By ERIN ALLEN
A cacophony of musical sounds greeted visitors entering the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building on a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon. Although no concert was scheduled, the effect was that of musicians warming up before a performance, as string players bowed and fingered instruments created by members of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers.
The event, "Players Meet Makers," provided a delightful finale to the three-day symposium, "The American Violin: From Jefferson to Jazz," held at the Library April 6-8.
From table to table wandered master craftsmen, amateur and professional players and Library patrons, strung together by a love for beautiful instruments and music. The old masters, Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri, were present in spirit, inspiring discourse among those who make and play the modern, American-made instruments.
A common thread of the discussion was how the makers could craft instruments to meet the desires and needs of the players, many of them young musicians wanting affordable, durable instruments capable of producing big sounds to fill large spaces.
"As makers, our job is to help musicians—to provide an instrument that's easy to play and has an interesting sound," said Marilyn Wallis, who has been a federation member for the past year.
"It's a constant relationship between the player and maker," added Guy Harrison, also a freshman member of the federation.
During an earlier symposium session, "Toward a New Vision," violin expert James Han observed that the musical world of the 21st century is largely at odds with the "Golden Age," which today's makers often look to for inspiration. With larger concert halls, a generation gap in audiences and a wider scope of musical styles coupled with the realities of travel, cost and availability of materials, contemporary instruments need to be more than just replications of their 18th century counterparts. A resonant theme among players was instrument durability and portability. After all, the life of a professional musician is transient.
Pierre Moise, an aspiring federation member and novice maker, said players are also looking for a bigger sound with more intensity. "Instant gratification is also key," he added, "so we're looking into using synthetic materials, especially with the strings."
This meeting of mature, erudite minds belied the ages of many who came to see and try the work of American artisans. Comprising a large part of the boisterous crowd, young adults and teens were most often the ones "sampling" the strings. Twelve-year-old Nebraskan Emily Drechsler enjoyed a one-on-one with a cello made by federation member Pamela Anderson.
"Both my mom and sister played the violin, and I liked the way it sounded—very expressive," said Drechsler, explaining her choice of an instrument to play with her hometown youth orchestra.
According to Jonathan Cooper, a seven-year veteran of the federation, to be a young player these days means having "more acceptable" styles of music to choose from and more affordable instruments on which to play.
"Today, the young are not limited to playing one kind of music," he said. "Many learn classical but then branch out.
"New, contemporary music has really taken off," Cooper continued. "Thirty years ago, when I started, there was a wall between different styles."
Drechsler cited the scores from "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Lord of the Rings" as some of her favorite music. Both are contemporary works with striking similarities to 17th century Italian operas and the music of Richard Wagner.
"This emergence of young players is extraordinary for our future," said Cooper.
"We're getting really great players younger and younger. They are playing as well as the professionals."
Considering the number of adept young players, variety of new music and modern makers, a sort of renaissance has emerged.
"In the past, there has seemed to be a prejudice against modern instruments and bows," said Chris Germaine, president of the federation. "The belief was 'the older the instrument, the sweeter the music.'"
"Today, our players are more open-minded and contemporary," he said, and they are willing to purchase high-quality instruments from today's skilled artisans. "That has definitely helped our market."
Erin Allen is a freelance writer in the Washington area.