By Anna Pulley
Thirty-year-old instrument restorer Adam Pelzer admits that he receives regular comments about his youthful appearance. “I’ve been called ‘teenage looking’ once by a concertmaster I did an adjustment with,” he says. “Apparently I look much younger than I am.” In Pelzer’s case, however, the appearance of youth is not an indicator of inexperience.
The new workshop manager at the New York shop of Florian Leonhard Fine Violins (slated to open this year) has worked with valuable antique instruments by the great Italian masters, including Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù. He’s also worked one-on-one with many of the world’s top musicians, such as Mari Samuelsen, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and Adolfo Gutierrez-Arenas.
Pelzer began his training in 2009 at the Violin Making School in Mittenwald, Germany, where he says he trained mostly as a maker. During a restoration course, however, Pelzer discovered his love for it. “The antique instruments and precision in woodworking fascinated me.” Shortly after finishing at Mittenwald, he traveled to Los Angeles to work for Hans Weisshaar Musical Instruments, under the supervision of Genichi Sato. There he learned major restoration techniques, skills he brought with him when he moved to London in 2014 to work for Florian Leonhard Fine Violins, where he’s been ever since, completing complicated restoration projects, setup work, and client sound adjustments. He’ll continue with this work when he sets up shop in New York, and is looking forward to “the hustle and bustle of the city,” he says. “It has a good energy to it, with tons of culture and art.”
When asked which of his projects had the biggest impact on his career, Pelzer recounts the time he worked on the 1610 Brothers Amati cello, which was played by Sheku Kanneh-Mason in the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
“Sheku was an absolute delight to work with during our sound-adjustment consultations,” he says. “He knows what his cello’s capabilities are, and he was able to show me exactly how he needed the sound to change in order to achieve optimum setup.”
Because every restoration case is unique, Pelzer says, it ‘involves endless improvisation.’
Having worked on an in-depth restoration of the Amati cello before it was acquired for Kanneh-Mason’s use, Pelzer knew the instrument literally inside-out. He has adjusted the Amati with Kanneh-Mason a number of times, both before the final round of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition (which he went on to win), and before his next major concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Speaking of the cello’s restoration work, Pelzer says: “It’s more than 400 years old, so there were many old repairs and cracks, which needed attention over many hours at the workbench. It’s amazing how the tone and responsiveness of the cello transformed after the restoration—it had a new lease of life.”
He adds, “Sheku is an exciting musician to work with. He is changing the perception of classical music—making it relevant to a new generation like no one ever has before.”
Pelzer’s other major career milestone was restoring Mari Samuelsen’s 1773 Giovanni Battista Guadagnini violin. Samuelsen has been playing this instrument, which was loaned to her by a Norwegian foundation, for several years. “Unfortunately this beautiful example of a Turin-period violin of this celebrated maker developed some major sound issues over the years,” Pelzer says. “After examining the violin, it turned out that the previous restoration to its back had been deformed by soundpost tension. As is very usual with this caliber of instrument, it was quickly agreed that anything that was needed to improve the overall performance of the violin should be done.”
“Anything” turned out to mean removing its neck, disassembling the violin into all its parts, and repeating nearly all of the previous restoration work that had been made over the years. Pelzer also made the setup from scratch. This turned out to be his longest project, taking several years to complete. Luckily, he says, “I generally like a good challenge.”
A brief explanation of this laborious, years-long process included Pelzer taking plaster casts for the table and back for the arching correction. “Several positives and negatives are needed,” he says, “to remodel archings for the eventually required new shape.” For several months, the plates would rest in these new molds, after Pelzer removed unnecessary patches and the bass bar. Then he pressed the plates into the casts with moisture and hot sand bags, and repeated this on a daily basis. “Finally, I decided to fit a bigger patch of matching opio wood, Italian field maple, into the back, as the thicknesses had been previously reduced.”
After it was glued, Pelzer added sound-supporting strips of maple on top of the patch. The table also had several old crack repairs that needed to be cleaned out, relevelled, glued, and retouched, so that new patches, the bass bar, and cleats could be fitted and glued. After all of this, the body of the violin was reassembled, and the neck, equipped with a new neck graft, set. Pelzer invited Mari Samuelsen back to the workshop to adjust the setup together. This “turned out to be a short task as the restoration had its hoped-for effect of making the violin much more powerful and responsive. Mari has enjoyed playing it ever since.”
Because every restoration case is unique, he says, it “involves endless improvisation.” Such work includes crack repairs, arching corrections, neck settings, neck grafts, patches (to reinforce the wooden plate where required, or to alter the thickness to improve the acoustics of an instrument), setup and bridge making, and sound-post making and adjustment.
Pelzer describes his approach to restoration as “extremely conservative. I preserve the original materials above everything else.” His philosophy is to “try to find the best compromise between restoration and preservation: After all, the instrument doesn’t hang untouched in a museum, so it has to be functional, but protected to the highest level. Restoration eventually becomes part of every instrument’s own history.”
Pelzer’s advice to young makers similarly involves compromise. “Be your own biggest critic,” he suggests, but remember that “there is no ‘perfect’—only sufficient.”
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.