by NEAL WEBSTER TURNAGE
One woman’s destiny to share a musical legacy
TALES AND REMINISCES OF RENOWNED MUSICAL VIRTUOSOS FLOAT LIKE AN ARIA IN THE ARTSY ENCLAVE OF BUCKS COUNTY, PA. OSCAR Hammerstein, II, Moss Hart and Stephen Sondheim have all called the area home (as did Hawaii author James Michener).
On Thanksgiving Day 1990, there was an abrupt change of key. It was the day teen violin prodigy Elizabeth Pitcairn became the owner of Antonio Stradivari’s illustrious, elusive Red Violin (aka the 1720 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius), a treasured violin that went missing for over 200 years until it resurfaced in Berlin in 1930.
“The day I got the Red Violin,” recalls Pitcairn-her grandfather won it for her at a Christie’s London auction for $1.7 million-“was like waking up one morning to find God gave you the voice of Pavarotti.” It was terrifying, both in beauty and gravity.
Pitcairn, now 39, has since grown into her role and refers to her ownership of the violin as “the ultimate partnership.”
That partnership brings her to Hawai’i, as part of the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea’s “Series of Unforgettable Events.”
The event is Pitcairn’s way of pressing the “pause” button, to remove the cloak of touring performer and alight as a musical ambassador. With one of the greatest violins ever created-there are about 600 Stradivarius violins in the world; the Red Violin is one of the ° nest-at her side, she becomes a shaman into the world of classical music.
“There’s a heightened desire, a yearning I ° nd when I do these kind of events. People want to get close to this violin, connect with it on a personal level. It’s my responsibility to meet them there.” She developed a performance program of short pieces “the most soulful written,” and invites interaction and questions to facilitate intimacy.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for Pitcairn, the daughter of a Juilliard-trained cellist and an accomplished opera scholar. Her debut at the age of 17 was about as inconspicuous as a full moon on ascent over a mountain jutting into a starlit black sky. She performed at New York’s Lincoln Center with the New York String Orchestra.
From there, it was swiftly on to the University of Southern California where she was placed the tutelage of famed violin professor Robert Lipsett, and then on to the tour circuit. She’s currently a faculty member at Los Angeles’ performing arts school, the Colburn School, and spearheads the Luzerne Chamber Music Festival in New York where she leads a music camp each summer. Interspersed are performances around the world with the Red Violin.
Audiences are never in short supply. Fascination about the movie inspired by the violin, The Red Violin, which dramatizes the 200 years it went MIA, (circa 1720-1930) always lures people to recital halls and auditoriums. Curiosity is quickly eclipsed when acculturation occurs, “that moment of discovery,” Pit-cairn says, “that we all speak the common language of classical music.” She believes that we’re all preternaturally tuned to listen to the tones of a Stradivarius.
“A cello-like quality exists in the low end notes that resonates right through you.” Add to that a similarity of high singing in the upper register and you have a stringed instrument that’s smoldering and tickling in intensity. Pitcairn points to the wood and the violin’s form as the progenitors, the genius of Stradivari.
“This violin is so complete, the sound so extremely pure, that it easily carries throughout a large concert hall.”
Stradivari’s genius notwithstanding, the violin wouldn’t carry a rehearsal space had it not been carefully cosseted during its years on the lam. Speculation exists, but at the end of the day it’s all theoretical. “So far I haven’t tracked anything from the 1700s until [the composer] Felix’s Mendelsohhn’s descendants got hold of it around 1930 in Berlin,” Pitcairn says.
That she should now find herself the curator of Stradivari’s masterpiece doesn’t entirely surprise her. “It feels like destiny,” she demurs. She makes annual pilgrimages to Cremona, Italy, erstwhile home of Stradivari’s shop-“playing the violin there is like nowhere else, the wood recognizes home and responds perfectly to the conditions”-and recently experienced a startling realization: she’s unwittingly retraced the journey of the violin’s known years.
“First I was contacted by Felix Mendelssohn’s granddaughter to come to Berlin and perform. Then I was invited to go play with the Vienna Philharmonic. Next was a performance in mainland China. Each of those were locations the violin was known to have been.”
Through what might be mystical transference, that history assimilated into Pitcairn’s Red Violin partnership. “It’s bigger than you every day. I try to live up to that, commit myself to the artist’s life, educate and give back.”
Elizabeth Pitcairn’s Red Violin event at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea is part of the Wailea Wine and Food Festival. The evening will be accompanied by a dinner celebrating the violin’s global travels with an Opus One wine pairing with each course. For more information: www.fourseasons.com/maui.