CSO musicians ‘string’ the praises of their luthiers

Kenneth Olsen (left) and John Sharp play cellos made by master luthiers Stradivari and Guarneri, respectively.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Centuries-old stringed instruments by masters such as Antonio Stradivari and Giovanni Battista Guadagnini are both beautiful art objects and complex musical machines that require regular care to remain in top condition.

To that end, the string players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra all have craftsmen (and most are men) known as luthiers whom they depend on for such rarefied maintenance.

“Every once in a while,” said Assistant Concertmaster David Taylor, “work has to be done on the instrument, and you have to take it somebody who is going to be up to the work for something of that standard, age and value.”

Chicago has several firms capable of adjusting and maintaining top-level instruments, including Carl Becker & Son, John K. Becker & Co., Bein & Fushi and the Guadagnini Violin Shop — all of which are in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan — and Kenneth Warren & Son Ltd., 40 N. Wells.

“We’re really lucky being in a city like Chicago, New York or Boston, you have access to world-class luthiers, and that’s not the same everywhere, not even in every big city,” said assistant principal cellist Kenneth Olsen. He grew up in Albany, N.Y., and even to get high-quality maintenance done on his comparatively inexpensive student cello required a trip to Massachusetts. “Just over the border, but it was still an hour, 20-minute trip to get to his place, which is not as convenient as walking out of Orchestra Hall and going two blocks south to the Fine Arts Building.”

Sometimes luthiers are called on to do comprehensive restorations or conduct major repairs if an instrument has been involved in a mishap. Principal Bass Alexander Hanna, for example, plays an 18th-century Italian instrument that has been owned by the orchestra for more than 70 years. In the 1970s, it was damaged when the CSO was on tour, and the truck carrying the basses overturned. While some of the instruments were total losses, the bass that eventually became Hanna’s was able to be restored.

The biggest repair that Olsen has had to make to his orchestra-owned Stradivarius cello happened a few years ago when he was performing a chamber-music concert at a summer festival in California. “In the quietest moment of this slow movement of this piece, I thought a gun shot went off or something and I saw everything on the cello fly apart,” he said. “The strings went flying up and the bridge fell to the ground.”

He rushed home to get the instrument assessed, and it turned out the damage was not as bad as he initially feared. The tail gut, which was made of Kevlar, had snapped — a highly unusual occurrence. Located at the base of the cello, this critical part anchors the tail piece, which in turn secures the strings. “It ended up not being a major thing to fix once we were back, but it was just the scariest thing that I have had happen,” he said.

Most of the time, though, luthiers conduct routine maintenance and adjustments to the bridge, sound post or other parts of string instruments that can be affected by travel or severe changes in weather. “Sometimes, after a while, you suddenly feel the sound is not very good,” said Assistant Principal Viola Li-Kuo Chang. “The A string is not as resonant as before, and my C string feels it is a little difficult to play. This is why we have to do this, in order to keep the instrument in the best condition, not only physically but acoustically.”

In some cases, said Principal Cello John Sharp, it is not so much sound of the instrument but the feel that seems off. “As a player, you need a certain comfort, you want it to speak cleanly and clearly, and every instrument is different,” he said. “Some instruments don’t change much with the weather. Some are very sensitive. Everybody feels it. You get very attuned to your instrument. You’re practicing. You’re listening to every little thing.”

In their maintenance work, luthiers focus on these areas:

  • Sound post. The sound post is a wooden dowel inside the violin that runs between the front and back of the instrument under the bridge. If it is even a millimeter or two out of place, it can affect the instrument’s sound.
  • Bridge. The wooden bridge, which elevates and supports the strings, can become warped or out of position because of the pressure of the strings, requiring adjustment or replacement.
  • Seams. Because of the simple passage of time or the effects of weather, the instrument’s seams can become minutely, or in some cases, noticeably undone and must be reglued. 
  • Body damage. Sometimes luthiers have to repair ordinary minor nicks in the surface or areas where the varnish has worn thin because due to sustained use of the instrument.
  • Fingerboard. The pressing of metal strings into the fingerboard causes it to become grooved and uneven; this condition  can cause minute rattling or buzzing, so this part must be planed every few years and ultimately replaced.

