Regular readers may remember a post last year narrating narrowly-averted disaster with my acoustic violin and its pickup, and singing the praises of Ruschil and Bailly, who did the averting, significantly improved the sound and projection of that instrument, and also led me to discover it’s worth triple what was paid for it about 16 years ago.
Last night, I had what felt like a middle-of-the-night appointment with Antoni Ruschil. 7pm can feel very nocturnal, conspiratorial even, now that it’s dark by 6:30, in a large room with vast unshaded windows on two sides itself in a huge ex-warehouse or something similar converted into workshops which have mostly closed up for the day – they have moved since I last dealt with them, but only a couple of miles to Cockpit Arts in Holborn.
The main thing I wanted to discuss was the bridge of my viola. It’s gradually come to my notice over the last year or so that this was unusually high, particularly on the A string side; this of course means there is simply more work involved in pressing that (highest) string down to the fingerboard, especially as you move higher up – which I’ve being doing more with technical study and more advanced playing. The particular compromises chosen by this viola’s makers also don’t work much in favour of easy access to the higher registers – it’s slightly smaller than the largest ‘normal’ size in terms of body length, but the string scale length is slightly shorter again. What this means in practice is that although I don’t have to stretch my fingers that far apart, the body makes up more of the string length, and the neck less, than in conventionally ideal proportions – which means more body to reach round in order to get to notes high up on any string. So I’d been considering, but definitely wanted an expert opinion on, having that side of the bridge shortened in height very slightly (abridge the bridge, geddit?).
As appears to be a running theme with my contact with Antoni, I got more and better than I bargained for! I’d thought (as I need the instrument again for a rehearsal tonight and a concert tomorrow) that I wouldn’t be able to get anything done until I could find a few days to leave it in the workshop and come back. Actually, everything was done on the spot in the space of about half an hour. I say ‘everything’ because shaving down the bridge under the A and D strings (one of those by hand and eye, thoroughly ‘craft’ processes that I, with bad eyesight, intermittently shaky hands, no natural working-with-materials ability and a definite need to measure things and programme computers if possible rather than acting directly, remain fascinated by and somewhat in awe of) was in the end just step 1. There also followed a replacing of the bridge (more squinting from different angles, muttering ‘not quite right’ and moving with precise taps of a small metal hammer), and some moving of the soundpost, mostly in order to bring more resonance and projection on the top end by way of compensation for the reduced tension, and also to get back to an even transition of tone and volume across the four strings, as the lower two were unaffected by the bridge lowering. I have no idea, by the way, how one produces changes as subtle as the latter by moving the soundpost around millimetrically – obviously advanced physics of resonance and acoustics explains the effect, but for practical purposes the adjustment of soundposts and their role in string instrument sound seem almost thaumaturgical.
I’m still playing the viola back in a bit (not least getting the strings to resettle in tune after having the tension taken off and put back on again) and getting used to it. However, I can definitely establish that it’s not only easier to play the upper register full stop (which was the original, limited, hope of the exercise!), but also easier to get a better sound from it – ‘freer’ (I’m poaching Antoni’s term because I can’t think of a better one) and more matching the resonance the low register of this viola has always possessed. In general, reducing the overall amount of tension in the instrument seems to make it even freer-vibrating, with less of a tendency to an ‘angry’ tone when loud as well as an easier response to light bow movement. It also seems the upper register is easier to play in tune now, which does seem conceivable given that lower action means less extra tension from pushing the string down to the fingerboard and so less of a ‘bent sharp’ effect (think blues / jazz guitar).
I really can’t recommend these guys enough, if you need bowed string-related work doing and it’s something where expertise and attention to detail (and a genuine, and wide-ranging, love of the instruments and their wide possibilities – Antoni always asks after my folk and jazz violin career!) will make a difference to the result. Plus the offer is always made to get in touch or come back if something isn’t panning out quite right after being worked on the first time.
I’m going to get a few opportunities to compare the revitalised viola with its previous self (I’m so close to a Doctor Who metaphor here!) over coming weeks, though rather fewer of them will probably involve enough solo exposure for an audience member to judge. Tomorrow night (Thursday 18th) is the second performance of a satisfyingly substantial programme with South East London Orchestra in Sydenham. I can confirm from the first outing (Sunday evening) that Elgar’s Froissart concert overture and the overture from Schumann’s opera Genoveva (strangely missing from the web page) are both given to the ‘heroic’ evocation of medieval chivalry (which is largely mythical of course) without falling over entirely into the jingoistic, and the Schumann contains a degree of 3-against-2 cross-rhythms that must have been fairly daring for the time. Ethel Smyth (undergoing a substantial revival of popularity this year, presumably with the centenary of votes for (some) women in Britain, as she was an active Suffragette and composed what became their anthem) could easily have called her Serenade a symphony, it is certainly substantial enough by modern standards, though perhaps not 1890 gigantism – or she may have wished to avoid gender-based criticism by not overtly attempting the prestige musical form of the day. The more tricky, fast, and/or just hard to read corners of the piece should benefit from my having played it through continuously once before (plus in sections in my only rehearsal, and some feverish practice between rehearsal and concert) this performance! I’m not going to offer a ‘review’ of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, but I will say that soloist Fenella Humphreys is something really quite special – technically assured and adept, playing with audible and visible feeling, not a little cheeky humour and seemingly overflowing energy. Highly recommended.
I was also out (literally – under a gazebo) with viola last week in one iteration (and every iteration is deliberately unique) of Buswell & Nyberg’s pop-up orchestra project, sightreading everything from Richard Strauss to David Bowie (yes, it was space-themed). But I only managed to make my Cadogan Hall début with Orion Orchestra in Shostakovich’s first and last symphonies (both cathartic, exhausting and draining!) by depping for a colleague in the second violins. Thanks James! Looking further ahead though, more Shostakovich – the 9th symphony – plus a Borodin overture and Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in November with Harmony Sinfonia. I should have a pretty good idea how I’m getting on with the viola adjustments after that lot!