Strads are in the news again.
Testing shows modern violins are better. Or does it? Luthiers get excited. Isserlis gets hot under the collar. Goetz Richter writes to the Sydney Morning Herald. The Economist runs the story. Limelight Newsletter runs the story, and will have a Stradivarius History in its February edition. This is Silly Season stuff, of course. Truth is, the market is always right (well, nearly always). And anyway you’ll never get to play on a Strad, unless you find yourself an extremely wealthy patron.
In the midst of all this chatter, a quiet development has happened in the Australian world of fine string instruments, without, it seems, anyone having picked up the story. This time it is a Guadagnini, not a Stradivarius, story.
Astute students of the fine violin world in Australia will be aware that, back in 1955 the people of South Australia bought a 1751 Guadagnini violin for South Australian violinist Carmel Hakendorf, who, along with Beryl Kimber, had been selected by Sir John Barbirolli for special attention. Why Hakendorf was bought a violin but not Ms Kimber is not known, at least to this correspondent. Perhaps Beryl Kimber already had the Stradivarius she played in Europe a few years later. (What, it is reasonable to ask, happened to that Strad? If you know, please tell.) Whatever the reason, Carmel Hakendorf was the first to receive, on loan, the South Australian Guadagnini. Later, violinists to enjoy the privilege included William Hennessy, Jane Peters and finally Sophie Rowell when she returned to Adelaide in the role of first violinist of the Australian String Quartet.
Sophie Rowell played the Guadagnini until a fairy godmother appeared for the Australian String Quartet in the person of Ms Ulrike Klein, founder of the Jurlique skin care products company. Ms Klein had a dream of the Australian String Quartet playing on a quartet of Guadagnini instruments and set about finding investors to join her in a trust to fulfil her dream. Two violins and a viola have now been with the ASQ for some time, and it seems a cello will join the quartet shortly. When Sophie Rowell was offered the “Jurlique” Guadagnini made in 1784 in Turin, she gave up her previous violin, which then went into storage.
To leave a fine violin in storage seems odd. The S A Guadagnini Trust, set up by the South Australian Government to own the Hakendorf instrument has, apparently, a very rigid trust deed. Its trustees are whoever hold the positions of Elder Professor of Music at the Elder Conservatorium, head of the ABC office in South Australia and the regional boss of the ANZ Bank in Adelaide. It also appears that the bureaucrats who set up the trust made a fundamental error: all the money was spent on the violin and nothing was left for care and insurance. This was fine in days of easy money, ArtsSA having funded the insurance over the years, but clearly the lack of a maintenance fund was a problem, meaning the 1751 Guadagnini lay in the ANZ’s vaults for some time.
Then two things happened. First, Sophie Rowell decided to leave the Australian String Quartet, with the consequence that, from end 2011, she would have to give up the fine Guadagnini she had been playing in the quartet. Also, some time during 2011, Ms Rowell paid for essential maintenance work on the South Australian Guadagnini Trust instrument. Nothing was announced to the ultimate owners, the people of South Australia. The trustees, it seems were in lock down. Something was, however, afoot. It is not clear whether Ms Rowel approached the trustees to seek a new long-term loan, or whether the trustees approached her with a proposition. Whatever the case, it is clear that transparency was not high on the trustees’ agenda. What does the trust deed say? Is who gets the violin at the total discretion of the trustees? Is there a requirement for an association with South Australia to be considered? Perhaps the trustees considered other worthy recipients. Perhaps they sought applications. Who could know. Whatever the process, the decision was clear by November last: Ms Rowell would, once again, receive the Guadagnini on loan.
Now it is important your correspondent affirms his belief that Sophie Rowell is a worthy recipient of this instrument. She is undoubtedly one of the finest violinists in Australia. It will be a pleasure to hear her play the instrument, even if it is not as good as the Guadagnini purchased by Ms Ulrike Klein’s trust.
But the strange secrecy of the S A Guadagnini Trust is odd. The South Australian people paid for the violin. Surely they have a right to know what is going on.
What is going on seems to be a merger. Whether a take over (friendly or unfriendly) or a merger is not clear. But it seems moves are in place to subsume the S A Guadagnini Trust into the more flexible trust that holds the “Jurlique” instruments. Such a move apparently will require an approach to the South Australian Supreme Court. Trust deeds are not easy to amend. What prompted this development? Is this a positive move? What are the pros and cons? Will the South Australians who paid for the instrument be asked their views? Should a publicly held instrument be passed into the hands of a privately held trust? And why would a trust established to provide four instruments to a string quartet wish to control a fifth? Do they plan to become an instrument bank?
Someone should be asking these questions. ArtsSA and the trustees of both trusts should be giving the answers. Australia is blessed with very few old instruments. The management and control of those we have will mostly lie in the hands of private, wealthy individuals or corporations. Where the public has some ownership we should guard it well. Otherwise there may be a repeat of the Australia Council debacle with their Guarneri cello, sold in the 1990s.
Perhaps no one cares. If so that would be sad. A new, future generation of South Australian violinists deserves the opportunity to play the state’s Guadagnini. How is it planned to manage this peoples’ asset in the future?