Setting the year off to a great start

Setting the year off to a great start

Brinton Smith, principal cello

On behalf of my colleagues in the Houston Symphony, we would like to welcome you to Jones Hall and wish you a happy, healthy and successful new year. In taking time to join the Symphony to listen to great music, I think you have set your year off to a great start!

As a string player, one of the questions we are frequently asked concerns our instruments. Many have heard of Stradivarius violins fetching prices in the millions, but for most people it’s hard to conceive that an old wooden box—no matter how well made—could ever be worth that much! In fact, it was not just Stradivarius, but also several other great Italian violin-making families that, for several generations, made the greatest instruments the world has ever known. Numerous attempts using the best of modern technology have tried to unlock the mysteries of the old Italian masters, and all have failed. How rare to find an area where the heights attained 300 years ago cannot be regained!

Of course, sound is ultimately created by the player, and a great musician will still sound quite good playing on lesser instruments, while a novice wouldn’t sound much better playing on a Stradivarius. But to reach the heights of great string playing, you need a great player paired with a great instrument and bow — and even the bows can now cost in the six-figure range! With a great instrument, a whole world of new possibilities opens up for a player, and since the time of Stradivari, string players have been seeking their perfect instruments. In recent times, however, the demand from investors has taken top instrument prices far out of the range of most musicians, and those who play on the very greatest instruments today usually borrow them from a foundation or collector. Our Houston Symphony string players face the challenge of finding the best possible sound they can within a budget, and many have taken loans larger than most mortgages in order to purchase the best instruments they can afford!

While our new concertmaster, Frank Huang, is just beginning his search for an instrument (Anyone with a spare Stradivarius who would like to lend it to Frank, please contact the front office!), I recently concluded my search for a cello. The search consumed a year and a half of my life and more than 200,000 frequent flier miles – if you want to bring a cello home for trial, it needs its own airline seat! Ultimately, I found an Italian cello made around 1700 AD to which joins a large collection of great old instruments played in the string sections of the Houston Symphony. As you listen to the string sounds washing over you, know that you are listening not just to the end result of decades of dedication and practice, but also to the work of some of the greatest craftsman the world has ever known.

Houston Symphony Principal Cello Brinton Smith is a monthly contributor to Houston Symphony Magazine. This letter is reprinted from the January 2011 issue.

To read about Brinton’s search for his cello’s maker, look back to his posts on the 2010 Houston Symphony UK Tour Blog!

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