Violinist Dylana Jenson, who lost her prized Guarneri and her artistic way, finds her voice with new instrument
March 13, 2011, Donald Rosenberg, Plain Dealer
The mystique that surrounds the violin largely can be traced to two instrument makers in 18th-century Cremona, Italy, whose towering artistry continues to haunt the music world.
Violins -- and, to lesser extent, violas and cellos -- by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri remain the gold standard by which all stringed instruments are measured. Canadian director Francois Girard addressed the issue in his 1998 film, "The Red Violin," the fictitious tale of a supreme instrument's odyssey over three centuries.
Few people have a better grasp of the sublimity of instruments on the order of Strads and Guarneris and the precarious business of these astronomically priced violins than Dylana Jenson, who will be in town this week to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with CityMusic Cleveland.
The story of the former child prodigy from Los Angeles is one of uncompromising standards, pain and survival -- and a cautionary tale for anyone in search of the instrument that best reflects his or her artistic soul.
At 17, soon after winning a silver medal at the 1978 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Jenson was lent a 1743 Guarneri del Gesu from a Los Angeles philanthropist.
The instrument helped propel the violinist -- who had been praised as a youngster by no less a figure than George Szell -- to the top of the international music scene. In 1981, her glistening recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra received a slew of accolades, including a New York Times review that said, "Miss Jenson plays with irresistible assurance, verve and warmth."
A year later, Jenson informed Richard Colburn, the philanthropist, that she was about to marry British conductor David Lockington, who later would serve as music director of the Ohio Chamber Orchestra in Cleveland.
Colburn demanded the immediate return of the Guarneri because, as Jenson recalls him telling her, "you're obviously uncommitted to your career." (The late Colburn, who funded many Los Angeles arts institutions, evidently believed in double standards: He married nine times.)
The withdrawal of the del Gesu sent Jenson into an artistic and emotional tailspin from which she wouldn't begin to emerge for more than a decade. Without a suitable violin that allowed her to make music on the level she demanded, her recording life disappeared, her management walked away and her schedule of important concerts plunged.
"It can be very destructive to desire what you cannot have," Jenson, 49, said last week from Grand Rapids, Mich., where Lockington, her husband of 28 years, is music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony.
"For the first few years, I was in shock. The experience was one of total frustration. I thought, 'This isn't going to continue. Someone's going to loan me an instrument.' I tried everything. One year, I performed on 23 instruments."
They included more than a few that couldn't be heard beyond the first few rows. One that did project, a Strad on loan from the Stradivari Society in Chicago, had to be returned after a six-week Australian tour
A violin made just for her
The darkness, while protracted, wasn't to last. In 1995, cellist Yo-Yo Ma guided Jenson to Samuel Zygmuntowicz, a luthier (maker of stringed instruments) in Brooklyn, N.Y., who had begun making a name for himself for superb instruments commissioned by violinist Isaac Stern and other prominent soloists and chamber musicians.
Zygmuntowicz -- pronounced zig-mun-TOE-vich -- had met Jenson in 1980, when she was a judge at a violin-making competition at which he was an award winner. He followed her triumphant and increasingly bizarre career, from the Sibelius recording to waning appearances.
After Ma referred Jenson to the violin maker, Zygmuntowicz fashioned an instrument for her based on a Guarneri model. The result thrilled Jenson -- with reservations. She played the violin for years before returning it to Zygmuntowicz for subtle adjustment.
"It's a real mission for people to be able to have control over their own artistry," the genial violin maker said by phone from his Brooklyn workshop. "With Dylana, I spent most of the time listening to her recording and her playing. I made the violin for her. It worked better than what she had been using by far, but she wanted more."
Zygmuntowicz came to the rescue for the second time in 2005, when he tweaked the instrument's bass-bar, a piece of spruce glued inside the violin that controls resistance. The adjustment added focus to the sound, what Zygmuntowicz refers to as sizzle, and enabled Jenson to play with the power and backbone she remembered from the Guarneri.
"Having the sizzle, or brilliance, means you can always back away from the bridge and play closer to the fingerboard and get a more dulcet, smooth sound," he said. "But if you don't have sizzle, that high-frequency potential, you can't do anything with the sound."
The sizzle of the reworked violin can be heard to mesmerizing effect on the recording of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Barber's Violin Concerto that Jenson made in 2008 with the London Symphony and conductor Lockington. She'll play the instrument in the Tchaikovsky concerto this week with CityMusic Cleveland.
