Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What are Violins, Violas, & Cellos Made Of?

By Matt Lammers and Andy Fein

A friend of ours on Facebook recently sent us a message and asked, "what wood works best for different parts of the cello, and why?" So we sat down at the computer, as is our routine for questions of this sort, to pull up a link to our blog entry about instrument materials. Wouldn't you know it, we didn't have one!

This is a question that often confuses instrument buyers and string players alike. The falsely satisfactory conclusion, "they're made of wood, except for the strings; I think they're steel," is too often drawn in response to an issue that is far more in depth than that.

In one sense, though, the answer is quite simple and almost always consistent for modern violins, violas, and cellos- Maple is used for the back, sides and neck; Spruce is used for the top and the fingerboard is made from Ebony. But Spruce and Maple are broad categories of trees that encompass several species. The species of wood is the primary variable concerning sound, visual aesthetic, and durability, however the wood's age, grain structure, and cut style, also play pivotal roles in these attributes.

Good wood choice makes a fine violin pleasing to the eye, but even more so to the ear

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

MATA Festival - Premiering the World's Most Exciting Young Composers

By Stefan Aune of Fein Violins

The MATA festival emerged in 1996 through the efforts of its founders, Philip Glass, Eleonor Sandresky, and Lisa Bielawa. These world renowned composers sought to provide a venue for young up-and-coming composers to present works in a professional and highly visible setting. The festival's stated goal is to "create community among young musicians, especially those whose work defies definition and doesn't fit into existing institutions." The four day festival, which is held in New York City, regularly commissions new works at the cutting edge of composition.

The Knights Chamber Orchestra, one of the featured performers

image from The Knights Chamber Orchestra website

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Phantom's Inspiration-- Chaos in the Paris Opera House

By Matt Lammers and Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins

116 years ago on May 20, 1896, Paris newspapers were filled with news of an incident that left the French arts culture reeling. At exactly 8:57 p.m., during a performance of the opera Helle', two 360 kg (about 792 lbs. each) counterweights fell from the chandelier above the audience, which killed one spectator and injured many others.

An original advertisement for the premier of Helle in 1896

Friday, May 18, 2012

El Sistema - Venezuela's Revolutionary Music Education Program

By Stefan Aune of Fein Violins

El Sistema is a publicly funded music education program that brings music into the lives of over 300,000 Venezuelan children and young adults. Active since the 1970's, El Sistema has emerged as a benchmark in the musical education of children. Wildly successful as a mechanism for reaching the most socioeconomically disadvantaged of Venezuela's youth, El Sistema has also produced world renowned musicians and conductors, the most famous of whom is Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic music director of the LA Philharmonic.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
El Sistema was founded under the name "Social Action for Music" in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician. Abreu's goal was to use music as a vehicle for improving the lives of Venezuelan youth and offering an alternative to drugs, violence, and poverty. He argued that "music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values - solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. And it has the ability to unite an entire community, and to express sublime feelings." Abreu's vision has managed to thrive under seven different Venezuelan governments of both the left and the right, with each government offering substantial financial support. Under current Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez the program has enjoyed an unprecedented level of financial support, with almost the entire operating budget, and additional capital projects, funded by Chavez's administration. El Sistema's focus on the youth, and its ability to operate outside the boundaries of partisan politics, has helped it to flourish and grow into a benchmark in music education. It's unabashed goal of improving the lives of Venezuela's poorest and most vulnerable children is the sort of program the rest of the world should look to and emulate.

José Antonio Abreu with children involved in El Sistema
In 2008 El Sistema was extended into Venezuela's corrections system, with music programs opening up in three jails. One of the inmates participating in the program remarked that “when I first arrived here, I thought, ‘I put a lock in my life, I screwed myself. But one begins to live music, discovers its echo, and the moment arrives when you do not so much feel the music score so much but the harmony one has with the instrument.” One of the most remarkable things about El Sistema is the acknowledgement that poverty and other social and economic disadvantages serve to limit the enjoyment of classical music to the socially and economically privileged. Instruments, classes, and orchestras cost money, and El Sistema has done an admirable job of bringing classical music into the lives of thousands that would normally be denied the privilege of picking up a violin or a cello. The extension of the program into the corrections system is another element of this commitment to make music available to the poorest and most vulnerable elements of Venezuelan society.

Children participating in El Sistema
The remarkable number of programs, ensembles and orchestras that El Sistema operates through state funding should serve as a clarion call to public education institutions in the United States that continue to slash the budgets for music and the arts. In the school district where I grew up I've watched as year after year the orchestra and band continue to flounder, with slashed budgets, laid off teachers, and tepid to non-existent administrative support. Venezuela's nation-wide commitment to music education has continually resulted in an overflowing of wonderfully talented musicians and educators, creating a self sustaining system where each generation of El Sistema contains the seeds for the next. Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the LA Philharmonic, is easily the most internationally visible participant in El Sistema, and his successes have helped the program to receive increased attention and recognition in recent years.

Dudamel is know for his energetic conducting style
El Sistema programs have blossomed in Los Angeles, Boston, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and other U.S. cities. The program has been featured in numerous documentaries and news reports, the most visible of which is El Sistema, a 2008 documentary that won numerous film festival awards. Check out the TV-Spot below, which features El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. In it, Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu explain the importance of music and the role El Sistema has played in educating hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children. This is the sort of music education that the children of every single country in the world deserve, and hopefully El Sistema can serve as a blueprint for the future.  

The Experience- From The Top, NPR's Classical Music Program for Youth

By Matt Lammers of Fein Violins

This past June (2011) my string quartet, the Malik String Quartet, was invited to perform on National Public Radio's youth-in-classical-music showcase program "From the Top". We were thrilled; "From the Top" is a hearty dose of protein for any resume. As a matter of fact it's safe to say you'd have difficulty finding a major competition anywhere in the United States without "From the Top" somewhere in the program biographies. We (and our coach too, it must be said) were nervous on top--rather, from the top--of our excitement.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Strad Disaster: Spanish Cello Damaged During Photo Shoot

By Matt Lammers and Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins

As of a little over three weeks ago the Spanish Royal Palace is faced with a problem that has classical musicians everywhere cringing: the 1694 Stradivarius cello known as the "Spanish" was severely damaged during a routine photo shoot. While the cello was being positioned alongside its counterparts, the two violins and viola of the "Spanish Quartet," it was knocked off its side from a table onto the floor.

Vera Martinez, Abel Tomas (violins), Jonathan Brown (viola), and Arnau Tomas (cello) of the Casals Quartet, who currently perform using Stradivarius' Spanish Quartet
image from the Casals Quartet website