Superstar Violins Converge for the Stradivarius Fest

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Concertmaster Margaret Batjer playing the "Milstein" Strad. | Photo: Shane Apple.

There's a clip on YouTube that's little more than three minutes long in which the violinist Nathan Milstein spasms through a particularly shivery section of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Partita No. 3 in E major BWV 1006." It's a fine example, especially if you've never seen it in action, of advanced violin bowing techniques -- the passage is made up of almost entirely sixteenth notes, which are notes played so fast they're called semi-quavers. Hence the spasmodic violinist.

In fact, Milstein played his instrument -- made by eminent 17th and 18th century Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari -- so adroitly, it became known as the Milstein Stradivarius. That particular violin and seven others like it will feature in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Strad Fest L.A., held on March 26th through March 29th. Strads are enigmatic and highly coveted, especially those made by Stradivari during the "golden period" of the early 1700s. "They're powerful instruments," says Margaret Batjer, the concertmaster at LACO, when I visit her in her home to see the Milstein. But first, let's take a step back and find out how the Milstein, one of the finest of only about 650 remaining Strads, ended up in Southern California.

"My daughter loves art, and she wanted me to buy a Rothko," says Jerry Kohl, a businessman who with his wife Terri owns the successful accessories retail chain Brighton Collectibles. But in 2006, Kohl decided he wanted to invest in something a little closer to his interests. At 17, Kohl had been in a rock band called Public Affairs, and he considered music a big part of his life. But he wasn't into classical music, let alone Strads, until 2006, when he read a 1994 article in The Los Angeles Times about a Strad owned by UCLA that had been lost when a player in their string quartet presumably left it on top of his car.

"Beechback" Stradivarious | Photo: Courtesy of Peter Beare
"Beechback" Stradivarious. | Photo: Courtesy of Peter Beare.

Kohl was officially enchanted. He decided he wanted to purchase one of the instruments, but when he inquired with the curator of violins at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the head of violins at Sotheby's auction house, he heard the same refrain: buyer beware. Forgeries of Strads are as commonplace as forged art, and the experts advised Kohl to either buy the cheapest Strad he could find, and not worry about its quality, or forget budget and get a top-of-the-line instrument from a trusted dealer. Kohl decided on the latter, and invited three dealers to L.A. with their best specimens; they came with eight Strads in tow.

Kohl was able to get Disney Concert Hall for an afternoon, so he enlisted Batjer and Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour to sample each violin. "All day we played," recalls Batjer. "[Jerry] called it the 'shoot out,' because I'd play a phrase on one, and Martin would play the other fiddle." To Batjer's delight, Kohl settled on purchasing the Milstein from legendary London dealer Charles Beare, and she's been given special access to the violin ever since.

Meanwhile, owning the instrument has opened doors for Kohl that he never could have imagined. "I believe very strongly that you're not really the owner of the instrument, you're the keeper for the next generation," says Batjer. "And I think Jerry feels that to a degree, too. Yes, it is an investment -- it's a great investment, actually -- but for him, we were speaking about this the other day with he and his wife, it's brought them a whole new life."

The Kohls now attend several concerts a week to catch up on the time lost when they weren't classical music enthusiasts. But nothing invigorates Kohl more than when the Milstein is in Batjer or Chalifour's hands on stage. When that occurs, like it will during Strad Fest, Kohl looks upon the Milstein like a proud papa. "I'm honored to own it," says Kohl. "It's a piece of history that's 300 years old; I'm looking forward for it to be here 300 years from now."

"Milstein" Kreisler | Photo: Martin Chalifour
"Milstein" Kreisler. | Photo: Martin Chalifour.

When I go to Batjer's house in Hidden Hills, a gated community in the San Fernando Valley, she demonstrates the instrument by playing a passage from a Bach concerto. Without the full ergot of a classical music expert, I lack the vocabulary to critically describe what I'm hearing, but to me the sounds presented to me in Batjer's practice space made me feel like I was on the deck of the Titanic -- something mighty and elegant, and full of dangerous grandiosity. "I think of the other great Italian instruments as being kind of like chocolate pudding -- very dense and rich and creamy - but Strad has that quality of purity, like a diamond," says Batjer. "The sound floats above, and I especially find that in a [concert] hall, I can usually detect when a Strad is being played as opposed to other instruments."

