Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has acquired a gem for its concertmaster: a 1732 Bergonzi violin

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Noah Bendix-Balgley, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, got a new violin this summer.

It's new only to him, though.

The violin was crafted by Carlo Bergonzi in 1732 in Cremona, Italy, where instrument making flourished for two centuries. Its previous owners include violinists Nigel Kennedy and Margot MacGibbon, but its journey before that is a mystery. Mr. Bendix-Balgley will show it off this weekend when he performs Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" with the PSO.

Concertmaster's rare Bergonzi violin dates to 1732

Noah Bendix-Balgley, concertmaster for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, talks about his Bergonzi violin, which dates to 1732. (Video by Michael Henninger; 10/25/2013)

He bought the instrument with the help of the PSO, and although the specific details of the purchase are unclear, the transaction likely exceeded $1 million, according to violin experts. It is somewhat common for top orchestras and institutions to provide instruments or financial assistance to musicians looking for instruments.

Bergonzi was an instrument repairer and worked under Antonio Stradivari, the most famous instrument maker in the world, in Cremona. That city experienced a golden era of instrument making from 1550 to 1750, said Christopher Germain, president of the Violin Society of America, a trade organization.

Bergonzi made roughly 50 instruments, compared with Stradivari's 1,000-plus, said Steven Smith, a violin expert and consultant who owns J&A Beare, the London-based dealer that sold the Bergonzi to Mr. Bendix-Balgley.

Working in that environment, Bergonzi produced rare, top-quality instruments, even if they lack the Stradivarius brand recognition, said Mr. Germain, a Philadelphia-based violin maker.

And they are very expensive.

"It would be millions," said Mr. Germain, in estimating the worth of this particular Bergonzi. He mentioned one rare, well-preserved Stradivarius that sold for $16 million at an auction last year, although he said the Bergonzi "would be much less than that."

"Instruments of high caliber range from $1.3 million up to many millions," Mr. Smith said. He said this instrument, which does not have an original head, is not in the top range of prices.

To pay for it, the PSO helped Mr. Bendix-Balgley secure a loan. The PSO reported a roughly $1.5 million deficit for this past fiscal year. Still, such assistance is fairly typical among top-tier professional orchestras, including those in Cleveland, Dallas, New York City, Philadelphia and San Francisco, Mr. Bendix-Balgley said, and it's even more common in Europe.

"It's not like going out to get a new bike," he said, describing the setup as "basically, just like a mortgage."

For the PSO, providing the concertmaster access to top instruments benefits the ensemble's sound, particularly because Mr. Bendix-Balgley performs many solos with the group.

"It's really an investment in the artistic quality," he said.

In a somewhat different arrangement, the PSO helped its previous concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, purchase a 1719 Pietro Guarneri violin. He paid back the loan over time and still owns and uses the instrument, which he said has tripled in value since 1992, when he purchased it.

"Housing's going down and the economy's tanking, but violins never lose their value," said Mr. Cardenes, who declined who say how much his violin is worth.

The relationship between a patron, a musician and an instrument goes back centuries, Mr. Germain said. Counts, members of royal families and businesspeople have loaned instruments to make a savvy investment and cultivate relationships with players. Now, many professional soloists use instruments on loan from institutions such as banks, which make money on the venture and gain goodwill and PR from having their brands associated with top talent.

The arrangements vary, Mr. Smith said. Sometimes orchestras rely on gifts, funds or sponsors to make a purchase. Other times, orchestras own an instrument and loan it out to its concertmaster. Mr. Cardenes said that latter practice is more widespread than the PSO's arrangement. Both he and Mr. Bendix-Balgley approached the orchestra about getting new violins.

When he began with the PSO in 2011, Mr. Bendix-Balgley knew the position would require a top-notch instrument, he said. He liked the dark sound of his previous instrument, a Lorenzo Ventapane from the early 1800s.

Still, he said, "I felt like the position here demands a violin of the top quality."

He tried out a handful of violins at a time, at shops in cities from Chicago to London. If one struck his fancy, he brought it back to Pittsburgh, where he would give it a two-week test drive. The Bergonzi was the last one he tried, and he bought the instrument early last summer.

He considered several factors. The violin needed to inspire him and have the dark sound he preferred, while offering a range of musical colors. It had to be a comfortable size and perform well in different contexts, from leading the PSO string section to playing chamber music or solos. And it needed to do all that particularly well in Heinz Hall and in other concert halls across the world where he and the PSO might perform.

"It's balanced across all the strings. At the same time, I think each of the strings has its own personality," he said.

The top E string is "very clear and sweet, projects very well;" the middle A and D strings have "a real warmth, but also a breadth of sound;" the bottom G is dark and "husky," allowing him to "dig into it." ("That was a must-have, so to speak.")

It sounds like a match made in heaven.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG.

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