By any measure, 2014 was a big year for the Violin Society of America’s annual convention, held in September at the Hyatt Regency Indianapolis. For the first time, the group moved the date of the biennial competition and convention up nearly two months to coincide with the quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, a large performance event that drew thousands of violin fans to the city.
Scheduling the two events concurrently turned Indianapolis into a veritable paradise of new instruments, concerts, informative talks, and camaraderie among many of the greatest living bow- and violin-makers, and players. It also created the largest VSA convention and competition ever, with 542 entries from 312 makers: 246 violins, 110 violas, 69 cellos, nine basses, 80 bows, and 28 instrument quartets.
Ultimately, the competition saw Utah-based violin maker Jeff Phillips winning tone and workmanship gold medals for his violin (a Stradivari model based on the G form), a rare “double gold” that has happened only twice before in the 21 competitions.
All of those instruments and bows made for a busy three days for the 25 judges and required a fresh approach to evaluating the acre of fiddles. This year, Jerry Pasewicz, of Pasewicz Strings in Raleigh, North Carolina, who just termed out as competition chairman after eight years, armed the judges with iPads and printers to modernize and streamline the process from first evaluation through posting each competitor’s complete scores online, a move that the judges hoped would give each participant perspective on areas of improvement or excellence on his entry.
A walk down the many aisles of instruments on the competition floor made it clear that the high quality of nearly every entry proved challenging to the judges. “The quality of the instruments is so high,” said Pasewicz. “Even among the bottom-tier instruments, the level is just going up and up—it’s really impressive.”
He was among those who credited the annual VSA/Oberlin summer violin and bow-making workshops for the massive, trade-wide improvement in the craft.
The award ceremony and banquet was held in the Indiana Roof Ballroom, a venue built in 1927 to look like the square of a European village. After the plates were cleared, outgoing VSA president Christopher Germain announced the winners, including Phillips (a complete list of winners may be found below).
The following afternoon, the tone judges played the competition-winning instruments at the Indiana History Center. Meanwhile, in another expansive hall—featuring new products and established suppliers to the trade, another exhibition of instruments by contemporary makers, and in-depth lectures—the convention showed it wasn’t just about competing for gold and glory. Among those exhibitors was Krentz String Works, which expanded its original tone modulator/wolf eliminator for cello to a line with models sized for violin, viola, and bass and introduced the CelloStone, a stone endpin holder that works with a fitted endpin to minimize wolfs.
Meanwhile, in a separate room, dozens of highly regarded makers showed their wares and makers from Mantua, including Tommaso Balestrieri, Camillo Camilli, and Pietro Guarneri, hosted a mini-exhibit of antique violins.
Throughout the week, researchers Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, and Fan-Chia Tao continued their tests exploring player preferences for specific qualities of violin sounds in an isolated room on the host hotel’s tenth floor. Using a collection of nine violins, the team asked testers to sort the collection of nine violins, including at least one Guarneri del Gesù and one Stradivari, into groups of his or her own choosing, an essential part of this phase of the study. “It gives the players a chance to divide the violins into groups that the player feels has something in common with each other,” said Curtin in an interview between sessions in the test room. “And the important thing is that the player names the group.”
For example, a player might single out a group of bright-sounding instruments and another group of nasal-sounding violins. That may sound easy, but the tests were conducted in a darkened room with the violinist wearing modified welder’s glasses in an effort to prevent them from visually identifying the violins and minimize the chance for each violinist to express a biased opinion based on the violin’s visual clues. This player-focused research is compared with frequency-response data Curtin records using his elegant and portable test rig.
The team later ran a listening test with the IVCI audience awaiting the competition results after the final performance. During the break, the audience was asked to judge several pairings of violins as soloist Giora Schmidt played a test phrase—the swooping opening of Tchaikovsky’s concerto—over 60 times wearing the welder’s glasses behind a screen so that neither Schmidt nor the audience would be able to see the violins. The audience was asked to vote on the loudness, brightness, richness, and projection among the violin pairs. The results of their findings will be published next year.
The VSA also held an auction to benefit its scholarship fund, which has provided over $250,000 to “needy and deserving” violin making students since it began. The auction was made up of items donated by various members, including several shops, and like everything else at this year’s show, was the largest ever held by the group. A one-time recipient of a scholarship, violin maker and former auctioneer David Bonsey, told the audience about the life-changing opportunities the fund can have for the recipients, saying, “We live in an artisan economy. We’re no longer in a place where a corporation will take care of you.”
Dates of the next two VSA conventions were also announced: VSA will move back to the Baltimore area, from November 10–14, 2015; the next bi-annual instrument and bow competition will take place in Cleveland, Ohio, from November 13–19, 2016.–Greg Olwell