, director of the Violinmaking School of America in Salt Lake City.

"Ownership" is a tricky question for instruments that can last hundreds of years. "Players have to realize they never really own the violin," Cardiff says. "They just have custody of it for their lifetimes."

Care of the violins

The Peabody Conservatory owns about 100 violins for students to borrow, says Linda Goodwin, assistant concert manager and curator of instruments. But only a handful are of the Tononi's caliber.

Students who don't own good instruments - or who, like Yuzefovich, win in-house performances or perform in prestigious concerts - can ask to borrow one of the donated instruments.

Each of them is restored immediately after its donation, a process that can include as little as retouching the varnish to more complicated procedures. Like humans, the violins receive checkups twice a year and when students borrow them. Stored with humidity-control devices in their cases, some violins are even fitted with different bridges for the summer and winter - much like a person with seasonal allergies would adjust to Baltimore's climate.

Musicians in turn must adjust to occasional changes in their instruments.

"I like to tell kids that, when we have to take the top table off a fiddle and put it back together, it's sort of like having open-heart surgery," Goodwin says. "A patient would not feel the same way the next day. It takes playing time to bring the instrument back to where it was before."

Yuzefovich, she says, shows promise as a musician and proved he could care for an instrument like the Tononi. He had been practicing on an early-19th century Bavarian violin but wanted to try a more responsive instrument in April for the recital he played after winning the Marbury competition.

Like Rothenberg, he wasn't looking for the brightest or most projective violin. He wanted a certain color, a timbre.

He also says the Tononi is easy to play.

Responsive, maybe. As for easy, Rothenberg says she was impressed to hear Yuzefovich's recorded performance of Ravel's "Tzigane," which she calls one of the most difficult pieces in violin literature.

Yuzefovich, 20, moved to Sterling, Va., from Moscow in 1991 when his father was awarded a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a division of the Smithsonian Institution.

Having played violin for 15 years, he hopes to join an orchestra when he graduates from the Conservatory. He practices about four hours a day, recently for a concert at Hood College in Frederick.

One day, he rehearsed in Peabody's Griswold Hall, an airy room hung with a gold, green and blue tapestry of charioteers, with a strip of classical figures molded beneath the ceiling. The russet floors gleam in the soft light from tall windows that look out over the Washington Monument and the spires of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

Yuzefovich unzips the dark green violin case to reveal a blue velvet lining and three different temperature and humidity devices: digital, clocklike and paper. It's 79 degrees according to the digital meter, hotter than the 70 degrees that violins and people usually prefer. Humidity has hit 52 percent, which falls within this violin's comfort zone, Yuzefovich says.

Inside the top of the case he's affixed several photos: he and his mother on his first day of first grade in Moscow, musicians from a quartet he played with at Peabody, he and a friend sitting in a grassy field.

He slides the violin out of its white silk drawstring bag, his long fingers wrapping easily around the instrument's narrow neck. He wipes its belly with a soft cloth.

When Yuzefovich tucks the violin under his chin the contrast between him and the Tononi's previous owner is clear: The instrument looks as small as a toy in the hands of the 6-foot-1 musician. But it certainly doesn't sound like one.

Like sailors who develop a sense of balance at sea, Yuzefovich moves with the instrument when he plays. He arches backward as the notes soar higher, rocks forward on his toes when the melody turns light and delicate. His bowing hand quivers and his head jerks forward for more forceful strokes. A bead of sweat rolls down his neck.

The instrument trills, birdlike, and slides down the scale to a sonorous hum. When the song ends, he pulls the bow off the strings with a small flourish. Silence.

What happens next is anticlimactic: He suggests a replay to accompanist Clinton Adams, who's making notes in his sheet music.

"Take all the time you want," Adams says of a section in the song. "Let it hang in space."

Two hours later, Yuzefovich is once again rubbing the violin with a soft cloth and returning it to its case.

"When I think of who's touched this instrument," he says, "it's quite an honor."

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