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Old Instruments Suffer in the Breakneck Modern World

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • August 19, 2012

It was a warm evening in early June, and an early-music ensemble called The Vivaldi Project had just begun a concert of Baroque music at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington.  Enthusiastic applause broke out as the group finished a sonata by Arcangelo Corelli, and much of it seemed aimed at William Simms, who was performing that night on the theorbo — an odd-looking instrument something like a lute, but with a long, delicate neck extending some five feet beyond its body. 

As the applause faded, Simms began to retune his instrument for the next piece, when suddenly a loud crack — as harsh and unsettling as a gunshot — rang through the room. Simms slowly lifted his theorbo into the air.  Under the tension of its fifteen strings, the instrument’s graceful neck had snapped in two, and now hung there limply, like a broken limb.  Simms could only stare at it in shock.

“It’s just a horrifying thing when an instrument breaks — this terrible feeling of despair goes through you,” says Constance Whiteside, one of the organizers of the concert. “We ran back to see if we could fix it, but there was nothing we could do.”

Simms was sidelined for the rest of the concert, but was able to get his theorbo to a specialist the next day and was back on stage with it within a week.  But as it turns out, classical instruments — particularly the oldest and most valuable — fall apart or are damaged with surprising frequency. Or perhaps it’s not all that surprising. Most classical instruments, particularly the stringed ones, are rather delicate, and were designed well over a hundred years ago. Many were never intended to last a long time, let alone survive the international travel, crowded stages, sudden changes in humidity and other indignities of the modern concert world. Talk to any musician and you’re sure to hear stories of flutes being knocked over, basses dropped into orchestra pits, guitars crushed by airlines and harps disintegrating under the pull of their own strings.  

And when it happens, it can be devastating.

“I was playing a concert a few years ago,” says Stephanie Vial, a cellist with the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, “and during the break they put a small podium on stage.  I had taken my cello out of its case, and was holding it in such a way that I couldn’t see the podium.  I had no idea it was there, and I just tripped on it and started to fall.  I couldn’t stop myself — and I ended up on top of the instrument.”

Vial’s cello — a rare, $60,000 instrument built in 1770 by William Forster — seemed ruined, with a ragged hole running up its right side and the bridge smashed in.   “I thought I had destroyed it,” she says.  “I just sat there holding it, sobbing, until one of my colleagues took it out of my hands. I kept telling myself, ‘It’s not one of my kids’ — but it was close. That cello is my voice.”

Stephanie VialVial isn’t the only musician to fall on his or her instrument.  Violin prodigy David Garrett tumbled down a flight of stairs in 2008, smashing his priceless Guadagnini, and countless other instruments have been dropped, sat on and left in taxis. Many can be restored, though the process is time-consuming and expensive; like Simms, Vial was eventually able to get her instrument rebuilt, though it took four months and many thousands of dollars. (It now sounds, she says, better than ever.)

But even without a dramatic accident, stringed instruments — whose delicate bodies must support the tremendous tension of their strings — are inherently fragile and susceptible to injury.

“There’s a fine edge between creating an instrument that has the best possible sound, and an instrument that is going to stay sturdy over the stresses of being played,” says Constance Whiteside.  “The soundboard is where all the beauty of the sound of the instrument is. The thinner it is, the more beautiful — but also the more likely to just implode.”

Whiteside, one of the world’s most eminent early-music harp specialists, speaks from experience. At the Amherst Early Music Festival a few years ago, she was getting ready to perform a baroque opera with fellow harpist Andrew Lawrence King when she noticed something was amiss with her 52-string harp, an instrument so rare there was only one other like it in the world.

“I started hearing this weird sound, so I checked my harp,” she says, “and the seams were starting to separate!  I turned to Andrew, and he just said, ‘duct tape.’  It sounds unbelievable, but we ran out and found some duct tape, and wrapped it around the instrument.  Amazingly, the sound was still good.”

But of all the threats instruments face, nothing provokes as much dread — and anger — from musicians as air travel.  Stories about crushed and mutilated instruments abound, including the time Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman had his Steinway destroyed by US Customs agents at JFK Airport in New York because they thought the piano “smelled funny.”

“We all live in fear of airlines,” says Constance Whiteside. “It doesn’t matter how good the case is, or what labels you put on it.”   Like many musicians, she won’t travel with her harp unless it can go in the seat beside her.

Simms, in fact, suspects the crack in his theorbo may have resulted from rough handling just a few days earlier by a Transportation Security Administration inspector in San Francisco, as he was checking the instrument for a flight.

“She grabbed the instrument by its strings and yanked it out of its case,” says Simms, who watched helplessly from the sidelines.  “And when she was done, she just pushed it off the table onto the conveyer belt, and it came crashing down — like dishes off a dining room table.”

“I’m never,” he says, “going to check an instrument again.”

Posted on Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 06:00PM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | CommentsPost a Comment

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