The violin is on the soundtrack of every MGM film from 1939–69, including ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and more
Player Violinist Jeremy Cohen is the founder of Quartet San Francisco, an eclectic Grammy-nominated ensemble that regularly jumps boundaries, and Violinjazz, a jazz group and publisher of sheet music for modern string players. The QSF’s latest album is Pacific Premieres: New Works by California Composers (Violinjazz). Cohen also is an active educator, having worked with the Henry Mancini Institute and the California Jazz Conservatory, as well as outreach programs throughout San Francisco Bay Area schools.
Condition The back is a two-piece flame-maple with wide figure, which runs almost horizontally across its breadth. The top is two pieces of medium-wide grain spruce. The varnish is a golden-orange-brown color.
Bow François Nicolas Voirin, made some time before his death in 1885, with a tip graft by Paul Siefried. [Editor’s note: Voirin was a cousin of J.B. Vuillaume and worked in his shop, from 1855 to 1870.]
Is this your primary instrument?
How does it compare to your previous primary violin?
I used to complain about my 1956 Alfio Batelli violin taking a long time to warm up and make a good sound. I used to think I had to play it for 20 minutes before it sounded full—then I handed it to Itzhak Perlman at a lesson. Well, he played it and blew that theory out of the water!
What gift does this Vuillaume bring to your playing that cannot be found in any other instrument?
It continuously delivers a smooth tone, even though I can play it quite forcefully at times. I know if something isn’t sounding right, it’s usually me and not the instrument.
What do you know about is its history?
Lou Raderman, also known around New York as Ken Wood (or Woods), previously owned this fiddle. He was the concertmaster at MGM studios and this violin is on the soundtrack of every MGM film from 1939–69, including The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Lassie Come Home, Father of the Bride, Mutiny on the Bounty, Doctor Zhivago, and so many more.
Have you thought about the people who have handled it before you?
All the time. It keeps me honest and reminds me I have a playing standard and quite a bit of legacy to hold up.
Do they resonate in your instrument? In your performance?
I tend to think more about the places it has been present in so many people’s lives. Based on its exposure to so many people, through so many soundtracks over so many years, this violin may be the most-heard instrument of all time. Just think of all those sentimental kiss scenes in the classic MGM movies or of all of those plucked whiskers in Tom and Jerry.
How did you come into possession of this violin?
I returned to San Francisco from my first semester studying with Itzhak Perlman at Brooklyn College. I went to Cremona Musical instruments in San Francisco, where I had gone for years after Aschow Violins closed near my home in Oakland, and spoke to the owner Nash Mondragon. I had bought my first major violin (the Batelli) from him and I told him I needed another instrument to go to the next phase in my playing career and asked if he had an instrument that could aid me in that process.
Do you own it?
Yes, I own it. The owner had died and his wife, Sally, who was also a violinist, was encouraged to give me terms for the purchase of the instrument, something that is mostly unheard of these days. We settled on $27,500 over two years. That was 1981.
Good Vuillaumes are going for a lot more now. If this were part of aWizard of Ozauction, it would probably sell for far more to a collector.
What drew you to this instrument?
First, it found me. It took me a little while to develop a relationship with it. I tried to play it as if it was my previous violin—and it didn’t sound right.
I wasn’t fully impressed at first, at least not until I developed some patience (not always my forte) and started to listen to what it was telling me. I had to adjust to the violin in order to maximize its tone capability. What attracts me to it is its purity of sound, evenness throughout the four strings, and its ability to take a whoopin’ and deliver a sound that is smooth as silk.
What is your violin’s personality?
I think this violin has quite a wide range of character and expression, from deep and serious to joyful and sometimes even explosive. But when I open the case and look at it, it actually seems quite calm.
What are your instrument’s strengths and limitations?
My violin has a solid, yet sweet, tone. Sometimes, when I’m watching an MGM film made between 1939 and 1969, I can recognize its tone, even from another room. It’s very recognizable. Also, I often hear it when I’m listening to the original Tom and Jerry cartoons. I love the sound of Tom Cat’s plucked whiskers produced on this violin—it’s awesome!
The only place I actually feel that the instrument has any limitations is if I’m playing in a hall that has really terrible acoustics and I’m playing in front of an orchestra that has a hard time playing quietly when it needs to. This has happened very few times in my career.
I’m actually quite lucky to have this instrument and don’t envy my colleagues that might have fancier old Italian instruments with massive tones. Those fiddles can be difficult to handle in many circumstances. I’m good with this instrument. It’s a good pal, and it’s always ready for me to play my best on it. Usually I’m the one who has to pull myself together, not the violin.
What are your instrument’s likes and dislikes?
One thing is for sure, this violin really likes microphones—or is it that microphones really love this violin—whichever way, this instrument records well on almost any high-quality microphone.
What it doesn’t like is jumping between climates. If I travel from sunny California to freezing New York, where interior heating dries the air during winter, my pegs can be slippery until the instrument acclimates to the new climate. This can sometimes be quite a problem onstage.
Have you ever done anything that might have robbed your instrument of its “mojo”?
I was nervous to have it opened for some repairs it needed a few years ago. It takes time to settle back when it’s been opened up and re-glued.
At one point, I had Joseph Grubaugh and Sigrun Seifert put a shim between the back of the violin and the neck block. Wood was going to be added to the instrument and I was sure this would change its character, but it didn’t. I suppose it’s very important to trust the people you have working on your instrument and to trust it to good people.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
First, it would want a table in the shade. Then, I would ask it to tell me stories about incredible recording sessions and concerts it has done with Bix Beiderbecke, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, the Beach Boys, Chet Atkins, Fats Waller, Henry Mancini, Bing Crosby, George Gershwin, and many more.