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A violinist goes from a Strad to a Zyg and finds happiness
[NEW YORK] There are violinists who talk about Strads, which are old, and Zygs, which are less old. The violinist Chad Hoopes, who used to play a Strad, now plays the other.
The word "newer" would have been tidier in that first sentence. But "less old" seemed appropriate after Hoopes, who went from playing a Strad made in 1713 to playing a Zyg made in 1991, said that the Zyg is "not a new violin." "It's older than I am," he added, quickly.
It is, by almost four years. Hoopes is 23. In 2016, The Washington Post said he had been "rising - or maybe hurtling - toward international stardom" since he was a teenager. Last year he won an Avery Fisher Career Grant through a program established by the electronics executive and philanthropist.
Now, about those violin names.
Strads were made in Italy more than 300 years ago by Antonio Stradivari. Almost ever since, aficionados have tried to figure out what made them so special, what gave them their almost magical properties. Was it the wood? Was it the varnish, which changes the way the wood vibrates? Was it the F-shaped holes on the front, as suggested by scientists who studied the matter? (The F-holes serve as escape hatches for air from inside - air that resonates with the strings, contributing to the tone.) And Zygs? They are made in Samuel Zygmuntowicz's studio in Brooklyn. He has made violins for Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov and Leila Josefowicz, among others, and a cello for Yo-Yo Ma.
Hoopes' Zyg is a copy of an instrument by another celebrated maker from the 18th century, Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri. He was the youngest son in a family of violin makers and was also known as Joseph Guarnerius del Gesù (and his violins as "del Gesùs"). If Strads "were considered the Rolls-Royce of the trade," the writer John Marchese wrote in his 2007 book about Zygmuntowicz, "those by Guarneri del Gesù were on the order of Jaguars - more erratically made, but powerful and distinctive." Hoopes' Zyg is a copy of a Guarneri del Gesù that Zygmuntowicz made for Isaac Stern, who owned the original instrument. "This was relatively early in my career," recalled Zygmuntowicz, who had left his job as a violin restorer in 1985 to build his own instruments full time. "Working with Mr. Stern was like working with the pope, or something." (Stern's del Gesù had an illustrious past before him: It had once belonged to the celebrated Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, and it is Ysaÿe's name that is associated with it.) When it came to the copy he had made, Zygmuntowicz listened, and not just to the music. Stern "played it for a while, and at a certain point, I asked how it was, and he said, 'Oh, it's good - not as deep as the original,'" Zygmuntowicz recalled. "I thought, I really want him to be happy, so I took it apart, I did some minor rebuilding, I opened it up and he was happier." All that happened while the violin's future owner, Hoopes, was a toddler in the Midwest.
He started violin lessons when he was 3 - "my older sisters were playing and I was desperate to be doing what they were doing," he said. When he was 13, he won first prize in the junior division of the Menuhin Competition, a prestigious contest named for the virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, who started it.
"My now-manager said, 'You need a Strad,'" Hoopes recalled, and before long, he was introduced to a British investor who said, "Hey, I have a few nice violins." "When someone says that to you," Hoopes said, "it could be something he pulls out of the attic, a keepsake." It was a Stradivarius, made in 1713. Hoopes, who said it was worth several million dollars, described it as "the violin on which I really learned to play." (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) "When you're playing on a Strad, you have this illusion - 'we don't need modern violins,'" Hoopes said. "We - violinists - have these beautiful instruments on loan. Strads are wonderful. When you play a Strad for seven or eight years, you hear that sound in your ears." The prestige reaches well beyond concert halls: "When you're at the security line at the airport and you say, 'It's a violin, it's fragile,' and they say, jokingly, 'Is that a Strad?' you can say, 'Actually, it is.'" (END OPTIONAL TRIM.) But on Christmas Eve 2015, the owner told Hoopes he wanted it back in six months. Hoopes was devastated. He negotiated a few extra months, which let him appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and began hunting. He was offered a couple of Guarneri del Gesùs, he said, "but nothing lived up to what I'd been playing." Then David Finckel and Wu Han, the co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, invited him to a dinner party. Finckel is another of Zygmuntowicz's customers. Hoopes knew who he was, and as it happened, Zygmuntowicz had brought along one of his violins, the copy of the Ysaÿe.
Zygmuntowicz let him try it. Hoopes said he felt a "sensational connection." "There were so many things I liked in this violin in the first few minutes," he said. "With some Strads, it takes years." (Or maybe the magic never happens. As Zygmuntowicz explained: "If you have a Strad, you feel you'd better get used to it because it's a Strad. If something's not comfortable about it, it's your fault" - not the instrument's.) In pursuit of the Zyg, Hoopes began pursuing its maker. "I went to Brooklyn," Hoopes said. "I begged: 'Can I buy this one?' He says, 'I have to think about this. Why don't you just take it and play it?'" Returning the Strad to its owner made Hoopes more determined. "I called him: 'Hey, Sam, I don't know if you've thought about this, but - ' And finally he said, 'OK, you can buy it.'" Hoopes is reluctant to talk prices - other Zygs have sold in the low six figures - and Hoopes said he was lucky to have had the Avery Fisher money to help with the purchase.
"Of course it's an investment," he said, "but this was about needing a tool. Some of us are lucky to have lifetime loans, but at some point you have to have your own violin. If you take away the romance - 'He plays on a Stradivarius' - you realize you can find your voice on any instrument." Hoopes played the Zyg and the Strad, when he still had it, in a blind test in London. A violin dealer who attended chose the Zyg, thinking the sound he liked had to have come from the Strad. Hoopes said he now disdains comparisons because one violin is not necessarily better than another - they are just different.
But it is the Zyg that Hoopes will play in three concerts at Lincoln Center in the next two weeks - on Thursday in two Chamber Music Society concerts and on April 15 in a solo recital on Lincoln Center's Great Performers "Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts" series.
"When people hear me now, like my mom - she's my toughest critic - she said, 'Chad, I had no idea, but this is a serious violin.'"