By Laurence Vittes | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
In the space of a year, Noah Geller has made the transition not only from concertmaster of the Kansas City Symphony to the Seattle Symphony but from one music director (Ludovic Morlot) to another (Thomas Dausgaard). Both have leaned heavily on Geller’s talents. When Geller debuted in September 2018, Morlot scheduled Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen suite with its charming solo. In October 2019, Dausgaard scheduled Geller to play Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s emotionally demanding Concerto funèbre.
Geller grew up in Chicago, listening to Samuel Magid lead the Chicago Symphony and after him Robert Chen. Before joining the Kansas City Symphony, he was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra beginning in 2008, where he served as acting assistant concertmaster for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He performs on a violin made by Andrea Postacchini around 1840, occasionally in recitals with his percussionist wife, Mari Yoshinaga.
I caught up with Geller just as he was finishing up a grueling schedule of end-of-the-year concerts to find out why his Postacchini is the perfect concertmaster’s violin.
STRINGS: What should we know about Postacchini’s instruments, and about the luthier himself, other than the fact that he was known as “the Stradivari of the Marches”?
NOAH GELLER: The merit of Postacchini’s work, at least with respect to the violin that I own, is more in the tone quality of the instrument than in the craftsmanship. I believe that he was making do with the somewhat crude materials that were available to him locally, and that accounts for the somewhat plainness of the wood. However, as a player, I have always been drawn much more to the sound and feel of an instrument rather than its look. Of course, looks matter to a degree, but I’m not looking at it while I’m performing.
How did it come to you?
I found my Postacchini while I was in the Philadelphia Orchestra. My apartment was above the shop of local dealer Fred Oster, and I loved tinkering with the fiddles downstairs. This instrument caught my attention because it was so easy to play, and it had a bright, shining quality that I was attracted to. This was the first “major” instrument purchase that I made. I was encouraged before my purchase after a few people I respected commented on its good sound, even though they did not realize that I was trying it out.
In what condition did you buy it? What had to be done?
Basically the only work that I had done to the instrument was installing a new bridge and post, courtesy of Christopher Germain in Philadelphia, and after that, I didn’t mess with it too much. I typically blame myself instead of the instrument if things aren’t sounding good. Probably I could have been wiser in certain respects. For instance, I now realize that the strings need to be changed very frequently if you are maintaining a rigorous playing schedule, so I try to change all my strings twice a month if I’m really busy. The strings can be broken in quickly if rubbed vigorously with a paper towel or something similar for 20 minutes or so, followed by a good practice session.
Was it love at first sight?
I have always liked the sound of my Postacchini. It is so important to feel like the sound coming out of the violin is similar to that ideal sound that we have in our imagination, and this violin definitely makes me happy in this regard.
What do you love about it? What do wish it could be improved?
I think one of the most important qualities of this instrument is in the sweetness that it delivers. Often, I am called upon by composers to produce a sweet, singing sound, and this violin is an ideal partner for those types of passages. If I had to find a weakness, I would say that it is hard to make this violin sound gritty or rough. But this could also be interpreted as a blessing in that it’s hard to make my Postacchini sound bad!
How does it compare to the famous violins your childhood idols played on?
Those great Strads and del Gesùs are in a different category from the work of virtually every other violin maker in history, with few exceptions. I am always blown away when I hear a great player with one of these instruments—not just by the playing. It is as if you could distill sunshine into aural form.
How does it like Seattle’s climate? Does it travel well?
My Postacchini is not very finicky when it comes to changes in temperature or humidity. I am lucky, as I know some people really struggle with this.
What bow(s) do you use?
For use with my Postacchini, I have a bow by Otto Hoyer from 1922, and a modern bow by Gary Leahy (Ireland) made in 2019. With my Kostina violin, I use a different modern bow by Matthew Wehling. Again, with bows, the market is prohibitive for some of the really amazing ones. I have to say I am very happy with my modern bows and am impressed by the work that is being done nowadays.
My case is by the Taiwanese company Pedi. It’s very nice, light, and strong.
Tell me about your Kostina.
I would be remiss not to talk about my excellent modern instrument made here in Seattle by Alina Kostina. The craftsmanship that went into this instrument totally knocks many old instruments out of the water, in my opinion. The tone is beautiful, too, and quite powerful. I do alternate between using my Postacchini and my Kostina, depending on repertoire.
What new recordings can we look forward to?
You can most prominently hear the Postacchini in my recordings of Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and The Muse and the Poet with Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony. In the near future, look out for the Seattle Symphony’s recording of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra conducted by our wonderful new music director, Thomas Dausgaard.
What piece is your favorite to play with your wife?
My wife, Mari Yoshinaga, always schools me when we prepare music together. I have learned a lot from her, especially in regard to movement in music and how to play rhythmically. Probably the biggest pieces we’ve played together are Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango and Paul Lansky’s Hop, and I look forward to learning many more through the years.