Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Talking to violin-maker Florian Leonhard at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival

On March 17th 2012, violin-maker Florian Leonhard and I met in the lounge of the Princess Hotel, Eilat. Based in London, Florian Leonhard has been making violins for 30 years. His lecture on the violin and its history was one of the events of the 7th Eilat Chamber Music Festival.

PH: Mr. Leonhard, you are based in London, I believe.

Florian Leonhard : Yes. I have been living there since 1985.

PH: Where were you born?

FL: I was born in 1963 in Düsseldorf, Germany, but my family then moved to Darmstadt near Frankfurt because it was a kind of artists’ town. My father had studied at the renowned Düsseldorf Arts Academy.

PH: Darmstadt is also an important place for contemporary music.

FL: Yes. We did, indeed, attend many of the concerts of the annual festival of contemporary music there; so I grew up hearing a lot of modern music. I do not necessarily enjoy it so much nowadays. But as a child, you listen to music and just take it in. So I think I really understand contemporary music, but feel that a lot of it is not of a high quality…as in some modern art.

PH: I believe you have done a lot of painting.

FL: Yes. Here again, I am not a great fan of abstract art. I see much of it is an excuse for having no skill.

PH: Do you still paint?

FL: Unfortunately, I do not have much time for it at the moment. I was, in fact, so passionate about painting that I did not want to earn my living doing it. It would mean painting what the art market wanted. When I was growing up in the 1970s there were huge investments in art, usually modern art, in works that eventually will not be worth so much, being meaningless and lacking in skill. It comes back to the music scene: we admire someone who can do something new and original.

PH: So let’s get back to music. Are you yourself a violinist?

FL: Not really. I played the ‘cello till age 17, when I was happy to stop and not to have to practice every day. But I did take violin lessons for a year because I thought I should understand how it is played. It is technically so different to the ‘cello: the hands are twisted, the bowing is much lighter: the bow rests on the strings, whereas you really “grip” the bow when playing the ‘cello.

PH: Do you come from a musical family?

FL: Yes. My mother learned the violin in Vienna, but then she decided to study medicine and German literature. She then became a German literature teacher and a wonderful mother; she saw to our education, health, sporting activities, etc. And, in the wider sense of education, our parents took us traveling, to museums, giving us a cultural education and the wherewithal to enjoy life. I am still aware of the confidence, happiness and direction such an upbringing gives one in adult life. Those first 20 years of life are shaped by these things. I am grateful to my parents for this. And my parents never pushed me in any one direction; they watched and monitored as I found my own direction.

PH: What made you choose the profession of violin-making?

FL: Having decided not to be a professional painter, I was actually very interested in surgery, medicine, chemistry and physics. I wanted to become a surgeon. I had my own microscopes; but I also enjoyed working with my hands – putting things back together and making them work. I still remember one Sunday morning at home (I was 16 at the time), how, having removed my mother’s violin from the table in order to lay it for breakfast, I began to examine the construction of the violin; my father, observing, saw how fascinated I was, as my eyes moved over the instrument, taking in its detail in depth. Seeing a future for me that would combine a lot of my interests and qualities, he said “Why don’t you become a violin maker?” I answered that I was going to study medicine. He left it at that, never mentioning it again; but, slowly, over the next two years, it gradually became clear to me that I was absolutely passionate about becoming a violin-maker.

PH: Where did you study the craft?

FL: I was advised by local violin-makers that the best school was in Mittenwald in the German Alps. There, one took seven semesters of study; the school has an intake of six students per class (from all over the world) – I was one of 1200 applicants. In 1981 there were a lot of people wanting to learn violin-making. The course was free and the experience meant total immersion in the subject. It it was tough and demanding, with discipline required to a degree that can not be sustained by every student. Looking back on it today, I have to say that it only covered the rudimentary basics, but it was certainly a good start.

PH: How did you proceed after graduating?

FL: My dream was to work for the most important violin maker, expert and dealer – W.E.Hill & Sons in London. The company had a long-standing reputation – in his diary of 1666, Samuel Pepys referred to Mr. Hill as “ye violin maker”. In 1862, the actual company was formed. After my studies, I was lucky enough to become workshop manager there. When the company unfortunately closed down in 1991, I set my sights at replacing W.E.Hill & Sons in some way. Sad to see an empire disappear, I sensed the importance of recreating the ideal environment in which research would be carried out, fine instruments would be constructed, great players would come to look for an instrument suited to their needs, to have them adjusted and serviced and where experts would be in the stores to serve them for the next generations.

PH: Is there a personal aspect to your profession?

