Second Fiddle of the First Order
James Ehnes already plays a Stradivarius violin. This time he will play Oberlin’s.
Oberlin’s history with a most remarkable instrument began with a very generous gift made in 1989 by a man with virtually no ties to the conservatory.
Edwin Sherrard, an emeritus professor of violin at Dartmouth College, had intended for his beloved Stradivarius to wind up in the capable hands of Andrew Jennings, a former member of the Concord Quartet whom Sherrard had come to know well through the ensemble’s extensive residency at Dartmouth. Jennings, as it turned out, was also a visiting faculty member at Oberlin.
And so Sherrard’s instrument, the “ex-Vallot” made by Antonio Stradivari in 1722, was gifted to Oberlin shortly before Sherrard’s death, with the stipulation that it remain in the hands of a gifted professional violinist chosen by Oberlin. For many years, that violinist was Jennings.
“The violin is truly heavenly,” Jennings wrote to Dean of the Conservatory David Boe in April 1989, shortly after taking possession of the instrument. “And when I have had the time to look, I see that my feet are usually a good eight inches above the floor!”
Jennings continued to play the Oberlin Strad for a number of years, often alongside cellist Norman Fischer ’71, a former Oberlin and Dartmouth faculty member who had also been a member of the Concord Quartet. Over time, the Stradivarius had become unstable as a result of very old repairs that had deteriorated, affecting the instrument’s playability and stability, and compromising its long-term health. Because of this, the violin was not played for many years.
In 2015, Oberlin sought the expertise of John K. Becker of Chicago, one of the world’s most widely respected violin restorers. Becker also happens to be the master craftsman who tends to the violin of James Ehnes: the “ex-Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715.
Becker determined that Oberlin’s Strad would benefit from a full restoration in order to return it to its previous glory. The instrument was completely disassembled, and all previous, deteriorated restorations and repairs were removed and replaced. The painstaking project was one of the most extensive ever undertaken by Becker’s shop.
Ehnes himself previously had been invited by Oberlin violin professor Marilyn McDonald to play the conservatory’s Strad. McDonald had known Ehnes since he was a boy, intersecting with him at summer festivals and following his astounding career every step of the way. When she caught up with him at a master class held in conjunction with a Cleveland Orchestra performance several years ago, he said he would be honored to oblige.
Later, on a visit to Becker’s shop for some work on his own instrument, Ehnes happened to encounter the Oberlin Strad. “He saw ours and played it,” McDonald recalls, “and he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll play that!’” The perfect opportunity arose when Ehnes was invited to take part in the 2018-19 Artist Recital Series on campus.
With Becker’s restoration complete, the “ex-Vallot” was returned to Oberlin in September 2017. But before it could be used in performance, it would require a period of playing in, in part to allow its long-dormant wood to wake up, thus yielding a richer tone and greater resonance.
“I said, ‘I would like one thing,’” McDonald recalls: “‘I would like to be the person to break it in.’” She has had the Strad for the past year—“and it was terrific, right from the start.”
“One thing that really struck me is that it’s a rather large Strad,” says McDonald, who often plays on models dating from 1685 to 1690 in performances with the Smithson String Quartet, of which she is a longtime member. “It’s strong—very strong, and over the time I’ve been playing it, it has developed more color. It’s been great fun working on it!”
Ehnes received the violin from Oberlin several days in advance of his Finney Chapel performance, providing him an opportunity to become acquainted with it. After Ehnes, the Strad will eventually make its way to the hands of another gifted violinist, the next in Oberlin’s line of succession to be conferred the honor of playing the instrument.
But first there is Ehnes, for one night only.
“It is a great honor to be able to present the ‘ex-Vallot’ in public for the first time in so many years!” he said prior to his October 14 performance in Finney Chapel. “I was able to play on it pretty much immediately after it had come out of its restoration, and I fell in love with the beauty of the sound and the range of tonal possibilities. I greatly look forward to spending more time with the instrument and discovering more of its secrets.”
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