Zing goes the strings in music shops
The ancient and exquisite art of restoring the violin family of stringed instruments is passionately preserved in a Westport studio on Davenport Avenue near the Metro North Railway Station -- and another studio in Greenwich with a music school next door.
The workshops are the ateliers of maestro Constantin Popescu, of Greenwich, and his 25-year-old protege Stefan Sigurdsson, of New Canaan, members of a professional fraternity that call themselves luthiers.
At 56, Popescu -- an expatriate Romanian who defected to the U.S. on a 1989 concert tour -- concedes he is disinclined to lug around the six-foot-high double bass or contrabass as he did once as a performer with the New York Philharmonic and principal performer with the Greenwich Symphony.
In his hands, the instrument is still irresistible to Popescu. But now he plays strictly "for my own pleasure," he said.
At the same time Popescu has converted his musicianship and Old Country artistry into an enterprise that extends to a sales and rental inventory of 6,000-plus string instruments and the 200-student Riverside School of Music on East Putnam Avenue in Cos Cob in partnership with Rodica Brune, a onetime corporate executive.
Sigurdsson, the acolyte, says the appeal of working on classical string instruments -- violins, violas, cellos and basses -- is the "exhilaration of making the wood sing."
In the age of computers and robots and mass-produced instruments from China, with older instruments the challenge is matching the patina and varnish overlay of the vintage spruce and maple of the body and the more exotic woods shaped for the accessories like the neck and scroll, ebony, rosewood and boxwood.
Explains Popescu: "Restoring 300-year-old wood eaten away by worms, finding the replacement material alone, is an extraordinary complex operation."
"It's like surgery," Sigurdsson said. "But once damaged or split or unglued at the seams, the wood isn't going to heal itself like flesh. So the repair needs to be invisible, recreating the color and shape and replicating the wood and finish to bring back the technical precision of the original tone."
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The strings? Animal gut is favored for traditional baroque music and, for the more contemporary, gold, aluminum, tungsten, steel and synthetics.
Popescu's list of clients extends from the Juilliard School of Music, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Carnegie Mellon University to Alexander Markov, the celebrated Russian-born violinist and a part-time Rowayton resident between tours. In September when schools reopen, the rental business swells and the shop makes available up to 1,000 imported instruments from the music centers of Europe, from full-sized to proportional dimensions for children as young as 3 years old.
"Fairfield County offers unbelievable music education. Virtually every school has a band or orchestra," Sigurdsson said. "There are a growing number of youth symphonies and opportunities to perform. There is also is a considerable music element that comes this way from our proximity to New York."
How upscale is the market for classic musical stringed instruments?
A Stradivarius circa 1721, once owned by the granddaughter of Lord Byron, was sold privately by a collector recently for $10 million. Even beyond that, the Rostropovich cello -- venerably associated with the late Russian-born virtuoso -- changed hands for a reported $30 million.
In Fairfield County, a violin with a provenance in the 1500s, owned by a resident unidentified for security reasons, is said to be so rare it is considered priceless. And antique bows, classically hand-made in France from 200 strands of horsehair, can command as much as $250,000.
One artifact extraordinaire Pospecu is in the process of adding to his collection of musical memorabilia for an undisclosed price is a set of four super-miniature violins -- from less than one inch in length to three inches long -- commissioned by Nicolae Ceaucescu for a visit to Romania by Sadam Hussein. That trip was inexplicably cancelled, and the two men later were to meet comparable fates at the hands of their own people.