FL: Most definitely. There is the psychological side of the job: all players sometimes need to have a chat about their violin (their “baby”) and I feel I have become close to many of today’s great players and that we have a warm, trusting relationship. I enjoy this. It is based on mutual professional admiration and respect.

PH: Do you deal in violins of the old master builders and, if so, how does that influence the instruments you build yourself?

FL: Yes. I work with Stradivarius violins, of which you can find five or six of them in my safe as well as instruments made by other old great Italian masters of almost 300 years ago. We restore them, opening them up and analyzing them, we adjust the sound and sell them to players who are often helped by syndicates who provide the money for the purchase. My ear was so attuned to the super fine sound of these instruments that I found that, on making my own violins, I have always measured the standard of my own violins against the level of quality of sound and response of those old instruments; so, for 28 years I was not satisfied with my own instruments and did not want to sell them. But I have finally found the way to make the instruments to my own satisfaction.

PH: Are we talking about a secret formula, as referred to in connection with the Stradivarius?

FL: No. First of all, it really is about understanding what piece of wood to choose. The latter is a sense that develops in time – a matter of feeling, of your hands and your ear. One needs to sense how the wood will respond, how much it should weigh, etc. You learn to hold the piece of wood and decide whether to use it or not. I handle thousands of pieces of wood before selecting the right one suited to making a violin. So the choosing involves quite a lot of work and expertise.

PH: From where does the wood come?

FL: Mainly from the European Alps from where, traditionally, all the good wood for violins has come. In Canada and China there is a lot of pine, but it is the European alpine pine which is right for violin-making. It is both light and strong and, most importantly, flexible. The lightness of weight promotes fast response, and flexibility promotes warmth of sound and the ability of the wood to vibrate and send the sound frequencies outwards; the wood’s strength is needed for resistance. Clarity and the core sound (the centre of sound, around which overtones form) are important. The overtones are important; if you cut them out, you are left with a very boring sound. The richer and clearer the play of overtones the instrument has, the more colors the violinist can express and the better the information reaching his listening audience.

PH: And regarding the player?

FL: The violin should be a good-sounding instrument, but it should also be able to make the life of the musician easier. A soloist preparing a large concerto – say, of 45 minutes – has, first of all, to practice for a few hours a day. A poor violin will make practising difficult, not to speak of the 45 minutes of concentration and memory on stage, of bowing and fingering. If you think about this, it is an incredible feat. And, of course, the player wants his instrument to allow him to be expressive; he wants it to have a range of colors, to respond to where you place the bow, to bow speed and bow length.

PH: Let’s get back to the listener. Can the audience judge how good an instrument is? Will listeners naturally go for the sound of an older instrument?

FL: This is a complex issue. An experiment, much talked about in the press in recent months, was carried out in a hotel room in the USA. A few orchestral musicians, concealed behind a sheet, played to people on violins of different standards (including Stradivarius violins). What was interesting is that half of the experts there listening found the non-Stradivarius violins to be better-sounding. I think this whole test is questionable – in 10 minutes’ playing it is so difficult to judge the quality of an instrument. Even hearing each different violin for an hour remains a very dicey and subjective test. So, there will never be conclusive evidence as to whether the new or old instrument is better.

PH: And the player’s choice?

FL: A player will naturally go for the old, much played and “well massaged” instrument because the intonation the violin has in its wood and its “memory” is something the player can just tap into intuitively, deriving much pleasure from it. This is what counts. I see that most great players choose something of the standard of the Stradivarius over a modern instrument. Even if today we make instruments on that level, we have to wait till they are fully matured to get that well-rounded sound. It is a bit like wine: drink a tanning rich wine after two years and it is horrible, but after seven it can be just divine! Although I make my violins of very light wood and the treatment of the wood seems to be good - giving warmth, sonority and clarity - you still have to work harder in playing them than if you are playing a Stradivarius; and players do not need convincing when it comes to that!

PH: Do you make bows?

FL: I personally do not make bows. My main expertise is old Italian violins going up to, say, 1930; my main field is the 17th-, 18th and 19th century Italian violin, this in itself being a very broad field. This expertise means writing reliable certificates for these pieces, helping to authenticate them. I have a bow-maker in my shop, making very fine bows, and I do consult with the greatest bow experts in order to offer my clients the most excellent bows.

PH: Do you work with Baroque violins?

