Play me…David Wiebe’s instruments sing for the Shanghai Quartet

David Wiebe with the Shanghai Quartet after their Maverick concert. (Photo by Angela Shapiro)

When the world-famous Shanghai Quartet performed at the Maverick concert series this summer, they played their encore on string instruments created by Woodstock craftsman David Wiebe. What Wiebe didn’t know until that day was that the rest of the quartet’s performance was going to be played on 18th-century instruments loaned to them for a year by J. A. Beare, the top-level London violin dealer, in honor of the group’s 35th anniversary.

Two weeks before the concert, David Gubits, vice chair of Maverick Concerts’ board of directors, suggested asking the quartet to play one piece on Wiebe’s violins, viola, and cello. By chance, Wiebe had a complete quartet of instruments in his workshop, an unusual occurrence. He spent an anxious two weeks getting his creations ready for the concert.

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Wiebe has been acquainted with the members of the Shanghai Quartet for two decades. They have all played and tested his instruments, and he once held a reception for the group at his house. But their fame put on the pressure as he began to prep the instruments. It might have been worse if he’d known the rest of the concert would be played on antiques that have developed exceptional resonance through their years of use.

The cello to be used in the encore was one Wiebe had made for the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It hadn’t been picked up yet, because he had decided to keep for it four months to solidify the adjustments. It didn’t need much more work.

However, one of the violins had just been completed. “Some instruments immediately give forth a joyful reaction when they come to life,” said Wiebe. “It’s like they say, ‘I’m ready to go! Let’s go!’ This one was fussy and unpredictable, maybe because I had done some slightly different things with it, acoustically.”

Five months ago, he saw the documentary Itzhak, about violinist Itzhak Perlman, who played a Stradivarius. The Shanghai Quartet have been loaned two Strads and a Guarneri, all made by luthiers from Cremona, Italy, over 200 years ago. Their fourth instrument is a Goffriller viola, from the Venetian School of the same period. A Guarneri sold for $16 million in 2014. “It’s a thrill just to look at one,” said Wiebe. All the vintage instruments have names. Perlman’s Strad was called by the French name “Soil,” pronounced “Swall.”

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

As he watched the film, Wiebe was intrigued by the shape of the violin’s arching, which was slightly different from the pattern he is accustomed to follow. Through his contacts in the trade, he found two people who had plaster castings of Perlman’s violin. Working loosely from one of the casts and the memory of what he had seen in the film, he applied the shaping to the arch of the new violin, knowing it would create a slightly different voice character.

Refining that character was a challenge. Before the concert, two highly trained violinists visited his studio at different times to play the violin and help him adjust it. “They are discriminating players,” he said. “They would play and talk about how it sounded and felt in response to the bow. ‘It feels free in this register, more tight and less open in other registers.’”

He would then make minute adjustments, such as moving the soundpost, a wooden peg propped between the top and back of the violin at the level of the bridge that holds the strings aloft. Wiebe took down a violin and demonstrated how he inserts, through the S-shaped space on the front of the body, a slender, curved metal rod ending in the shape of a roweled spur. This rowel is used to push the soundpost a fraction of a millimeter at a time, affecting the tension on the strings. If the soundpost adjustment doesn’t work, the bridge, an ornately curved slice of wood, can be altered, its height decreased, or if necessary, a new bridge shaped to take its place.

Meanwhile, he borrowed back an instrument from a client, just in case he didn’t succeed in making the violin sing properly. He spent four days working on that one as well, but in the end, he didn’t need it. “It wasn’t a waste of time,” he said. “I brought it up to a new level.”

Given that antique instruments are known for their sublime sound, some classical luthiers like to steam the wood of their instruments to age it. They also recreate the look of the worn varnish seen on violins that are in use after 200 to 400 years. These replica instruments are popular, but they still need years of playing before their sound will age as well. Wiebe prefers to craft pieces that resemble the antiques when they were new.

The backs of his instruments are made of maple, an elastic wood that radiates the sound. The tops and necks are of spruce, which is strong for its weight and has a sonorous quality. For the pegs, he uses a hard wood such as ebony.

It takes Wiebe two months to make a violin, four months to make a cello. He creates four or five instruments a year, usually commissioned by a particular musician. Over the past 45 years, his clients have included violinist Yehudi Menuhin and cellists Leonard Rose and Eric Bartlett of the New York Philharmonic.

The Maverick concert was a success, including the encore. Wiebe’s wife, Susan Lipkins, who makes award-winning double bass bows, said his instruments displayed “a fresh brightness” in the hands of the quartet. “The older ones had a smooth mellowness,” said Wiebe, “having been played at the highest level for centuries. But mine held up all right.”

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