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Hear a $16 Million Violin in Chicago This Weekend

The “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù, arguably the world’s most expensive musical instrument, will feature in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s next program.

Anne Akiko Meyers   Photo: Chris Dunlop

This weekend, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin will perform the violin concerto by Mason Bates, one of the CSO’s composers-in-residence. Playing the solo part, Anne Akiko Meyers—“one of the finest, fieriest fiddlers I’ve ever seen,” Bates wrote while composing the concerto—appears in the Chicago area for the first time since a Ravinia recital in 2011.

Beyond Slatkin, Bates, and Meyers, however, another major musical personality will factor in: The violin Meyers will play, known as the 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù.

The Vieuxtemps, or the ex-Vieuxtemps as it’s also called, (probably) owns the record for the highest sale price ever for a musical instrument from its 2012 private sale to an anonymous buyer, for an amount the Economist reported at $16 million. It’s unlikely to hold the title for long, though, because a Stradivarius viola now up for auction is soliciting bids beginning at $45 million.

Why so expensive? For an answer, break down the name of Meyers’s instrument:

  • 1741. The year of its manufacture, at the tail end of the old-master period of violins in Italy. Violins made during this time by expert luthiers have garnered a reputation for a richer tonal color with distinctive overtones, but a buzzed-over study conducted a few years ago suggests the difference between new and old expert instruments is hard to detect.
  • Vieuxtemps. The lineage of a violin influences its value. Meyers’s violin carries the name of an early owner, the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps. Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman have also used the Vieuxtemps. The nickname a violin carries can come from a former owner—either a violinist or a collector—or a story, such as the “Messiah” Stradivarius, so-called because its owner bragged about it but never brought it out.
  • Guarneri del Gesù. Guarneri and Stradivari instruments carry name recognition, and their scarcity drives up prices. The viola on auction now is one of only ten Stradivarius violas known to exist, and the first to go on sale in 50 years. Just as art and wine auctions have set records in recent years, the one-percent hobby of instrument collecting has acquired a new cachet over the past few decades.

The sound of the Vieuxtemps is one of a kind, Meyers said in an interview with Strings magazine. She cited its deep, cello-like G string and the bell-like E string, giving the instrument the ability to carry over a full symphony orchestra. Bates told me his concerto is filled with strange sounds for the violin. Guess you can teach an old violin new tricks.

Anne Akiko Meyers and the “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesù play Mason Bates’s violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Apr. 17, 18, 19, and 22 at Symphony Center. For details, visit cso.org <http://cso.org> .

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