Later, Batjer would falteringly tell me her theory behind what makes the Strad so special: "Between 1660 and 1750, in Northern Italy, along the Po River, the atmospheric conditions -- how the sun was at that time, how it cured the wood, how it dried the wood, how the varnish was cured -- in combination with this amazing artist and his craft...It was a magical time -- a magical period."

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According to Stewart Pollens, a Stradivarius expert, the material components of a "golden period" Strad consist of willow, spruce, and maple wood, which is then treated with a concoction of borax and silicate, before being varnished with gum arabic, honey, and egg white. It might not seem like magic, but Rachel Fine, the Executive Director at LACO, notes that the physical alchemy of the instruments is only an element in their arcane prestige. "All of the greatest musicians in the world play on them," she notes. "No one really understands why. It's not tangible."

"Titian" Stradivarious | Photo: Courtesy of Cho-Liang Lin
"Titian" Stradivarious. | Photo: Courtesy of Cho-Liang Lin.

To that point, Batjer insinuates that there is a certain historicity that involves a sort of residue left on the instruments by their namesake. In this case, it's as if Milstein imprinted his style upon the violin. "The instruments take on the personality and the voice of their player," she says.

Take all this into account -- the mystery, the history, the lore -- and multiply it by eight and you have the Strad Fest. It's an extremely rare occurrence to gather so many instruments. Batjer herself can only remember one occasion in 1987, in Stradivari's hometown of Cremona, Italy, when more Strads were in the same place. She talks about the incredible undertaking that stretched the smallish LACO to its organizational hilt. The security alone, of having $25 million worth of instruments, is a daunting task. But LACO has produced a Strad Fest with a full schedule of events.

Kicking off Strad Fest is a violin demonstration and discussion moderated by KUSC Classical 91.5FM's Gail Eichenthal on Wednesday, March 26 at The Huntington. That event is private and invitation-only, but the other three events are open to the public, including Thursday, March 27th presentation of Baroque Conversations at the Zipper Concert Hall in Downtown L.A., which will include a performance of Philipp Telemann's "Concerto for Four Violins in D major" played by a quartet using only Strads. Friday, March 28th event will be a Stradivarius Fiddlefest at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, which Batjer says was inspired by the battle she engaged in to help Kohl find his Milstein. The final night will be a gala event.

"Red Mendelssohn" | Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Pitcairn
"Red Mendelssohn." | Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Pitcairn.

Many of the world's finest instruments will be there, including the "Red Mendelssohn," which inspired the film "The Red Violin," the "Titian" so named because of its resemblance to the famed painters oranges-red color palette, and the 1666 "Serdet," the earliest known of the Stradivarius violins, which is on loan from Charles Beare's son Peter, also a violinmaker and Strad expert. In addition to getting some of the greatest Stradivarius violins in existence, LACO will host important musicians such as Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Elizabeth Pitcairn, Philippe Quint, Ray Ushikobo, and Xiang Yu, as well as Chalifour and Batjer. "We're really trying, not only to raise some visibility for the organization, but to contribute in a meaningful way to raising the visibility of Los Angeles as a great classical music destination," says Fine.

Philippe Quint with the "Ruby" Stradivarius | Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Philippe Quint with the "Ruby" Stradivarius. | Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Batjer has seen L.A. grow into that destination Fine describes. She has been the concertmaster of LACO for 16 years, which dates back to a time when Los Angeles' cultural cache might not have been able to support a Strad Fest. Now, says Batjer, with the Disney Hall, superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel's appointment as the Philharmonic's artistic director, and myriad other offshoots and experimental upstarts throughout the city, L.A. is starting to be as respected as anywhere in the world. "It's a great time to be here," Batjer says. "Really [in] the last 8 to 10 years, things just started to change. There's all these groups that are just popping up, and doing unique and interesting and innovative things. They still pooh-pooh us in The New York Times -- they're so snotty." Batjer laughs. She knows that L.A. has caught up, even if others don't recognize it.

So the Strad Fest is really a story of a city finally reaching an international maturity in terms of classical reputation. These instruments are eye-popping in price, and diamond-sharp in sound, and it's taken a whole lot of effort to get them in once place, which only proves L.A.'s newly minted stature in the classical music realm. Over four days, L.A. will have all the magic of 18th century Cremona, on several stages speckled throughout the city, and the sounds will be the indisputable sound of Strads soaring through the air.

"Serdet" Stradivarious | Photo: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Photography by Tucker Densley
"Serdet" Stradivarious. | Photo: Tucker Densley, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

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