Violin maker James N. McKean answers the question: Of all the instruments that have passed through your hands, which one do you most wish you could have kept?
Of all the great cellos I’ve seen or heard, the one that has stayed with me for decades was one made by Gennaro Gagliano. The sound of that instrument became my ideal. It was the concert instrument of Marion Davies, then the principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. She had studied at Curtis with Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky, and was without question one of the finest cellists I’ve ever heard. Over the years I got to know Marion and the cello quite well. It was my introduction to just how the maker and player are inextricably linked; while it was her playing that brought the cello alive, Gennaro Gagliano had made it possible.
At that time I had spent three years or so with the great master maker and restorer Vahakn Nigogosian. Nigo wasn’t impressed by the label; whether it was a Heberlein or a Guarneri, it was the sound that mattered. The most valuable lessons I learned came from watching him look at an instrument. He had an unerring sense of how to realize its potential for sound.
As a young maker, the gravitational pull of celebrated instruments can be overwhelming; you get lost in the artistry and details, the elegance of the curves and beauty of the varnish. You can easily lose sight of what matters most: that what you’re looking at, in the end, is no more than an amplifier. Marion’s Gagliano was the perfect example of how form follows function: while based on the Stradivari Forma B pattern, Gennaro had made something entirely original. It was obvious that he had worked from an acoustic point of view. By studying what he had done with the arching, the edging, the set and cut of the f-holes, I could get a sense of how he had achieved that wonderful range of overtones and power.
Making music is a collaboration. Even in a solo recital, you’re in a constant dialog with the audience. Watching Marion draw that gorgeous sound was perhaps the greatest lesson of all for me: that violin making is in its own way a collaboration, too. Marion and Gennaro presented me with an ideal of the perfect sound. Nigo had given me the tools to work toward achieving that myself.