In 1984, Daniel Avshalomov, violist of the American String Quartet, had a 14-year-old viola. “I had a pretty standard rant against old instruments, which was essentially that, of the great makers, not many made a lot of violas. Of those who did, there were only so many that were still around. Of the ones that were still around, there were very few that were healthy and those that were healthy, they were all out of reach in terms of the cost,” Avshalomov explains.
When a colleague implored him to test drive such a viola, things changed: “My heart started pounding. And I thought, ‘I am sunk. I am absolutely sunk.’”
He’s speaking about his first time playing the viola that he’s owned ever since. It’s just a bit older than 14: It is a 1568 Andrea Amati. Decades later, it seems he made the right choice: “I smile every time I open up the case.”
The violist, who with fellow quartet members is on faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, waxed poetic over his instrument and also shared details about the many accessories in his arsenal.
“In the quartet we need something to bridge between [the violins’] brighter and more focused and more penetrating sound and the depths of the cello. And that’s what I think this instrument .”
What do you know about this viola’s history and the others that have played it?
Well, I know the person who played it immediately before I did. He was the assistant principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra, a man by the name of Fred Funkhouser, and the person sitting right next to him was
principal cellist, Stephen Geber, who’s the older brother of our founding cellist, David. When he heard that Fred’s widow was going to sell the instrument, he called me up and said, “You know, I’ve been sitting next to this instrument for years, and I think it just sounds magnificent and you should maybe try it out.”
The Finnish collector Harry Wahl owned the Amati before Fred.
What drew you to this viola?
As I’m sure you know, violas come in a wider range of sizes and shapes than any other stringed instrument. And as a result they vary in sound a great deal more; I’m not saying that there aren’t different kinds of cellos and violins, but there are so many different native sounds [in violas] from woody and penetrating or bright or shrill or tubby or dark or, you know, green, blue, purple—and anything in between. Violists, I believe, carry inside them the ideal sound that they think a viola should really sound like. And then they turn their attention to whatever it is they are actually playing on and try and shape it as much in that direction as they possibly can. And this is the very first time I’d ever put my hands on an instrument that sounded just exactly the way I had always imagined a viola should sound like. That was a gigantic vat of body-temperature bittersweet chocolate. I was of course, exhilarated, but I was scared to death because of all those zeroes, you know. [Laughs.]
You mentioned it reminds you of chocolate. What is its personality or temperament like?
Well, it is one of the darker-sounding violas that I know, but it projects very well. There’s some instruments that are, I would say, even a notch darker than mine, and I’ve heard and played on a couple of them. But, they go from dark to sort of tubby—they’re an instrument that maybe a person feels but doesn’t necessarily hear in the hall. You sense the vibrations in the air, but they make sounds that are audible only to elephants. Some of these really massive violas don’t get the core of the sound to the back of the hall. I know that mine projects, so I think it’s just about the ideal balance between a deep, even cavernous, dark sound, and enough focus so that I don’t have to do extraordinary things with either hand in order to get the sound to the back of the room.
What gift does it bring to your playing? Is it that it projects well?
Well, that was sort of the surprise. I liked the sound of it up close so much that I probably would’ve gone after it anyway. And then if people said, “Well, we can see you playing, but we can’t really hear everything you’re doing,” then I would’ve started meddling with strings and adjustments. But the other remarkable thing about this viola is that it’s been nearly perfectly healthy in all the years that I’ve had it. It’s not a cranky instrument. It accepts changes of climate and temperature as long as it’s allowed to experience them gradually. It had an open seam once or twice but there are no cracks on it that are misbehaving and nothing’s fallen off, so I’m pretty lucky.
The other thing of course is, I should say, I think if I were a concerto soloist, this might not be the viola. For all the fact that it projects, it projects over the obstacles of two violins and a cello—I can call them obstacles because they’re not sitting here with me—but for a concerto I think you would want something probably brighter. But, the thing is, in the quartet we need something to bridge between [the violins’] brighter and more focused and more penetrating sound and the depths of the cello. And that’s what I think this instrument provides.
You mentioned climate—does it perform best in certain situations?
You’re tempting me to be alchemical and I’m going to jump right in. There is a theory that an instrument actually sounds its absolute best when it’s in the climate that resembles that in which it was assembled. I guess if you could find just what the weather was like at whatever time of year in 1568 in Cremona when this one was put together and hung up on a wire to dry in the sun, then you could say, “Ah, it’s the instrument’s birthday—no wonder it sounds so good.” But I don’t know what that is. I certainly prefer to play on it in a slightly moister climate than a slightly drier climate because I feel it sounds most like itself in that way.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for a drink?
[Chuckles.] Oh, it would say, “Why is the current A so damn high?” I played a recital some years ago with a friend of mine who owns a couple of transitional pianos. We agreed on a program—music that fit the time of those instruments—and her only request was to tune my instrument down, because she couldn’t tune hers high. I think it was, oh, maybe a major second, maybe a minor third lower than today’s A. And my instrument was so grateful. [Laughs.] It just sounded wonderful.
What gear do you use?
Strings Thomastik-Infeld Vision Strings on C and G and Vision Solo on D. Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Gold on A.
Bows Avshalomov collects bows. “I’m kind of nuts about bows . . . my habit is to use different bows for different pieces on the same program.” That said, he uses one made by Eugène Nicolas Sartory as his go-to if he’s not able to switch conveniently.
Case He has several cases: One, which he uses on tour, was custom made by M.A. Gordge in 1984. “It’s not the lightest case in the world but I don’t worry about it because it’s solid. It’s also actually a rather trimmer profile—it will still fit in the smallest of the [airplane] overheads that I’ve seen.” Another is a custom-order Pedi case he uses in and around New York City. He also owns a collector’s item case made precisely for his viola by W.E. Hill & Sons. Fred Funkhouser used the case during his career with the Cleveland Orchestra. “It is so closely fitted,” he says. “They literally drew the contour and built the case around it. There’s an ivory plaque dating the case from before 1860. It looks like a pet coffin, sort of. But that’s not practical to tour with—it weighs about 60 pounds.”
Chin rest Carved at Charles Beare in London. “The only change I’ve made to it is to put titanium hardware on it. I’m always looking for ways to cut down on weight and titanium really does the job there.”
Shoulder rests “I have about nine of them, like most violists. I go back and forth,” Avshalomov says. Among them: a lightweight Pedi shoulder rest (“Some people who know my sound can tell at the back of certain halls when I’m using it and when I’m not because apparently it adds punch. It costs a little bit of darkness but it adds a little punch, I think because it slightly squeezes the back of the instrument”); a Kun that he’s modified by removing three-quarters of the sponge starting at the shoulder end and applying a rubberized tape designed for tennis racket grips; and a Mach One, which he filed down to make the hook at the shoulder end flatter before gluing on a strip of Bontrager bicycle handlebar tape.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Strings magazine.