FL: Interestingly, all the 16th-, 17th- and 18th century violins I deal in are, or I should say were, indeed, Baroque violins. A Stradivarius is a Baroque instrument; built at the height of the Baroque era, it was developed, in particular, by the Amati family, into being the perfect, Baroque-shaped instrument, with a Baroque attitude for ornamentation, shaping, etc. Today’s market, leading the ear in this digital age to liking more clarity and sharpness, higher tuning, etc., is so that the money is more in the modern manner of violin-playing. That means that all these originally Baroque instruments are today set up according to the more modern, post-1800s standard: the neck is often slightly longer, the finger-board is much longer, the bass bar is longer than that made in Baroque times and the bridge is shaped a little more efficiently so that it vibrates more quickly and with lightness. Strings nowadays are mostly made with nylon cord wound with several different kinds of metals and the e string is a metal string, which would have been a pure gut string in Baroque times.

PH: But if a Baroque violinist comes to you requesting an authentically Baroque type violin, what will you offer him/her?

FL: We can take an instrument that is no longer set up as Baroque and convert it completely back to being a Baroque violin. I, myself, have also made some Baroque-style violins that sound really quite marvellous. A Baroque set-up is less tight; it is very responsive because of the strings, the shape of the bridge and the lighter bass bar. The truth is that we can now build Baroque violins that are so good that we do not necessarily need to only play only on older Italian instruments. And a Baroque player nowadays does not make enough money from performing and recording in order to buy a Stradivarius violin. It is rare to find a Baroque musician playing on a Baroque set-up Stradivarius.

PH: So how does today's soloist manage to get a Stradivarius?

FL: Young budding soloists will often seek to play a Stradivarius or instrument of that standard. These players have to find syndicates or wealthy people to buy them this instrument. However, most of those wealthy people are not so familiar with the Baroque music scene: they go for more modern repertoire and would rather see their young player performing concertos on a Stradivarius or Guarneri in a very large concert hall. That is why I have, sadly, never been asked to convert a Stradivarius back to the Baroque instrument it was originally. But I make copies of such instruments with the characteristic Baroque neck, the Baroque fingerboard etc., and they work very well. Another option is to buy a cheaper kind of old Italian violin, like a Grancino, converted to a Baroque instrument set-up.

PH: Do you make early bowed instruments?

FL: No. Only the “modern” violin family. But I did once make one tenor viol, very richly inlaid, etc. I love all the carving involved in these instruments. The viol is tricky – but what a sweet-toned, beautiful instrument! I enjoyed making it, but that is not my main field.

PH: Do you have Israeli clients?

FL: Oh yes, yes. As of 2003 I have been the violin consultant and expert for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. We are in constant contact by email, but I come here once a year to meet with them and I will be spending two days with the IPO this coming week. I also work with most of the Israeli violin dealers and makers with regard to authentication and any other advice they may want. If players here want to have a violin repaired I advise them to whom to go and what questions to ask (the latter is very important). The Jerusalem Quartet has bought instruments from me and we enjoy a good friendship. Then there is Guy Braunstein, now concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, also a close friend of mine. Israel has a strong culture of violin-playing.

PH: What do you think of having a chamber music festival in Eilat?

FL: I am so glad it takes place here. Eilat is always associated with water sports and sun; this music is our “sunshine”. The festival should be an ongoing event, with full halls. There is so much pleasure for those attending the festival and meeting many old friends. I was invited to attend the festival by friends and by another violin maker. And the sea and sunshine do make a superb setting for the festival.

PH: At this stage of your career, how do you see yourself and your goals?

FL: I have made a name and reputation. I have been really passionate and in love with my profession all along and have had the energy to excel in it. I am now enjoying sharing my knowledge. Money was never a driving force with me (I was not born a salesman), but I am selling well now because I have a product that people want to buy.

PH: How do you see today’s soloists?

FL: What disappoints me is that some have little intellectual interest in fields outside of their own. However, I do see that there are real virtuosos who have a wider and richer scope. For example, my good friend the violinist Leonidas Kavakos is intensely interested in many different things, and you can hear this expressed in his music. As to myself, violin-making is just one of my many interests.

PH: Would you like to mention some of your other interests?

FL: This answer could take an hour, but the concert hall beckons, so I will try to be concise. As mentioned earlier, there is biology and there is literature – I love Russian writers, for example, old German writers, English- and French writers. I read philosophy texts and like to discuss them. I am passionate about painting, art and museums, theatre and ballet. I like to travel in order to learn about other countries, their people, religions, etc. And then there is sport – skiing and sailing, in particular. I have a skipper’s license and enjoy sailing with friends. In my spare time, I really appreciate being with friends who have interests other than music.

PH: Florian Leonhard, many thanks for your time and for sharing so much interesting information.