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Modern Violin Crafters Make Mark

Luthiers work to overturn idea that the quality of antique violins can never be equaled

SINCE the 18th century, concert violinists have braced their chins with instruments by Antonio Stradivari. While the sound quality of these ``golden age'' fiddles might be nonpareil, there's a problem: They're not getting any younger.

Four years ago, Michigan violin crafters Joseph Curtin and Gregg Alf built a replica of the legendary ``Booth'' Stradivarius - scratches and all - which they sold to concert soloist Elmar Oliveira.

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Impressed by the replica, Mr. Oliveira promptly used it to record the Joachim Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic, and his colleagues took notice.

In November, the instrument sold at a Sotheby's auction in London for 22,000 ($33,000) to Maltese soloist Carmine Lauri. The price is the highest ever paid for a violin by living makers.

``There's a lot of mumbo jumbo about the Stradivarius mystique,'' says Mr. Alf. ``Joe and I are working hard to dispel a lot of the myths of violinmaking and help musicians be more knowledgeable about their instruments.''

Renowned soloist Isaac Stern contends that while the new instruments must prove themselves over time, ``there is some very good work being done by living makers.''

Mr. Stern, who owns two modern violins by New York craftsman Samuel Zygmuntowicz, encourages other violinists to give the new instruments a chance. ``It's better to spend $13,000 to $15,000 on an instrument by someone you know and trust than to spend it on the pastel remains of what was once a great violin,'' he says.

Alf notes that collectors and virtuosos, convinced the acoustics of violins by Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri (del Gesu) can never be equaled, have driven their prices into the millions. Some artists ``will live in a trailer home their whole lives just to own an antique violin that is not necessarily the highest quality,'' he says.

According to Adam Watson, deputy director of musical instruments at Sotheby's in London, the selling price of the Curtin and Alf ``Booth'' copy was significantly higher than its projection. ``These violins are quite popular at the moment,'' he says, adding that Sotheby's will auction off another Curtin and Alf model in a few months, ``but it's still too early to say these prices represent a trend.''

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Alf, however, describes the record Sotheby's sale as an invaluable vote of confidence for modern craftsmen. ``The musicians have spoken,'' he says.

Since Curtin and Alf began crafting violins together in 1984, they have been fighting hard to make a place for new violins in the world's most distinguished concert halls - long the exclusive preserve of instruments by the fabled Italian masters.

According to Alf, antique violins are revered not only for their superior sound, but ``because they outlive their players.'' He explains that these instruments were passed down from one player to the next so often that violinmaking eventually gave way to restoring.

Because of the recent classical-music boom in Asia, he says, top-flight violins are once again in short supply. ``There's a finite set of instruments and as time goes on, instruments are lost or broken. It's part of a cycle where players have begun to come back to makers. The time is here for good string instruments.''

In the process of preparing a violin, Curtin and Alf leave their studio in Ann Arbor, Mich., to shop for materials all over the world. They find spruce and maple not only in the forests near Cremona, Italy - where Stradivari shopped - but in Alaska, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia. He says rare materials such as ebony can be particularly hard to locate.

While they remain loyal to the traditional materials, Alf says the duo has also employed techniques unavailable to their Cremonese predecessors.

In 1990, soloist Iona Brown, touring with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, left the original 278-year-old ``Booth'' Stradivarius with Curtin and Alf for repairs. She also gave the duo permission to make their now-famous copy. Curtin and Alf made plastic molds of the violin and ``ran it over to the physics lab at the University of Michigan'' for sound testing.

But Alf insists that the most important elements of successful violin making are intangible. ``A violin takes about a month to make,'' he says. ``You spend so much time with it that somehow you're transmitting vibes into it - some of your character rubs off onto the instrument.''

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