Cody Kowalski

Cody Kowalski

For all the talk about the world of classical music collapsing under the weight of fickle modernity, there was little evidence of it at the Violin Society of America conference and competition in Cleveland, Ohio. In a contest where no medals are required to be awarded, 2016’s competition offerings were plentiful and of an extraordinary caliber. London-based luthier Gabor Draskoczy won a double Gold Medal for tone and workmanship in the violin category—the only gold prizes awarded for instruments this year. Other standouts were Ryan Soltis, who earned several medals for workmanship, and father-son team Lawrence and Benjamin Wilke, whose elegant cellos were favorites with both the judges and the crowd.

Several young archetiers were dominant across multiple categories: Eric Fournier, Emmanuel Bégin, Emmanuel Carlier, Cody Kowalski, and Eric Gagne, who exuberantly sprinted up to the stage during the awards banquet, skipping steps along the way, to accept a Certificate of Merit for his cello bow. These five accounted for all of the Gold Medal bows, and split the bulk of the Silver Medals and Certificates of Merit in all other bow categories among each other as well.

With three Gold Medals at his first competition, Kowalski’s star is ascendant. A former student of Charles Espey in the grey-skied bow-making enclave of Port Townsend, Washington, he began working on the set of bows he submitted to the competition just three months prior, trying to specifically tailor them to the tastes of the committee.

“I knew two of the judges before I started work, and I just wanted to make something fairly classic—with modern influences, but still pretty classic, very tasteful, simple design,” Kowalski says. When asked about a longer lead up to making his next competition bows, he sees no point in looking too far ahead. “Either I’m going to be better,” he says, “or I’ll have a different style that I’ll like more.”

Don’t expect him at the next competition, though. Preparing for the VSA Competition took nearly all of Kowalski’s time, and he’s looking forward to making bows that will actually be played—VSA bows are judged solely on workmanship and style, as evaluating on the criteria of playability unsurprisingly resulted in wild variations in scoring and heated arguments.

—Emily Wright