The Art of a Commission : Patience, Perseverance and Lots of Long-Distance Phone Calls
By Jana Luckey, Strings Magazine, November 1997
In this era of fax, phone, and FedEx, a commission can originate across the miles with surprising success. So it did with Michael Heifetz, a business consultant and writer in Olympia, Washington, and Joseph Curtin, a violin maker based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
As a dedicated amateur violinist who frequently collaborates musically with his pianist-business partner, Heifetz was searching for an instrument with both the quality and the power to compete with with the finest antique violins, but for a price within his reach. In 1992, Heifetz called Curtin & Alf after spotting an advertisement for the shop that featured a testimonial from a well-known concert violinist.
“By the time I contacted Curtin & Alf, I had tried fiddles by eight or ten makers, and I had always been disappointed,” Heifetz says. “In my quest for a modern instrument, I was more interested in playability than in appearance and was judging instruments along three dimensions: quality of tone, amount or volume of tone, and responsiveness. Volume was generally not a problem, but the tone quality was never quite right, evenness of tone across the strings was often a problem, and the responsiveness was never as good as that found in some of the old violins.” Admittedly, Heifetz held the new violins he was trying to a high standard, having owned several Italian violins over the years, including a Rogeri, a Zanoli, and a Bergonzi.
Neither Curtin nor his partner, Gregg Alf, had a violin ready for Heifetz to try when he called, but Curtin told Heifetz he was currently making an exact copy of the “Booth” Stradivari. Intrigued, Heifetz asked Curtin to send the violin to him to try when it was completed. After playing on it for less than a week, Heifetz agreed to purchase it for $14,000.
Compared to the fine examples of 18th-century violin making he was familiar with, Heifetz found the “Booth” copy beautiful to look at, graced with the lightly antiqued varnish for which Curtin is renowned. Yet he believed that by commissioning a new violin, he could give Curtin the creative latitude to produce an instrument with even greater responsiveness. So in March 1994, Heifetz approached Curtin again, this time with a commission. The price for a new violin was $17,000 at that time; Curtin now charges a base price of $20,000 for a violin and $22,000 for a viola. Requests for an exact copy of an antique instrument, or for additional antiquing detail such as a grafted scroll or special varnishing, add to the cost.
Now that Heifetz had committed to the commission, he faced an important challenge: to try to communicate his well-developed sense of the type of violin he desired – long-distance.
During several phone conversations, Heifetz and Curtin discussed various aspects of the violin’s appearance. By that time, Curtin was offering clients a choice between several models whose body styles were based loosely on violins that he had copied over the years. Heifetz settled on Curtin’s interpretation of the “Haddock” Guarneri del Gesu of 1734. Heifetz asked for a two-piece back with medium-width flaming pointing upward and a reddish varnish color that would resemble the late Guarneris that he’d seen and played. To achieve the outstanding tone and sensitivity he sought, Heifetz and Curtin talked extensively about the sprucewood to be used for the top. They ultimately agreed that Curtin would use a piece of the lightest, stiffest old-growth wood he had available.
Far more difficult for Heifetz was communicating the ideal sound he wanted. “Tone is very hard to talk about without a common point of reference,” remarks Heifetz, “and this is why I would advise anyone contemplating a commission to try an instrument by that maker before making a commitment.” To convey his meaning across the miles, Heifetz did two things. He used the “Booth” copy as a basis for comparison, asking Curtin for more brilliance in the top end of the new instrument. And, appealing to Curtin’s artistic sensibilities, he wrote a letter that put into words the sound of a special violin he’d once played:
“There is a particular instrument that left so strong an emotional impression on me that it stands alone. It was a fairly late Guarneri, perhaps mid- to late 1730s. Its tone had a dark intensity, with power, smoothness, and some sweetness, yet it responded to even a light touch. It was not penetratingly brilliant like some later Guarneris, nor did it have their extra layer of power. Its overall tone color was similar to a Rembrandt painting, with glowing light emerging from a darkly hued background. No violin before or since has so moved me. It was an instrument that could express what I yearn to express. It may be a lot to ask for, but please strive for this type of tone in our new instrument.”
So strong was the tonal image that Heifetz had in mind for the commissioned violin that during the three months he waited, he often dreamed at night of playing sonatas on the violin, waking with a vivid sense of how the instrument would sound and feel.
Curtin agrees that by the time Heifetz made the commission, they shared a language that facilitated his work on the violin. “When clients approach me, the ideals they express often relate to their current instrument. They say they want something ‘brighter’ or ‘darker’ or ‘more responsive,’ and the greater the distance between the quality of what they’re playing on and what they’re seeking to purchase, the more extreme their requests may appear to be.”
If at all possible, Curtin likes to hear his clients play both on their own instrument and on whatever is available in the shop at the time, thus creating a common experience that leads to better communication throughout the commissioning process. For Curtin, meeting the client in person also allows him to obtain direct input on physical features such as the type of wood, the width of the grain and the flaming, and the color of the varnish. Fortunately, in the case of Heifetz’s long-distance commission, the “Booth” copy provided an indispensable point of departure for discussions about both tone color and physical appearance.
Although successful client relationships are built by hammering out such details, Curtin believes that most of the time he and his clients are seeking the same general result. “A violin that responds quickly, projects well, and sounds pleasing under the ear is going to sell.”
Curtin, who has made a violin for Menuhin and collaborated with Gregg Alf on instruments for several other artists, including Elmar Oliveira and Ruggiero Ricci, readily acknowledges that commissions have had a great influence on his development as a violin maker. “Historically, the evolution of the violin has arisen from the interplay between the imagination of the violin maker and the demands made by his clients,” Curtin says. “The more closely musicians and makers work, the better it is for violin making.” Curtin makes every attempt to keep in touch with his clients over the years, both to receive their input on his instruments and to perform any necessary maintenance.
Ordinarily, Curtin needs about six months to complete a commission, though he tries to accommodate a client’s special scheduling requests. In the case of the Heifetz commission, he managed to complete the violin in three months, just in time for Heifetz’s birthday. When the completed copy of the “Haddock” del Gesu arrived by Federal Express in June 1994, Heifetz recognized its playing potential immediately – though he estimates that it took about two months for the instrument to open up fully and lose its initial overlay of brightness. Fortunately, he had a year to examine the instrument, with a money-back guarantee if he wasn’t satisfied.
Curtin no longer offers such a lengthy trial period, now limiting it to 60 days. If an instrument has not met expectations within a year of the date of purchase, however, he will take it back and sell it on consignment at a reduced commission. Heifetz suggests that a somewhat longer trial period might be better, as small changes in accessories – bow hair, strings, or rosin – or climate can dramatically affect a new instrument’s playability.
But Heifetz has no plans to return his new violin. He says that after three years the instrument has fulfilled every hope he expressed in his poignant letter to Curtin. Even compared to the finest violins he’s played over the years, Heifetz says, “I’ve finally found the right voice.”