By Cristina Schreil
Violinist Emma Meinrenken’s many accolades include winning first place at the Stradivarius International Violin Competition. It’s fitting, then, that she now plays a violin by Stradivari.
On loan from the Canada Council of the Arts, the instrument is the 1689 “Baumgartner” Strad, one of the great maker’s earlier violins.
Meinrenken phoned from Philadelphia—where she’s currently the Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Annual Fellow at the Curtis Institute of Music, studying with Ida Kavafian—to wax poetic over the violin. Read on for details on the instrument’s exquisite sound, range, and surprising penchant for French music.
Do you know anything about the instrument’s history and other people who have played it?
I know that the person it’s named after, Baumgartner, was not actually a violinist—he was a violin maker. He was actually quite famous for making very good and accurate copies of Stradivari and Guarneri violins. He owned this for quite a while, and he lived in Switzerland.
Afterward, it was used by a concertmaster in London called Robert Masters who played in an orchestra under the direction of Menuhin. So, a few recordings of Menuhin conducting this orchestra feature solos from this violin. And then afterward, it was passed onto somebody else in London who donated it to the University of Waterloo. And then, an anonymous donor bought it from there and gave it to the Canada Council of the Arts, so it can be used by many more young artists.
What was it like first encountering this violin? What were your first impressions?
It was kind of interesting because the way that this council works is that they line up a bunch of instruments, and then you play each of them individually to see which one you connect with best. And they had several Stradivaris there and this one in particular had a unique sound. It may have been a slightly smaller sound than the others, but it had a very delicate quality to it. That’s what I remember most clearly about it.
Can you describe its appearance and sound?
It is quite a gorgeous violin. It’s slightly on the smaller side for Stradivari’s violins. During 1689 when it was built, he was kind of going through a period of experimentation with his shapes, so this one may be more similar to the shape of an Amati rather than the shape of his Golden Era violins. It was interesting. It took me a very long time to get used to the instrument, not only because it’s a new instrument with slightly different dimensions, but the funny thing about these very old instruments is that they sort of have a personality of their own. And it doesn’t exactly bend to your will immediately when you request something of it, when you’re first getting to know the instrument. It took me a few months to get used to the instrument and also to discover its best quality. It was funny that I had to adjust my playing to the instrument, rather than the other way around. It definitely changed the way that I interpret music because the quality of the sound is so different from the other instruments that I’ve played before.
Do you have an example of how it changed your playing?
The clearest example was when I was working through a Bach sonata. Before, I could use more attack on the chords and it wouldn’t respond in a harsh way. But with this one, I have to be more delicate and more thoughtful with how I shape a line. But also, it can take a lot of pressure without the sound cracking, which I think is very helpful.
You mentioned it took a while to gel with it. What were discoveries that occurred over time?
There’s a certain depth of sound that you can achieve from this particular instrument that I wasn’t able to get immediately. I think what makes it so special is its range of color that you’re able to achieve. It can also go from extremes of very loud and strident to very soft, very delicate, and very tender.
Is there any particular piece that you’ve played that exemplifies this range?
I’ve recently been working quite a lot with the Glazunov violin concerto. That’s really full of different colors and very colorful characters, you might say. The violin was able to bring out those really low and glamorous G-string moments, but also was able to achieve a delicacy with the softer character without compromising on volume.
You’ve mentioned a lot of its strengths. What are its limitations?
I’ve never really thought about its limitations too much because it is the best instrument that I have played. You get really caught up in the good stuff. I suppose the volume is not quite as strong as other Stradivari instruments later on, but it’s not really something I can complain about, especially when I’m able to get the beauty of the sound.
Sometimes contemporary music, where you’re required to make “bad” sounds—make noise, create sounds that don’t have any tone to them, and are not supposed to be beautiful—it’s very hard to achieve that with this instrument, which doesn’t sound like a problem but it sometimes can be. You have to treat it a lot more harshly than you’d like to achieve that quality of sound.
Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
I tend not to personify it too much, but when I first received the instrument and I got to know it for a while, it struck me as slightly masculine instrument. That’s the extent of personification that I place on it. I tend to think of the violin more as an extension of myself rather than a separate entity.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
I’m definitely a tea person. First of all, it would always remind me to wipe it down after every practice session because that’s something that I sometimes forget to do and that’s a bad habit. I definitely would like to know more about the history of it and discover more of its qualities.
What do you think is its favorite piece that you’ve played on it?
For some reason, to me it seems to respond very well to French music. I’ve been playing some Fauré, some Debussy, and it has that kind of shivering quality to the sound that I think really compliments that era and that style of composition.
STRINGS: Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infeld strings for G, D, and A. Pirastro Universal E in gold.
BOWS: French bow around 1860–1870 from the workshop of Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy, made by J.J. Martin. “It’s rather light and it’s very easy to control,” Meinrenken says. She also has a Baroque bow, made in Canada by Stephen Marvin in the mid-2000s. “It has a gorgeous tiger pattern to the wood, which I find fascinating. It’s very useful when you’re trying to learn period music and try to get a little bit closer to that quality of sound.”
ROSIN: Andrea Bang
CASE: Bam Hightech Contoured.
“I have a little stuffed animal on the outside shaped like a sushi roll.”