I was in Tainan, Taiwan, traveling with the band Horseshoe Road as part of our American Music Abroad tour. In the audience of our last performance were administrators from the Chi Mei Museum, and they wanted to give us a VIP tour of the museum that next day. Chi Mei is a Chinese billionaire who invests, among other things, in fine art and has the largest collection of rare violins in the world. Recently, the museum moved to its new Taj Mahal inspired building, but we arrived upon a nondescript six-story box in the middle of the industrial Chi Mei electronic-components factory. Driving up, there are replicas of several major sculptures, including David, Venus de Milo and the hauntingly beautiful Pieta.
We had high hopes that we might play a Stradivarius violin in the antique instrument gallery. Instead, we were taken straight to a double-steel-door vault, a room about half the size of a 30-seat classroom. It was lined, floor to ceiling with nearly 1,000 violins in cork-lined cubbies. The violin curator took us straight to a wall of Stradavari, Guarneri and Amati violins. Within 15 seconds, we saw the oldest known cello, viola and violin still in existence. In 30 seconds, he pulled out the oldest known Amati violin, ca. 1560, and handed it to us to play. Andrea Amati (1505-1577) is the father of the modern violin whose design remains basically unchanged almost 500 years later. We asked if we should wash our hands, and the curator just laughed.
The person responsible for acquiring and maintaining this world-class collection is Mr. Dai-Ting Chung, Curator of Stringed Instruments for the Chi Mei Culture Foundation. “You just say my name when you looking for violin. Everyone know who I am.” As our shock continued, he started pulling out the Guarneri violins. The first was Niccolo Paganini’s violin, made by Giovanni Guarneri (father to the more famous Guarneri del Gesú). For readers unfamiliar with Paganini, he was the premiere violinist of the nineteenth century, composing works so virtuosic that only he could play them. Fittingly, Dai-Ting handed over a bow used by Jascha Heifetz, a premier violinist of the 20th century and one of the first to make master recordings of Paganini’s works. It was surreal.
Unfortunately, the five “Strads” [by the most notorious Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737)] were out on a photo shoot. Of equal quality and value are the instruments of Guarneri del Gesú (1698-1744). Dai-Ting brought those out next. He spoke of a purchase he made in one day, saying the decision was very sudden, and he had to ask his billionaire boss permission to make the deal. He needed approval to spend $32 million…for two violins. At this point I was no longer nervous and easily settled upon my favorite instrument: the 1744 Guarneri del Gesú “Ole Bull” (recently purchased for a cool $16 million). It sounded exactly the same across the entire instrument, whether singing high up the E-string or belting a low open G. It was the first violin that I just stopped playing to catch my breath and think about what was happening. It was so beautiful, unmatched on the day, and I wish I played it longer. Ten minutes later, I pulled it out again on my own just to have one more ride!
Most people do not realize the value and importance of the bow, that two-pound stick that is the birth of any violin’s sound. When I asked about bows, Dai-Ting opened a case of over $2 million worth of bows. He had twelve made by François Tourte (1747-1835), the father of the modern bow as we still know it today. There were eight by Dominique Peccatte (1810-1874), a contemporary of Tourte’s. We played Fritz Kreisler's bow (another giant among 20th century violinists), and used a self-rehairing concept steel-composite bow made by Vuillame.
Dai-Ting showed us the best specimens of each maker, 400-year-old violins that had never cracked. He allowed us a few pictures though I regret we didn't make it out with a picture of him...he moved too fast! On our way out, near the entrance to the vault was a violin “family tree” poster that I've seen before, including important violins and makers from the 1540s to present. On it were four blue dots, marking the four violins on that list not yet in the collection. I am not sure what to make of a day where I played nearly a billion dollars-worth of instruments. The closest I've come to this musical experience was the first time I conducted in Carnegie Hall on the same stage as Tchaikovsky and Bernstein. I often try and recall each moment of our half hour in the Chi Mei violin vault, knowing I must return someday.
2014 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year