When Anne Akiko Meyers takes center stage Saturday night in Whitney Hall to play the first notes of the Louisville Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, she’ll bring her bow across the strings of the most expensive violin in the world. And even if 200-year-old musical instruments — like Picasso paintings — change hands today at dizzyingly higher prices than ever, Meyers’ violin comes with a fabulous history and reputation as one of the most wonderful instruments ever created.
Built by Bartolomeo Guarneri del Gesu in 1741 in Cremona, Italy, the violin is known in the musical world as “Vieuxtemps Guarneri,” after the soloist Henri Vieuxtemps who dazzled European audiences with it in the 19th century. It’s been played by such 20th century virtuosos as Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin.
After the violin’s sale in 2012, The Economist reported the sale price as exceeding $16 million. Which begs the question of Meyers: how did she ever manage to buy it?
“I robbed a bank,” she says with a laugh.
The violin was actually purchased privately by an investor-collector, who remains anonymous. The investor chose Meyers, a renowned American touring star, to receive a lifetime grant to perform with the Vieuxtemps Guarneri. Some famous violins have been purchased and then locked away in vaults, as investments. But musicians know fabulous instruments need to be played to stay fabulous — and this one, Meyers says, came to her just that way.
“The violin sounds and projects like no other I’ve played,” Meyers said. “It’s just so … healthy. And it is really, really extraordinary because it has no cracks, no sound post patch, which is a standard repair for most instruments.”
Violins are made of seasoned wood, with strong maple backs and sides, and thin spruce tops that are held tight in tension to resonate. But its almost like they’re held together by the secret varnishes of masters like Guarneri, and the more prolific Antonio Stradivari, also of Cremona. There’s no Gorilla Glue, either. The makers use hide glues that are incredibly weak, allowing for the instruments to be opened for repair. Violins, cellos and violas of even a few decades of age often have interior patches to repair splits. But not this 278-year-old Guarneri, Meyers said.
“You know it’s had no botox, not any kind of face lift, no patches of any kind — since it was made in 1741,” she says. “It’s a major responsibility for me to make sure it remains that way.”
In a documentary video Meyers made she describes the instrument’s incredible response as she’s playing the ultra-fast “Perpetual Motion” movement of the Barber violin concerto. “It’s like,” she says, “being in a rocket ship, and just going straight off the earth — into space.”
‘Orchard In Fog’
Meyers will not require a rocket response as she performs “Orchard in Fog” Saturday night with the orchestra. It’s a concerto composed for Meyers by Adam Schoenberg. The piece picturesquely describes the feelings of an older man reflecting upon his life while looking into the foggy mist covering an orchard outside his window.
“I first worked with Adam Schoenberg when I asked him to arrange ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ for recording sessions with the London Symphony, and we talked about a concerto someday,” Meyers said. “In the first movement of this piece, this older person is frail, just remembering his life. The second movement is very different. It goes from being incredibly intimate to making the violin shine, soaring on really high notes.”
Then, Meyers says, the music retires quietly in the third movement.
And it’s no snap to play. Besides the high wire act up the E string, the composer calls for the violin’s low G string to be tuned as an F. One whole step down. That could throw you off.
Fame didn’t just find Meyers, 49. She was already a top touring artist when chosen to play the Vieuxtemps.
In fact, she was once a child star, of sorts. At the age of 11, Meyers, a native of San Diego, appeared with a children’s string quartet on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Host Johnny Carson loved the kids, and quickly invited them to appear again on the show.
As a mature performer, Meyers has frequently played violins provided by foundations and music-loving philanthropists — including two Stradivarius violins.
But now it’s the Vieuxtemps Guarneri.
“To open up the case every day and look at this violin, and to perform on it,” muses Meyers. “It’s like you have a Monet in your hands.”
Meyers is just one of three stars Louisville Orchestra music director Teddy Abrams has invited to perform in the first half of the concert, opening the Louisville orchestra’s 85th season. The second half of the program features Antonin Dvorak’s “Symphony From the New World.”
Along with Meyers, Abrams welcomes vocalist J’Nai Bridges and violinist Elena Urioste. What all three have in common is making New York City classical radio station WQXR’s “19 for 19” list — of 19 stars to watch in 2019. Teddy Abrams, too, is on the list, making it four.
“I figured that as long as I’m a part of this program, which is new, we should use the resources that we all have to help build it,” Abrams said. He’s 32 years old, and in his sixth year in Louisville. “I’m really the only conductor with a regular orchestra that is on the list. This is an opportunity to really build it up.”
Saturday’s concert will be broadcast live on Louisville Public Media’s WUOL, as well as WQXR.
“All of these great musicians have a story, beyond their music making,” Abrams said. “J’Nai performed with us previously. She was the mezzo soprano solo in the Mahler Second Symphony when we did that a couple years back. I knew she was going to have a huge career, it was obvious from her talent and stage presence. And this seems to be a breakout year for her. She has been all over the world in major leading roles, singing with some of the great opera companies in the world.
“She’s just one of those one-in-a-million voices.”
Bridges will sing selections from “Porgy and Bess,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “Carmen.”
This is the first Louisville appearance for Elena Urioste.
“I’ve known [Elena] for years, since we were students at [the] Curtis [Institute of Music] together,” Abrams said. “She’s had a wonderful career as a violin soloist and chamber player, and is also a really dynamic individual.”
Abrams says Urioste has developed a worldwide program devoted to the health of musicians.
“She’s a huge proponent of mindfulness, of body and awareness for musicians,” explains Abrams. “She’s created a platform for musicians to work on the ways they physically relate to their instruments and improve their physical health through yoga and best practices. A lot of musicians have pretty severe body issues.”
‘Coffee Concert’ Friday
While the Saturday concert at 8 p.m. is the season opener of the symphony’s top level Subscription Series, the orchestra also offers its first “Coffee Concert” on Friday at 11 AM in Whitney Hall. The Coffee Concert program does not include Saturday’s soloists; instead, it includes three works commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra under the baton of founder Robert Whitney. Plus the “Symphony from the New World,” forever America’s favorite.
The Louisville Orchestra’s season opens Saturday, September 28 at 8:00 p.m. at the Kentucky Center. For more details or tickets, click here.