The challenge of securing the ideal instrument is one that serious musicians face on a regular basis. Jenson's situation was extreme, but others experience similar angst, especially players bound to be jolted by the sky-high prices the best rare instruments command.
A decade ago, it took 15 investors to purchase a Guarneri for Robert McDuffie, a noted soloist, to lease. According to the Stradivari Society, which lends valuable instruments to promising artists, the price of Strads and Guarneris rose 26,000 percent from 1960 to 2008, whereas the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by a mere 1,400 percent.
Last summer, a London banker put up the "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesu for sale at a possible record price, $18 million. On a minutely less insane level, Strads and Guarneris -- of which only several hundred exist -- often cost in the range of $1 million to $6 million.
But even those figures are way out of line for most musicians, who, "with very few exceptions, are artists, not moneymakers," said Zygmuntowicz. For this reason, more players are turning to instruments from makers who tailor creations to the client's preferences and personality.
Every year, Zygmuntowicz makes a half-dozen or so violins -- there's a long waiting list -- priced at $54,000, or about 1 percent of what top old violins cost.
The quality of Zygmuntowicz's instruments can be gleaned from the musicians who play (or, in the case of the late Stern, played) his instruments. The list includes Joshua Bell -- who is soloist on the soundtrack of "The Red Violin," though before he obtained his Zygmuntowicz -- and the Emerson String Quartet.
'Universal condition' for violinists
The Philadelphia-born luthier, a longtime participant in summer violin-making and violin-acoustics workshops sponsored by the Violin Society of America at Oberlin College, remembers being taken aback when he learned the extent of Jenson's circumstances. Zygmuntowicz couldn't conceive that losing a violin could have such a traumatic impact. But his view has changed.
"It's gotten to the point where her situation is kind of the universal condition of violinists now," he said, "not that most people are having careers upset. But it's quite common that they are playing on borrowed instruments, and there's always a day of reckoning when they have to give back their loan."
As an instrument maker who has worked on Strads and Guarneris for decades, Zygmuntowicz continues to esteem the craftsmanship these makers poured into the "magical wooden box," as the violin has been called.
But he doesn't believe old, expensive instruments do the music world much good these days.
"People want what they can't have," he said, "so they take substitutes for it or become indentured servants. To me, I see what an artist should endeavor to be, and not be so beholden. They should be in control of their means of expression."
Joel Smirnoff can speak from experience on the subject of violins old and new. The president of the Cleveland Institute of Music and former violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet played a Guarneri del Gesu for years.
With the Juilliard, he also often had the chance to perform on the 1704 "Betts" Strad at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Robert Mann, his first-violin predecessor in the Juilliard, considered the "Betts" unplayable. Not Smirnoff, who will conduct this week's CityMusic concerts.
"I've always been comfortable on instruments that others have not been," he said. "I picked up the ['Betts'] and it was made for me. You just never know what chemistry there's going to be."
Smirnoff -- who admires Zygmuntowicz's instruments and sometimes plays a modern Chinese violin -- attributes the personal nature of choosing a violin to variables that accompany every instrument and player. They range from "how the bow addresses the strings and how you're hooked up neurologically to the size, length and breadth of our fingers at the tip," Smirnoff said.
"There are great instruments and collectible instruments, but you're basically choosing your voice. The violin is a musical lie-detector test. It's a very sensitive measure of what you happen to be feeling."
Like Smirnoff and Zygmuntowicz (whose story is told in John Marchese's book "The Violin Maker"), Jenson gives passionate emphasis to the word "voice" when discussing key qualities musicians seek in an instrument.
"The violin is a wooden voice box," she said. "If Pavarotti had Phil Collins' voice, could Pavarotti be who he was? If you're trying to express yourself and you don't have the voice box, then you're limited."
Jenson no longer feels limited. She's moved past the depression, resentment and obsessiveness. When not immersed in her family (she and Lockington have four children), she's playing concerts, including a recent performance in California's Napa Valley and this week's program around Cleveland.
And the emptiness Jenson experienced for so long is gone.
"You can't fill a hole like that when it's there," she said. "I tried to live a normal life on the side. Making music is not only a part of who I am. It's really how I express my true self or my feelings about the world.
"This is what is so powerful about music -- the emotional intention and unfolding that shows us the real essence of life."