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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Acoustic Magic for the NJSO
Centuries ago Italian craftsmen turned out violins,
violas, cellos, and double basses that are the role-models for present-day
instrument-makers in search of sonic perfection. As the owner,, since
February,, of 30 vintage instruments the NJSO is unique. No other
orchestra in the world possesses so large a collection of the sought-after
instruments, whose acoustic magic is thought to depend on secrets
no longer accessible.
Herbert Axelrod, owner of the rare instruments, sold the collection
valued at $50 million to the NJSO for $18 million. A Bayonne native,
he wanted the instruments to stay in New Jersey. Pursuing a staged
plan for using the "Golden Age Collection" of instruments,
the NJSO has scheduled a week-long Bach festival, which comes to Princeton
Thursday, June 5, and Saturday, June 7. Less than 40 orchestra members,
about half the orchestral forces, participate in order to show off
all 30 Golden Age instruments. That means maximum saturation for hearing
the rare instruments in an orchestral concert. Those not playing the
newly-acquired instruments are only the winds and the double basses,
since the collection is limited to violins, violas, and cellos.
Thursday, June 5, at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium violinist and
conductor Jaime Laredo leads a program consisting of Bach’s Brandenburg
Concertos No. 3 and 4 and the Double Violin Concerto in D minor. Laredo’s
solo collaborator in the concerto is Eric Wyrick, concertmaster of
the NJSO. Curiously, the Golden Age Collection consists of only two
violas, and one of the three solo violas called for in the Third Brandenburg
Concerto will not be a Golden Age Collection instrument.
Saturday, June 7, at 8 p.m., also in Richardson, pianist Vladimir
Feltsman conducts and solos in a program consisting of Brandenburg
Concertos No. 1 and 2, and the keyboard concerto in G minor. Feltsman
performs on piano, an instrument unknown to Bach. The harpsichord,
the keyboard instrument of Bach’s time, is used in other pieces during
"We decided against an early-music approach," says Lawrence
Tamburri, NJSO president. "We’re trying to show off the sound
of the instruments in a familiar context, the way they’re used in
the modern world," he explains. "We don’t want people to have
to get used to a new sound."
The Bach festival is a state-wide splash for the NJSO. The Princeton
concerts duplicate performances at Newark’s New Jersey Arts Performing
Center (NJPAC), where 500 free tickets have been made available for
each of the concerts. Other events were scheduled for Newark’s Newark
Museum, West Orange, Cape May, and Morristown. This Wednesday, June
4, at 7 p.m. in the Newark Museum, instrument maker, dealer, and restorer
James McKean talks about what makes old Italian instruments special,
and members of the NJSO demonstrate the sounds available using their
own instruments and those from the NJSO Golden Age Collection.
Benefactors Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod are unable to attend the festival.
They are in Cremona, Italy, birthplace of the instruments in their
collection, to receive an award from that city. As the guest of the
Axelrods, Cremona’s mayor, Paolo Bodini, attended the $2,500-a-plate
gala in April at the old railroad terminal in Liberty State Park,
where some of the instruments were unveiled. At that time he invited
the orchestra to visit Cremona. Tamburri characterizes the status
of an NJSO visit to Cremona as "wait and see." "We’re
investigating," he says.
Settled, however, is the orchestra’s intention to incorporate
all the instruments into the scheduled 2003-’04 concert season. According
to Tamburri, 10 of the Golden Age instruments have been used in concerts
since their acquisition. While their number is a decided minority
in the 80-member orchestra, Tamburri notes their impact on the sound
of the NJSO. "Just from fall to spring, you can hear the difference,"
he says. In addition, he points out, "they’ve had a positive effect
on morale throughout the orchestra even among non-string players."
The heady prospect of acquiring the Axelrod collection, and the rush
of the first employment of the instruments is now giving way to devising
ways to use best the treasured collection. There are not quite enough
instruments to go around. Furthermore, the quality and value of the
instruments are not identical.
Forty-seven instrumentalists will have to share 30 instruments. The
Golden Age collection furnishes 24 violins for 28 violinists; 2 violas
to be used by ten violists, and 4 cellos to supply 9 cellists.
A committee of musicians, board members, and staff is working out
a rotation system, treading a fine line between mutually exclusive
options. "There are two key issues," Tamburri says. "We
want people to have the instruments long enough to get to know them,
but we want everybody to get a chance at them." He anticipates
a two to three-year cycle for their use by individual musicians.
The heavy involvement of musicians in the planning is one of the hallmarks
of the NJSO. While some orchestras chafe under the rule of autocratic
leaders, the NJSO has been recognized by the American Symphony Orchestra
League, an association encompassing most performing groups, for its
Typical of the NJSO management approach is Tamburri’s response to
a question about security issues involving the instruments. Understandably
reluctant to discuss the matter, he says, "The most important
security issue is the musicians. We don’t want people to know who
has an instrument and how much it’s worth. If some thief knows that
a musician has a world-famous $3 million instrument, he might not
realize that there’s not really a market for it. He might just end
up pawning it for $100."
Meanwhile, the instruments have to be paid for, and
maintained. Their acquisition was financed by a set of loans and guarantees,
which is falling into place according to plan, says Tamburri. Their
condition will be checked four times a year by an instrument maker
yet to be selected.
The NJSO is exploring ways to use the Golden Age instruments, cherishing
the possibilities. "It’s possible that the Bach Festival is the
first of special events that might take place annually or every two
years to feature these special instruments," Tamburri says. "And
then there are also recording and touring possibilities."
The Golden Age hoard of instruments adds a new dimension to the evolution
of the NJSO as it searches to replace conductor Zdenek Macal, under
whom the democratic management style emerged. The selection of a leader
who will take on the stewardship of an orchestra marked by personal
harmony, and about to consolidate its corner on some of the most precious
instruments on the planet, is a development worth following closely.
— Elaine Strauss
Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. Music of Johann Sebastian
Bach with guest conductor and violinist Jaime Laredo. $40 & $50. Thursday,
June 5, 8 p.m.
Princeton, 800-ALLEGRO. Music of Johann Sebastian Bach with pianist
and guest conductor Vladimir Feltsman. $40 & $50. Saturday, June
7, 8 p.m.
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