Olympics of violin-making show a master in our midst.
Two weeks ago I was in Cremona, Italy, birthplace of the violin as we know it, for the Olympics of violin- making. Beginning in 1976, once every three years luthiers from all over the world converge in this small town to compete for gold, silver and bronze.
Only one American has ever won the gold metal for violin: David Gusset of Eugene.
This year was historic because for the first time a woman, Ulrike Dederer, German-born and Cremona-trained, won the gold for viola. At the awards ceremony at Teatro Ponchielli, in addition to a certificate, a medal and 15,000 euros, she received a standing ovation from an audience that included the mayor, over 200 luthiers from 34 countries and a thousand music lovers who were about to hear her viola played live.
This contest honors the legends of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati. But it also celebrates the knowledge and craftsmanship that have been passed down from them, rediscovered and expanded, leading to a profusion of great stringed instruments being made right now, all over the world.
Strolling the cobblestones of the city center, where 150 artisans make violins today, I got to experience that profusion firsthand. Imagine whatever it is you love to do, and then a whole city dedicated to making that possible, street after street, shop after shop, any time of the day.
Bernard Neumann of Canada had a violin on hand, already sold, that I wanted to steal. Francis Kuttner of the United States had another, as did Italian makers Luca Maria Gallo and Laura Vigato, whose showroom was on the main piazza in the shadow of the cathedral. Scores of passers-by on their way to Piazza Stradivari could stop to listen to violinists like me play snippets of Bach and Tschaikowsky on instruments finished just a month, or a week, or a day earlier.
Hildegard Dodel of Germany, the first female violin maker I have ever met, had three violins for me to try, one of which was entered in the competition, all of which were beautiful. It was she who got me the coveted ticket to the sold-out concert featuring winning instruments.
There, after the awards ceremony, the gold and silver medal violins, the gold medal viola, the silver medal cello, and the gold medal double bass all were heard in public for the first time. At the end of each piece, the musician would bow briefly, then the instrument would be held up for sustained applause.
What would you think, though, if at the Olympics the sprinter who won the 100-meter dash, or the gymnast with the highest score on vault, did not win a gold medal?
That's exactly what happened. After a week of examining 355 violins, violas, celli and basses, the 10 judges - five luthiers and the five musicians who performed in the concert - decided that in the category of cello there would be no gold medal. Bronze, yes; silver, yes; but none of the celli rose to the level of gold.
Unlike in the Olympics, where it's enough to be the fastest man in the world this year, these luthiers are competing not just against each other but against an ideal.
The 10 judges lined up in front of the stage facing the audience during the awards ceremony took their work seriously. It's not as if the bronze and silver medalists (not to mention 24 finalists, all individually acknowledged) were not celebrated as winners.
But the judges were cautious about which instruments would join Gusset's violin and 30 other gold medal instruments now on display in Cremona's civic museum. In that collection could lurk the next Stradivarius.
One might be tempted to think that their standards were too high. I see it another way. The Stradivarius Competition judges seem to think that genius is rare, but that all around us are people working hard to develop the knowledge, craft and passion to transform the raw materials of our world into magic. Without their efforts, genius would be impossible.
Applied to politics, business, law, or whatever counts most, this line of thought inspires us, even for a moment, to abandon cynicism and embrace the project.