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That Special Something

Posted Monday, April 29, 2013 in Noteworthy

By Chris Shull

There's an aura surrounding a Stradivarius violin, a special magic beyond a mesmerizing sound and the glow from its golden-brown veneer. Call it spirit, or vibes - whatever it is, when people are in the presence of a "Strad," they feel it.

Take the "Falmouth" Stradivarius violin currently played by Dallas Symphony Concertmaster Alexander Kerr. The instrument was built in 1692 in Cremona. At just over 36 centimeters, its body is a bit longer than many Strads, and the sound it creates when a bow slides across its strings is a unique combination of airy warmth and earthy graininess.



Dallas Symphony patrons can hear Kerr play his "Falmouth" Strad at the Meyerson Symphony Center May 23-25, when he performs Barber's Violin Concerto with Music Director Jaap van Zweden conducting. "I just love the piece and I thought it would be perfect for my debut with the orchestra," Kerr said.

The "Falmouth" Stradivarius, too, has its special aura, which asserted itself recently while Kerr was talking about his new instrument. In tracing his brief history with the instrument, he suddenly hit on a coincidence that took his breath away.

How Kerr (pronounced "Car") came to play the "Falmouth" is not so remarkable of itself. The instrument was previously owned by the Greek virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Prior to Kavakos, previous owners included the famed London violin and bow maker W.E. Hill & Sons; the early 20th century "Copper King" Senator from Montana, William Andrews Clark; and the instrument's namesake, the British Earl of Falmouth, who sold the instrument in 1853. Kavakos placed it for sale with the fine instrument dealer Bein & Fushi in Chicago, where in 2012 the instrument came to Kerr's attention.

"I tried it against a few other instruments of the same price range and quality, and I thought it was phenomenal," Kerr says. "There is something about it."

"The sound you really want in an orchestra is something with a little bit more warmth and a little bit more depth. A Strad sometimes can be quite cutting, and lack the depth and warmth. But this Strad gives you a depth while maintaining an edge to it that does cut, while lending itself to sweetness as well. So the tonal palette of the instrument runs that gamut of what you can do. This Stradivarius lends itself to being able not only to float above the string, but also to really dig into the string. That's what attracted me to it. This Strad fits me really really well."

As he was trying out the violin in Chicago, Kerr suddenly understood he had played the instrument before. He just had a feeling, and then he discovered its previous owner was Kavakos, a colleague and friend. "I had in fact played it once before," Kerr said. "Leonidas had let me try his instrument a long time ago."

But though Kerr loved the instrument, and had discovered a personal connection to it, he could not afford to purchase it himself.

Violins made by Antonio Stradivarius and his family are highly valued, and regarded as among the finest ever made. Stradivarius instruments, chiefly violins but also violas and cellos, can be worth millions of dollars each. Around 650 exist today. The Italian instrument maker worked in Cremona during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

But Maestro van Zweden launched a plan to bring the "Falmouth" Stradivarius to Kerr and the Dallas Symphony. Van Zweden talked to his friend Gert-Jan Kramer, a Dutch businessman who serves on the Dallas Symphony's Board of Governors. Kramer had purchased fine violins in the past for use by musicians in Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw and other Dutch orchestras. Was he willing to do the same to unite Kerr with the "Falmouth"?

"It was described properly by Jaap that if you have a very good instrument you get a very good concertmaster," Kramer said. "Alex was the Concertgebouw concertmaster for 11 years. That's a great recommendation."

So Kramer purchased the "Falmouth" for Alex's use while he is Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. (Later, Kramer also purchased a fine violin made in 1718 by Giuseppe Guarneri for use by DSO Co-Concertmaster Nathan Olson. Olson will perform Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 May 23-25 along with Orff's Carmina Burana.) Kramer does not consider these gifts an investment. "People need to play an instrument," Kramer said. "Whether it grows in value or reduces in value, I don't care."

By way of thanks, Kerr and a chamber orchestra of Dallas Symphony musicians performed Vivaldi's The Four Seasons at a special concert for Kramer, his wife, Maestro van Zweden and several guests (including Dallas Symphony patrons) at Kramer's home in the Netherlands in March at the start of the Dallas Symphony's European tour.

Now the "Falmouth" Strad has a new trustee in Kerr and a new home in Dallas, where at the head of the violin section it will add depth and dexterity to the Dallas Symphony's string sound.

"With every instrument of this quality that enters this orchestra, it just makes the sound better - and better, and better," Kerr explains. "It is just much easier to perform on an instrument like this. It is easier to play my solos. It lends a body to the sound that can only make the orchestra have a warmer sound. And the fact that it is physically easier to play makes it much easier for me not to make mistakes, and the less my attention is focused on my own playing, the more I can lead efficiently."

And the more the instrument's special magic can permeate Dallas Symphony performances at the Meyerson. And what was the coincidence that brought Kerr into a sudden, almost sacrosanct silence as he was recounting his history with the instrument? The first day Kerr opened his violin case backstage at the Meyerson, pulled out the "Falmouth" Stradivarius and played it for the first time with the Dallas Symphony? That day was October 30, 2012 - the birthday of Leonidas Kavakos, Kerr's friend who let him play the instrument so many years ago, and the "Falmouth"'s previous owner.




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