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The case for modern instruments

As two top violinists are forced to give back the classic instruments they've been borrowing, should more performers consider modern instruments as a serious long-term option?

Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann

News that violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann has to give back the Strad he has been playing for over ten years to the financial services company that now owns it, and that the Pressenda played by Jerusalem Quartet violinist Alexander Pavlovsky has been sold by the syndicate that bought it, is upsetting, but not surprising. Rising prices have put musicians at a loss when it comes to possessing their own old instruments and most are now reliant on these types of relationships, which can, by their very nature, be fickle.

There is a range of ways such instrument-lending schemes work. Some have genuinely philanthropic intentions and are borne of a love of music and respect for the players, even if the bottom line is still the bottom line. I’ve just written an article about music philanthropy for the Financial Times, for which I spoke to two people who are both involved in helping players with instruments. One fund sets a 20-year period over which players are expected to buy out their instrument; the other has rolling five-year contracts with the expectation that a player will keep playing the instrument until they stop performing.

Such approaches at least provide a pragmatic balance between the artists’ needs and those of the investors. I suspect that this balance is changing, though. Latterly, in my time at The Strad, I went to a few events where young artists and the old instruments they’d fallen in love with were paraded before the super-rich and musically disinterested, while the talk over champagne and canapés was about yield, supply and demand, and due diligence. The nasty aftertaste in my mouth certainly wasn’t from the champagne. And in recent years there seem to be increasing numbers of schemes marketed more as investments than as philanthropic, often set up by the very dealers who are selling the instruments.

Yet for a fraction of the Monopoly money at stake with an old Cremonese instrument, a player can buy outright an excellent modern instrument. Blind tests from time immemorial have consistently indicated that most audience members and even players can’t tell the difference when faced with a Strad and a good modern instrument (not, as the media like to present it, that modern instruments are ‘better’ than Strads). And yet only a few top soloists use contemporary instruments as their main performing instrument: it still takes a bold and iconoclastic player to strike out with a modern instrument.

You can argue it both ways. Players of the calibre of Zimmermann and Pavlovsky deserve the very best that money can buy – and a good Strad is indeed that. Alternatively, players of such class sound fantastic whatever they play: Pavlovsky would be able to spin long beautiful lines on a Skylark, Zimmermann could find colour and interest in a Yamaha. Commission them a really good modern instrument, let them spend time with the luthier making it feel and sound exactly how they like, and hear what they could do (and still have change for a house and a pension).

So, what if, rather than investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in one instrument, these generous philanthropist-investors put their funds towards several modern instruments, made by the best makers around the world. While £100,000 wouldn’t make a dent in a Strad it would buy three or four really good modern instruments. As investments, they would probably take some time to mature, but this long-term commitment would be in the interests of both the investor and the user. There might be some risk, but this would be spread across the whole set of instruments.

In the hands of a good player and given the proper attention to set-up, these new instruments would become increasingly desirable both to play and as investments – after all, Strads were new once, but had a lot of adjustment and care to get to where they are now. The more people do this, the wider attention modern makers’ names get, the more players talk about their new instruments, and the more socially acceptable it is to play one.

Indeed Norway’s Dextra Foundation has been leading the way in this – while amassing a superb collection of old instruments as investments for the Sparebankstiftelsen, of which it is a subsidiary, to loan to Norwegian musicians, the foundation has also cannily been collecting new instruments made by some of the best makers around the world. In London, the Calleva Foundation* has created a collection of new instruments and bows which are on loan to students of the Royal Academy of Music. Boldly, none of them is antiqued – there is still considerable resistance among many players, and possibly audiences, too, to fresh-looking violins (that's the subject for a future blog). I’m not aware of any other collections like this, but if you are, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

All it takes is a little vision – from makers, players, audiences and philanthropists alike. Makers need to find ways to be persuasive with players and investors, maybe even communally through some sort of international collective; players should be open-minded and pragmatic – there’s more to being a great musician than playing an old Cremonese instrument; audiences should challenge themselves really to listen to instruments both old and new; investors should use their imagination, and look beyond the traditional opportunities.

No one wishes this sort of loss on any player – it must feel traumatic and I hope that Zimmermann and Pavlovsky find worthy instruments very quickly. But maybe seeing situations like these will convince younger players that they would be better off either buying their own modern instrument, which is a relatively reasonable financial proposition, or finding a philanthropist with loose change to buy it outright for them and to commit it to them for the long-term. And maybe in 50 years time, great soloists and quartet leaders will all own their own their instruments – many made c.2015.

*Information about the Calleva Collection was added to this blog on 25 February

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