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In blind test, soloists prefer new violins to old ones

File - Soloist Ilya Kaler wearing welder glasses so he can’t see the violin during a test of old and new instruments outside Paris in Sept. 2012. (AP/Stefan Avalos, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)

WASHINGTON: Ten world-class soloists put costly Stradivarius violins and new, cheaper ones to a blind scientific test. The results may seem off-key to musicians and collectors, but the new instruments won handily. When the lights were dimmed and the musicians donned dark glasses, the soloists’ top choice out of a dozen old and new violins tested was by far a new one. So was the second choice, according to the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Of the six old violins tested, five were by made by the famous Stradivari family in the 17th and 18th centuries. The newer violins were about 100 times cheaper, said study co-author Joseph Curtin, a Michigan violin-maker. But the Strads and other older Italian violins have long been considered superior, even almost magical.

The idea was to unlock “the secrets of Stradivari,” the study said.

Curtin and lead author Claudia Fritz of Pierre and Marie Curie University in France said the study tried to quantify something that was inherently subjective and personal – the quality of an instrument.

A few years earlier, the duo tested violins blind in an Indianapolis hotel room, but this study was more controlled and comprehensive, putting the instruments through their paces in a rehearsal room and concert hall just outside Paris. They even played with an orchestra, in a performance that provided data for a future study.

“I was surprised that my top choice was new,” said American violinist Giora Schmidt. “Studying music – and violin in particular – it’s almost ingrained in you thinking that the most successful violinists on the concert stage have always played old Italian instruments,” she said.

French soloist Solenne Paidassi said: “there’s a paranoia about new instruments,” compared to “a glamour about old instruments.”

Even Curtin, who makes violins for a living, said he was surprised, adding that the study was designed to eliminate bias in favor of either group of violins.

“I remember trying the old violins and the new violins among ourselves just before the testing got going and saying, ‘You know, maybe the old ones will win,’” Curtin said.

But when the lights were turned down, all that could be judged was the sound. Some violins were 300 years old. Some were days old.

But when the soloists were asked to guess whether the violins they were playing were old or new, the soloists got it wrong 33 times and right 31 times.

Canadian soloist Susanne Hou has been playing a rare $6 million 269-year-old Guarneri del Gesu violin and knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. During the testing, she played some of the violins only briefly before holding them out at arm’s length in clear distaste. But, like others, she was drawn to a certain unidentified violin. It was new.

“Whatever this is I would like to buy it,” she said in video shot during the September 2012 experiment.

Schmidt, who normally plays a different new violin with a little more down-to-Earth $30,000 price tag, called the surprise instrument “extraordinary” in a phone interview. “I said kiddingly to them I will write you a check for this fiddle right now,” she said.

Curtin said the researchers would not ever reveal which instruments were used, however, in order to prevent a conflict of interests and prevent the study from appearing like a marketing campaign.

James Woodhouse, a professor of engineering and an expert on musical instruments at the University of Cambridge in England, wasn’t part of the study, but praised it as solid “and very tricky to carry out.”

Classic violins “are still very good, but ... when a level playing field is provided for making honest comparisons, the very best of the contemporary instruments stand up remarkably well in their company,” Woodhouse said.

Hou, whose four-year loan of a classic Italian violin has expired, explained that finding the right instrument was a personal quest. “There are certain things you can’t explain when you fall in love.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 09, 2014, on page 16.

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