If you happened on the holiday classic In the good old Summertime recently, you might have noticed a scene where the great Buster Keaton trips and shatters what he thinks is a precious Stradivarius. Fortunately, it’s only a movie. Even more fortunately, those lucky enough to nab tickets for tonight’s concert in the Coolidge Auditorium can celebrate the holidays with a life more wonderful than the movies. This evening, as it has since 1936, the Library of Congress remembers Antonio Stradivari with a memorial concert on the anniversary of his death, played on several of the Library’s precious Strads.
This year we welcome The Parker Quartet to our hallowed stage. During a break in rehearsals yesterday, I asked the members of the quartet how it felt to play a piece of history. Interestingly, two of them hit on similar metaphors without hearing the other’s comments:
Daniel Chong, playing the “Betts” violin: I see instruments as being like people, and playing an instrument is like meeting a new person. And these instruments are absolutely beautiful and gorgeous — they have such vitality and life in them. One thing I was struck by when I picked them up is how great a condition these instruments were in as well. The amount of ring in these instruments is incredible – I feel like I’m going deaf with the amount of ring! It’s been a great pleasure and a great opportunity, like a dream come true.
Karen Kim, playing the “Ward” violin: [I feel] a little bit nervous, and very excited. I wish I had more time with it. It was wonderful to be able to try all three violins. They each have different and distinct qualities, and I feel lucky to have been able to spend a lot of time with one instrument. Even in rehearsal when we first started playing with them, it made everything really inspiring.
Jessica Bodner, playing the “Castelbarco” viola: It’s amazing to think how many people have played these instruments. You can learn a lot from trying new instruments. We’re all pretty fortunate to play really good instruments all the time, but it’s like driving a Mercedes and then going to a Lamborghini – playing these instruments feels like that! It makes the group feel different as well: the instruments bring a new energy because everyone’s reacting to them.
Kee-Hyun Kim, playing the “Castelbarco” cello: Right now I’m a little tired because it’s a little bigger than my instrument – these things are a little wider. With these instruments, the more you give, the more you take. I play a nice cello, too, it’s an old Italian cello by a lesser known maker. But it’s like, if I’m driving a Porsche right now, and I’ve just been given the keys to a Ferrari! It’s great, but some of it is just a little bit over my head. I’m in a continuous state of discovery with the instrument, finding where the sweet spots are. It’s just a lot of fun right now. I wish I could just keep on playing but my body and my arms just can’t take it all. But it’s incredible. The pallet of colors and sounds is phenomenal. To be honest, I can’t really hear it so much under my own ear, but out there it sounds so powerful, I was telling these guys I wish someone played the cello so I could actually go out and listen. One of the things about the cello that’s so great for me is that, especially in the lower register, I can feel the vibrations if I hit the sweet spot. Which I think is around E-flat/E on the C-string here – if I hit it just right it makes the whole room shake, and I feel the sound is just kind of resonating within my own body cavity, and it’s a great feeling. I love playing it.