The Fiddler’s Quest

Since I was 17, I have been playing the same violin, a decent copy of a Nicholas Vuillaume.  It has a nice sound, not particularly refined, a bit bright on the E string, but it saw me through my Youth Orchestra years in Toronto, then through my Bachelor Degree in Cleveland, then my Master’s in Berlin.  Finally, my violin and I ended up in London, freelancing in symphony and chamber orchestras, playing recitals, concerti and chamber music.  But as I began to specialise more in small ensembles, its weaknesses began to stand out more and more.  I couldn’t seem to get rid of the wolf note on the high C, the G string sound lacked depth….and I seemed to be working harder and harder to try and produce the sound I wanted.

Beatrix with her Gragnani violin. Photo: Dan Stevens

And so, the search began for an instrument.  I tried many, firstly in the 5-figure price range.  Anyone who plays a string instrument will know that this process is a long one.  There were lots of violins that I liked, but they all had weaknesses- either they sounded too small, or too bright, or too harsh…I began to feel like Goldilocks looking for the proverbial perfect bowl of porridge!  It was at this point that I realised that if I really was going to find my ideal instrument, it was going to cost a lot more than I could afford.

I began to ask around. A lot of my colleagues were playing on beautiful-sounding violins, how had they procured them?  Many had violins, violas and cellos on loan from music colleges, orchestras or patrons, or were fortunate enough to have families who could afford the eye-watering price tags.  Some of my older friends had bought instruments 20-30 years ago, when they were a lot more affordable.  The ‘Lady Blunt’ Stradivarius, for example, sold in 1971 for $200,000, $10 million in 2007, and $16 million in 2011, more than 4 times the previous auction record for a Stradivarius violin.  This rise in prices has filtered down through the market and has affected the prices of all fine stringed instruments.  I began to feel very disheartened indeed, but then a violinist friend mentioned The Stradivari Trust.

Run by Nigel Brown, O.B.E., ‘the innovative Stradivari Trust has come up with a clever scheme that combines philanthropy and hard-headed commerce, recognising that culture is a business as well as a recreation,’ says Simon Heffer (Telegraph, 5 June, 2010).  For over thirty years Nigel has been putting together syndicates of
people who love classical music to raise funds to buy instruments for
the exclusive use of exceptional emerging and established musicians.
The Trust became a registered charity in 2004 and is a trailblazing model for transactional fundraising.  It aims to help musicians play on fine instruments by helping them to build a syndicate of investors who purchase shares in the instrument.  They are then able to play on the instrument for 20 years, during which they gradually buy back shares, ideally owning it after this time.  Some of the illustrious musicians who have benefitted from this scheme are Nigel Kennedy, Steven Isserlis, and Natalie Clein, among many others.

So, I began trying violins again, this time in the 6-figure price bracket.  And eventually, I fell in love.

There is no better way to describe what happens when you find your perfect fit, instrument-wise.  There is a sense of completeness and joy when you are finally able to make the sound that you have had forever in your inner ear.

Suddenly, playing the violin was easy. Each note spoke clearly and sweetly, incredibly even and buttery from the open G to the top of the fingerboard on the E string. And it felt ‘right’, being identical in size to the one I had played for most of my life.  I tried it in a large hall, and found that it had plenty of ‘edge’, so projected all the way to the back with ease.  It had belonged to an amateur violinist for 40 years, was in perfect condition, and came with Hill‘s papers dated 1938.  This was important, as from an investment point of view, there had to be no doubt that it was an original and had not been tampered with.  I couldn’t believe that I was playing on something which had such a long history…it was made the same year that Captain Cook discovered Vancouver Island, mind-boggling for a Canadian!

So, the next step was finding people who would want to invest in this incredible violin.  My family were very supportive and excited, though only one of them, my aunt, with whom I am very close, was in a position to help financially.  My husband and various generous members of his family bought shares.  I showcased the instrument at chamber music concerts and local friends, who appreciated all the concerts I had given for free in the community, all offered to help out.  I then contacted Nigel Brown, and we set up a meeting in Cambridge.  When we met, I was struck by his passion for music in general and specifically for instruments.  He spoke at length of some of the instruments acquired by the Trust, and of the ‘life stories’ of various violins, almost as if they were people that he knew.  I told him I had found my dream violin and that I had a handful of investors who wanted to get involved.  I was thrilled when he agreed to take me on.  I had photos done, of both myself and the violin, with bios and all relevant info, then The Stradivari Trust put together a brochure, and so The Beatrix Lovejoy Violin Trust came into being.  Nigel was one Trustee, and the other was the Chief Executive of one of the chamber orchestras I have played in for years.

By the time all this was done, I had been playing on the violin for more than 6 months, and the vendor, though understanding and very polite, began to ask, on behalf of his client, whether we could set a completion date for the sale. As I had yet to raise a single penny, I began to feel the pressure.

This is where the hard work really began.  As musicians, we are unused to discussing money.  I have on occasion been discouraged by my diary service to ask what the fee for a recording session or concert is.  As a result, we have little or no experience in the ‘business end’ of the music business.  Suddenly I found myself having to email and ring people who had expressed an interest and ask them if they could kindly put the money in ASAP.  So on one end, I was having to fend off the vendor, on the other, chase people for money, feeling very awkward about both.  What gradually became evident is that no one has money immediately available to invest, even if they want to. It is inevitably tied up in other investments, and things need to be sold in order to release it.  And all of this takes time.  I began to have nightmares of the vendor turning up on the doorstep and seizing the violin from me, and would wake up, sweating.  Nigel calmed me slightly by telling me that this very often happened, and to bite whatever nails I had left.

Money slowly started to trickle in from friends, family, and Board Members of the orchestras I play in.  Then a local friend not only agreed to invest, but also agreed to guarantee paying off the outstanding amount….but in about 8 months time.

This is where The Stradivari Trust really played its part. Through its
established network of supporters, and my own friends and family
contacts, a significant amount of the target was reached.

After about 3 months, the Stradivari Trust organised for me to give a recital in Cambridge to showcase the instrument for their regular investors.  We invited the dealer, so that he could see the process in action. I played, spoke, and took the violin around the room to show it to everyone.  Nigel then spoke of the Trust and its ethos, and invited the dealer to speak about the violin, which he did.  Afterwards, there was a reception, during which I spoke to most of those in attendance.
Two days later, Nigel contacted me to say that I had raised nearly a quarter of the amount needed with that recital alone.  I was overjoyed, and relieved.  The vendor was getting very anxious about completion as I had had the instrument for nearly a year now; he wanted to know when the final payment would arrive.

Kate Lee, the Administrator of the Trust, who had worked exceptionally hard all along, went into overdrive and contacted the Stradivari Trust regular investors, the result being that the final amount needed was finally reached.

The relief and joy at finally knowing that I would definitely be playing this beautiful violin for the next 20 years is indescribable. Every time I play it, I experience a thrill at the gorgeousness of the sound, and never forget how lucky I am to have found it and had the help of the Stradivari Trust in procuring it.

26 June 2017