Chee-Yun plunked down a small fortune for her 1669 Francesco Ruggieri violin, an instrument whose provenance was a mystery.
The seller offered no list of violinists who had played it. There were no mentions in history books, no trail of published reviews to hint where the violin had been before she bought it in 1991.
“I got it appraised by a world-renowned violin appraiser … and he told me, ‘In my lifetime of appraising, numerous, thousands of violins, I’ve never seen an instrument survive all these years without any wear and tear. It almost makes me think that it might be a fake, but it’s not’,” the South Korean-born violinist recalled last week from a concert stop at Bethesda, Maryland’s Strathmore arts center.
Last year, she learned why her violin was in such pristine condition: it might have been buried with its owner.
Or so goes the story told to her by a man attending one of her concerts in Israel.
During a Q&A session with the audience, the man told Chee-Yun that his father had once owned a Ruggieri and had always wondered what became of the 1669 — the only one the Italian violin maker produced that year.
The original owner was from Scandinavia and was apparently so smitten with the instrument that he insisted his family bury it with him, the audience member told her. The instrument remained buried for centuries, he said.
Chee-Yun said she doesn’t know if the violin was actually buried in a coffin, kept in a mausoleum or simply stored in the family’s vaults. But it’s evident the instrument was not exposed to the elements or played until she bought it.
“The fact that my violin has survived all these years and it looks so brand new. There are no visible scratches, no cracks,” said the 44-year-old, who now calls Dallas home. “It still has the original varnish on it — most of it. In fact almost all of it. It’s in mint condition.”
But beauty can get an instrument only so far: What does it sound like?
Tucson gets to hear for itself this weekend when Chee-Yun plays Tchaikovsky’s technically demanding Violin Concerto with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. This is the first time she has played with the TSO since she performed Dvorák’s Violin Concerto in 1994 as a last-minute soloist substitute.
Her Ruggieri is well suited to bring out the wonderfully lush nuances of the Tchaikovsky, which she called one of her favorite pieces.
“It’s amazing,” Chee-Yun said of her antique violin. “It’s got the darkest, deepest, beautiful, lush, big G-string sound. The bottom notes are amazing; it almost sounds like a cello at times. And then it has the most sweet singing quality at the soprano voice. And the middle voice, too. A lot of times violins could have a really big lower register sound, or upper, or both, but then the middle register doesn’t sound at all. But (the Ruggieri) is just flawless.”
“A lot of times old instruments will have a flaw in them where some of the notes will sound as if it has laryngitis,” she added. “It won’t sound immediately; it will make these crackling sounds first. We call them wolfs, and there are no wolfs. There is no dysfunction of sound at all. It’s incredible.”