A Special Quartet for a Special Mission

Violin maker Robert Brewer Young creates a unique foursome as a centerpiece for a personal mission

Robert Brewer Young addresses the audience at a house concert/fundraiser in Sausalito, California, March 8, 2015. Behind him sits the musicians who performed on the Guadagnini Quartet, featuring musicians from the San Francisco Symphony and Swiss violinist Gilles Colliard.

Few things can tempt donors to open their wallets like a special mascot for a special cause. And for music lovers and potential donors, house concerts given on a specially made quartet is like giving an animal lover a panda cub to cuddle. Donors to the newly launched nonprofit the Open String Foundation will have a chance to hear top musicians from local symphonies perform house concerts on a quartet made by violin maker Robert Brewer Young. Young plans to travel with the Guadagnini Quartet (actually a quintet since he made an extra violin) of instruments he made specially to be used in fundraisers around the country.

“I made this quartet as a way to launch the Open String and to have concerts with the quartet as the centerpiece,” said the American-born violin maker who now lives and works in a village of seven in the French Pyrenees, an hour south of Toulouse.

Open String grew out of Young’s devotion to helping repair and supply instruments to needy string students in places as widespread as Opus 188, the Harlem School of Music featured in the 1999 Meryl Streep film Music of the Heart; a school for the blind in Calcutta, India; villages in Argentina; and a Native American reservation in the Southwest.


Young is hoping the foundation can expand to raise funds for new instruments, repair existing instruments, and one day create a master collection of instruments from contemporary makers that can be loaned to students unable to invest in instruments that can cost as much as a luxury car. “I love being directly and intimately involved, but I don’t want to be the only violin maker involved with this,” Young says. “I’d like the organization to have a life independent of me, so we set up a structure that can outlast us.”

The five instruments were all inspired by the work of 18th-century maker Giovanni Battista Guadagnini. Young is particularly fond of the violin maker’s final period, when Guadagnini was producing instruments in Turin, Italy, and having a strong and active dialogue with the best musicians of his day. “They were making demands on him,” Young says. “String technology was changing, concert halls were getting bigger, and he made instruments that were like sports cars—small, fast, powerful, and fun to drive. I find him very inspiring as a maker and his instruments are particularly good for a contemporary soloist.”

Young spent several months building the Guadagnini-inspired copies in Cremona after spending years studying more than 60 original Guadagnini violins, violas, and cellos. He is quick to point out that while all of his instruments are based on Guad’s approach to specific instruments, they are not bench copies—attempts to make precise copies. “The cello has some slight changes to it, for example,” he says. “Guadagnini’s cellos are tiny and I wanted a cello that people wouldn’t have to adjust to too much. So, I chose a Guadagnini cello that had been enlarged. The neck had been enlarged slightly and there were some alterations on the lower block and a couple of millimeters added to it.”


The Guadagnini Quartet performed pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Cherubini during the concert, held in Sausalito, California, March 8, 2015. Performing on the instruments (L-to-R): Gilles Colliard, Elbert Tsai, Amos Yang, and Matthew Young.


Young, who spends about two-thirds of his time at the bench making instruments, spends the rest of his time traveling to deliver completed instruments and working on what has evolved into Open String. The time away from the bench has been very inspiring for him. “It was the same thing in New York or Argentina, once the kids get better they need a better instrument because they audition more,” he says. “So, we tried to provide instruments that the kids could use to do an audition for Juilliard or Manhattan School of Music.”

For the students, the use of a quality instrument may have been the nudge that their talent needed to take them to the next level. Says Young, who lived in New York for many years before decamping for the quiet French countryside, “The year I left New York, four students I worked with since they were on half-sized violins got into Juilliard, one got into Curtis, and two got into Manhattan School of Music,” Young says. “For them, getting a decent instrument was a critical step.”

Young and his partners Lucien Jamey and Elfin Vogel have six more Open String fundraisers planned for March in Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York, and at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. Learn more at theopenstringfoundation.org and guadquartet.org