The Red Violin -July 2016
Makes a Rare Island Visit
by: Caroline Stanton
As executive director of the Nantucket Community Music Center, Greta Feeney aspires to not only expose islanders to music, but to expose them to music which she believes will strike the listener in an extraordinary manner.
“When someone’s life path has intersected with a great concert, it can change everything. My goal is to create these pinnacle experiences,” she said.
Feeney seeks to present one of these “pinnacle experiences” to islanders this summer with the NCMC’s upcoming Red Violin Weekend.
“The Red Violin” and the “Red Mendelssohn” are the two nicknames given to the violin built in 1720 by Antonio Stradivari and painted by Stradivari with a distinct red varnish that remains intact on the violin to this day.
For more than 200 years, the whereabouts of the violin were unknown, until it reappeared in the possession of an heir of the composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1930. In 1990 the Pitcairn family purchased the violin at a Christie’s auction for $1.7 million, setting a new record at the time for Stradivarius violins.
Elizabeth Pitcairn was 16 years old and had been playing violin for 13 years when her family bought her the Red Mendelssohn.
For the past 26 years Pitcairn has honed her technique on the violin and, in doing so, has developed a complex relationship with the instrument.
“I’m not sure where I stop and the violin begins,” Pitcairn said.
Although this violin was made to be played in grand concert halls, a smaller venue like the Nantucket Hotel, where she’ll play July 17, offers the audience a more intimate glimpse of the relationship between the musician and the instrument, she said.
“It’s rare to be so up-close to an artist and their instrument. You really get to see the athleticism of it all,” she said.
For Pitcairn, there is a lot of work that goes into keeping up with such a high-caliber instrument.
“I have this great tool, but, on the flip side, I have to practice four to five hours a day. My muscles have to be well-honed and shaped to really get that sound,” she said.
While it took her about a full year to comfortably play the Red Mendelssohn, Pitcairn believes there is always more potential in its sound to unlock.
“The violin is such a work of art. The better you get, the more you discover with the sound. Every day is a revelation,” she said.
While the violin requires significant energy to play well, Pitcairn said the key is to pull back about 25 percent in order to “let the sound blossom.”
What has made this and other Stradivarius violins so highly coveted by musicians is the “incredible core to the sound,” Pitcairn said.
The sound is so distinct that she has never failed to pick out the Stradivarius in the several blind listening tests that she has done.
Red Violin Weekend will kick off with a screening of “The Red Violin” at the Dreamland Theater Friday, July 15 as an introduction to the history and intrigue behind the Red Mendelssohn.
“I love the idea of using film to inspire curiosity about classical music,” Feeney said.
On Saturday, there will be an inviteonly fundraising event featuring Feeney, cellist Ethan Philbrick, pianist Barbara Podgurski and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
Then on Sunday, July 17, Pitcairn will perform with the Red Mendelssohn at the Nantucket Hotel.
Sunday’s performance will also include a demonstration of the revolutionary Steinway Spirio. Feeney, who was able to bring the instrument to the Nantucket Hotel for two weeks, described it as “a fully functional acoustic Steinway that functions as a player piano as well.”
What makes the Spirio different than any other player piano is a technology that is capable of recording precise differences in pressure, which enables audiences to hear a composition played just as the musician had played it moments before.
The Spirio will stay at the Nantucket Hotel for two weeks following Red Violin Weekend, and will make another appearance in a Theatre Workshop benefit cabaret with Meryl Streep July 30.
Feeney hopes also to be able to demonstrate the Spirio to island music
students. If not, there will at least be the opportunity to “show a film of the event to our NCMC students and people in the community who are interested, as we will be filming the whole weekend,” she said.
Aside from bringing some incredible instruments and performances to the island this July, the goal of Red Violin Weekend is to raise money to provide more scholarships for island music students.
Currently, the Nantucket Community Music Center awards the Susie Jarrell Merit Scholarship to 10 “outstanding students” who can receive up to $500 in scholarship for lessons, in honor of the NCMC’s first piano teacher. The music center is hoping to add another – the Paulette Allemand Scholarship – after this fundraiser. The late Allemand was a longtime NCMC pianist, vocal instructor, chorus member and soloist.
Since 1976, NCMC – now headquartered at 56 Centre St. downtown – has provided opportunities to all island residents, regardless of income level, to learn and grow their musical skills.
“In 40 years the Nantucket Community Music Center has never turned a student away because of inability to pay,” Feeney said.
Student enrollment has tripled in the past three years and aside from the Susie Jarrell Merit Scholarship, the NCMC also gives partial scholarships to 20 percent of its students who receive private lessons.
Feeney, whose 15-year career as an opera singer has brought her to stages including the San Francisco Opera House, received a full scholarship herself from the NCMC when she took voice lessons there in high school.
“It’s time for us to step up to the plate and create fundraising to help develop and sustain the musical community here,” she said. ///
Caroline Stanton is a Nantucket native and a freelance writer living on the West Coast. She is an occasional contributor to Nantucket Today.