Five leaders of the CSO’s string sections discussed their instruments and their preferred luthiers:

Li-Kuo Chang, assistant principal viola

For all of his duties with the Chicago Symphony, Chang plays a 1778 viola by Guadagnini, widely considered greatest maker of stringed instruments, behind Stradivarius and Guarneri. He also owns a 1768-70 viola by the same maker that he purchased in 1994. It was not in top playing condition, so Chang made the rounds of many fine luthiers but none could fully unlock its sound. He had heard of another Shanghai émigré, Chunyee Lu, who graduated from the respected Chicago School of Violin Making in 1993 and went to work as head of restoration at the William Harris Lee Co. Chang took a chance on the young luthier, allowing him to construct a new sound post and bridge for the instrument. Those upgrades created what the violist called a “quantum leap” in the sound. Because Lu was trained a violinist, he could play the instruments himself and then quickly sense the problem. Chang spread the word about the luthier, so when Lu opened his own shop in 2001, he named it in honor of the violist’s instrument: Guadagnini Violin Shop. 

Alexander Hanna, principal bass

Hanna owns two double basses of his own, but he primarily performs on an orchestra-owned instrument by a very fine but unknown Italian maker from the 18th century. “It’s very challenging to know the history of basses,” he said. “Fewer of the great makers made basses because it wasn’t all that practical.” They could craft multiple small stringed instruments with the same amount of wood and make more money in the process. “But this is an exception, and it is really phenomenal instrument,” he said.

For most adjustments to his instrument, Hanna goes to luthier Scott Henrie, who played bass in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and works from his home in Rogers Park. “One of the things I really like abut Scott is that he has known this bass for a really long time,” Hanna said. “So I’ll tell Scott I’m having a certain issue with the bass, and he knows exactly what to do.”

In those rare cases when he needs a new extension, a device which juts upward near the instrument’s scroll and elongates its register, he ships it to Aaron Robertson at Robertson & Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque, N.M. For more in-depth repairs and the annual rehairing of his bow, Hanna turns to Michael Shank — a “really brilliant repairman” — at Shank’s Strings in Elizabethtown, Pa.

Kenneth Olsen, assistant principal cello

Like several other CSO members, Olsen plays an instrument owned by the orchestra — a 1727 cello by Antonio Stradivari and his workshop. The cello has a couple of unusual characteristics, including a scroll that was crafted by another famed maker of the period, Carlo Bergonzi, and a back and sides made of willow. “It’s a little bit on the small side for a cello, and I’m a little on the big side for a person, so it looks a little weird when I’m playing it, but it’s an amazing cello,” Olsen said.

About a year after Olsen joined the CSO in 2005, the cello was acquired when the widow of a famous Chicago cello teacher, Karl Fruh, willed it to the orchestra. It underwent a complete restoration, which was carried out by Russell Wagner, a semi-retired luthier in Evanston. “He does incredible work and exclusively on cellos,” Olsen said. For regular upkeep, Olsen turns to John Becker at John K. Becker & Co.

John Sharp, principal cello

Sharp owns a 1694 cello that was made by Giuseppe Guarneri (1666-1739/40), father of the most famous member of the celebrated family of violin makers, Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri, del Gesù. “It’s an incredibly beautiful cello physically to look at as well as sound-wise,” he said.

Sharp attended the Juilliard School in New York and still travels to the city once or twice a year to have his instrument worked on by Štefan Valčuha, brother of the well-known conductor Juraj Valčuha. The luthier was formerly assistant to Réné Morel (1932-2011), one of the most renowned luthiers in New York. “That was the place go,” Sharp said of Morel’s shop. “When you went there for an adjustment, you might run into [violinist] Isaac Stern or [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma.” Morel could size up problems quickly. After Sharp stepped into a side room and played for maybe 30 seconds or so, the luthier would make a quick adjustment to the sound post, and the instrument would be transformed. “He knew exactly what he was looking for in the sound and where he needed to move the post,” Sharp said. “He had a great talent for that.” Valcuha has similar abilities, and Sharp has stuck with him.

David Taylor, assistant concertmaster

Taylor has long trusted his violins to John Becker, who became the master restorer at Bein & Fushi in 1979 and opened his own shop in 1994. “I’ve always found John’s adjustments, particularly on violins that I bought at Bein & Fushi to be best that I could find,” Taylor said. “Any time I have a repair or any cosmetic work to be done on the instrument or anything like that, I take it always to John.”

For orchestra performances and rehearsals, Taylor plays a 1776 Guadagnini, given to the orchestra by former CSO violin Josef Faerber, a member from 1939 until 1986. Taylor owns another Guadagnini violin, a 1752 instrument with the sobriquet “Hartman.” “My instrument, I keep at home and use only for chamber music and soloing,” he said. When he substitutes as concertmaster and has solos to play, he uses his own violin, which he prefers slightly to his orchestra-owned instrument.