The violinist shares his experience of recording Edward Hart’s Under an Indigo Sky  on the 1688 ‘ex Degen’ Andrea Guarneri violin

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Over the past decade, the arts community and concertgoers in Charleston, South Carolina have become more aware of rare and fine string instruments. As the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s artistic director, concertmaster, and principal Pops conductor, I have seen the positive ripples that this familiarity has had for concertgoers. Such awareness and interest have resulted in an incredible opportunity for me to perform on the 1688 ’ex-Degen’ Andrea Guarneri violin and regularly raise money at fundraisers for the greater Charleston community. This very special Guarneri has additionally inspired and fostered ongoing creative collaborations, including an upcoming release featuring music by Edward Hart with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.

I have had opportunities to play several Stradivari violins, such as the 1686 ’ex-Nachez’ and the ’Lenora Jackson’ Strad from his golden period, and a Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ during my years here in Charleston. These instruments were generously lent to me for either an important concert or a fundraiser. A picture of a Strad violin actually graced the cover of our local newspaper on Superbowl Sunday in an article showcasing the premiere of Edward Hart’s concerto. With the help of these rare violins and their owners, we have been able to raise money for the CSO and other local non-profits, such as the historic Charleston Library Society and KKBE Synagogue.

In the spring of 2019, I was approached by a new patron and donor of the Charleston Symphony with a proposal to buy a fine instrument for my exclusive use. This CSO patron would be the owner and investor and I would be the recipient. With that monumental offer, it was time to go shopping. I tried many fine violins without knowing their maker or looking at their price tag. Surprisingly, within the first four instruments that I tried, I was immediately drawn to one. Its beautiful variety of colours were darker and more expansive than my own very bright instrument, a J. B. Vuillaume. This violin is the 1688 ’ex-Degen’ Andrea Guarneri.

The 1688 ’ex-Degen’ Andrea Guarneri has several unusual characteristics. Most Andrea Guarneri have a gorgeous tone but do not have a big sound. This ’grandfather’ Guarneri is a powerhouse in sound production, but its volume does not detract from its beauty, complexity, and gorgeous variety of colours. The instrument is modeled as a Grand Pattern Amati and inside, the original label states it is ’Andrea Guarneri, alumnus Nicola Amati.’ In addition, it is listed with old photographs in the well-known Hill Guarneri book from 1931 as one of the first fine examples of a Guarneri.

One challenge I had in the first few months was learning how to rein in its power. I had to get to know my new friend and learn how to use it. Early on, while playing the violin as concertmaster or in chamber music settings, it felt like a Ferrari. I gave it a little gas and it went from 0 to 100 in just a few seconds. Having played this instrument for nearly four years now, I feel very fortunate because I have a partner that can truly do anything and this has enabled me to become a better player. I never expected this level of growth in my early 40s and it is a great blessing. 

The first major project I had after receiving this violin was recording/performing the violin concerto Under an Indigo Sky, written for the Charleston Symphony and me by celebrated Charleston composer, Edward Hart. While this piece was composed and premiered in 2010/2011 and has received over a dozen performances in the US and Ukraine, the Charleston Symphony recorded it in 2019 and it is a part of our upcoming album Under an Indigo Sky  which will be released on 3 March 2023 on Navona label. Also on the CD is the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet featured in A Charleston Concerto, a newer work that Edward also composed. 

It was a tremendous joy for me to work with my dear friend Edward and my colleagues at the CSO to record this magnificent work. My collaboration with Edward was so meaningful because he wrote the concerto specifically for me and for my style of playing. I am more of a lyrical player and thrive on long melodic lines. Edward gave me many of them. When this piece was composed in the summer of 2010, Edward would send me fragments of passages and I would comment back with how they worked for me. It was a fun time for both of us and the premiere that season was hit. While recording and performing this work again with the CSO in 2019, a tremendous contribution of this ’new’ Guarneri violin was in the cadenzas. Edward wrote two cadenzas for me in the first and second movements and they contain extended technique and many double stops. I was particularly impressed by how easy the double stops were to play on this violin. The colours and overtones of the instrument create a deep, glorious sound with so much clarity, and it gave this piece a wonderful sonority.

As the value of fine instruments continues to increase, they are becoming more and more unreachable to talented musicians, who benefit from them creatively and utilise their star power to raise money for their communities. I wish there were many more patrons who could help musicians all around the world and grant access to these rare instruments.

Under an Indigo Skywill be released on Navona on 3 March 2022.

All photos Bein & Fushi Inc. Matthew Tolzmann, photographer

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