New system allows artists looking for instruments to borrow, not begging

If there has ever been a symbol of the growing gap between the price of great instruments and the salaries of musicians who know how to play them, it is astronomy. $ 45 million that sellers are looking for this spring for a rare Stradivari viola.

Even beautiful modern instruments, whose prices haven’t been inflated by avid collectors who view them as investments, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, putting them out of the reach of young players struggling with conservatory debt. Many musicians rely on institutions or benefactors to lend them instruments – as the sensationalist pointed out earlier this year flight and recovery of the Lipinski Strad, a 1715 violin played by Frank Almond, the first violin of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, but owned by an anonymous patron.

But relationships between artists and even the most generous patrons can be tricky, fueling a musician’s sense of indebtedness to benefactors, or a reluctance to leave an unsatisfactory position because it allows access to great instruments. Violinist Helena Baillie, who plays Bargemusic Sunday, is the beneficiary of an unusual new loan model – intended to isolate musicians from patrons and institutions – that she hopes can be replicated by others.

It works this way: her longtime benefactor, SB Lewis, has donated over $ 200,000 to Bard College – where Ms Baillie is an artist. companion – for the school to purchase two modern violins and a viola, and several bows, for its lifelong use. She can continue to play them even if she leaves Bard, and can later buy them in college or leave them in college.

Mr Lewis said he proposed the model to relieve artists of fear of being cut off from their cherished instruments and to end what he sees as their potentially unhealthy dependence on individual benefactors or institutions to access the tools of their trade.

“That way, they’re not going to let go, they’re not going to say to you someday, ‘I’m tired of listening to you’ or ‘You didn’t come to my kid’s bar mitzvah. ‘ – Nothing of the sort,” Mr. Lewis said in an interview. “I just want to find a way to free the artist, get him started, and create a paradigm shift in the way these instruments are traded.”

Leon Botstein, the President of Bard, and the Music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, used a musical term to describe how the setup differed from more traditional instrument loans. “It’s a variation, a nice variation, and I would encourage institutions to do it,” he said, noting that it met the needs of the artist, the benefactor and the college, which will eventually get the instruments or the money for them. which can be used for other purposes.

Ms Baillie, who holds a sort of artist-in-residence position at Bard, said she was delighted to have lifetime use of the instruments, two of which were made by the distinguished modern luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz and one by Collin. Gallahue. She will play them at Bargemusic during a program by Stravinsky, Tartini, Vivaldi and Shostakovich.

“It represents, in a way, a new ecosystem for patrons and artists, where the beneficiary is empowered rather than accountable,” she said. “And that gives a level of emotional serenity so rare, where artists depend on support to be able to play these great instruments.”

Credit…Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

There is a debate among musicians as to whether the old instruments of Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesù, which can cost millions of dollars, really sound better than the best modern instruments. Ms Baillie, who played a Strad, said she had converted to a school that favors the modern.

But those who prefer older instruments – whose prices have skyrocketed much faster than the rate of inflation as dealers, collectors and investors have raised their prices – fear they will become increasingly out of reach. players who know how to use them.

Jim Van Valkenburg, the acting principal violist at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, said he feared the current generation could afford instruments as good as those older generations could. He recalled how in 1983, as a young player in a string quartet at Brown University, he took out a big loan – borrowing more than he could earn in two years – to buy a fine viola, and how he struggled to reach the monthly high. payments for years.

Now, he said, many instruments are so expensive that young players cannot hope to get loans large enough to pay them off. Mr VanValkenburg said orchestras, philanthropists and others must find ways to redress the imbalance.

“It’s a very different world we live in now,” he said, “and we have to react or we are going to be left behind.”

Mr Botstein, who lends his own violin to young players, said the imbalance between supply and demand and the entry of investors and collectors into the instrument market had driven prices up.

“Who would want to own a violin? ” He asked. “In principle, no one except someone who would use it – except those who are collectors. And not all collectors are smart enough to realize that a violin should be used.

Mr Lewis – an outspoken former Wall Street titan who pleaded guilty to stock manipulation in 1989, was pardoned by President Bill Clinton and now owns a farm in the Adirondacks – said that although his donation was paid for relatively cheap modern instruments, a similar model could be used to give older and more expensive ones.

Ms Baillie said she was grateful to Mr Lewis, who has helped and guided her for years, for finding a way for her to control the instruments she plays.

“I am incredibly lucky,” she said. “I have found an ideal violin.

About Gregory Lewis

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