Many legends and myths have circulated about Stradivarius violins, but here is one reality: of the 500 or so known to exist, two of them are on loan to the Fort Worth Symphony, and a performance this weekend offers a chance to hear both. This Saturday, in a special gala concert called "Splendor of the Strads" at Bass Hall, Concertmaster Michael Shih will perform on the 1710 "Davis" Stradivarius, while Associate Concertmaster Swang Lin will perform on the 1685 "Eugenie" (ex-"Mackenzie") Stradivarius.
Lin says that playing a Stradivarius can actually be more difficult than playing a modern violin. He has played both instruments, having played the Davis for three years before Michael Shih joined the orchestra in 2001.
"You have to learn to play the Strad," he says. "It's kind of like your partner. You have to, not negotiate, but you have to know your partner. You have to know it intimately. It responds to your actions. I struggled with it for awhile. But I had famous violinists and luthiers who gave me advice."
He likes to use an analogy of a racecar, saying it's not like a Honda or Mazda, but like a Ferrari or Lamborghini: "you do have to learn the temperament of the car to utilize its best performance."
Lin sees the "Davis" Stradivarius that Michael Shih will be playing Saturday evening as being more masculine—"don't ask me why"—while the "Eugenie," the instrument he'll be playing Saturday, is "more female." To Lin, the two instruments are "like brother and sister"; he says that "they're powerful and the projection and the robust sound from both instruments is similar but the 'Eugenie' is very sweet."
Saturday's program includes the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in d minor, BWV 1043, as well as two violin showpieces by Pablo Sarasate, the "Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen" and Zigeunerweisen and the Symphony No. 5 in c minor, Op. 67 by Beethoven.
Many violinists play the Bach—colloquially known as the "Bach Double"—as schoolchildren, but to Lin the piece is far more than a piece for young students to learn. About Bach, who was born the same year the "Eugenie" Stradivarius was made, he observes, "Bach is something that you learn all your life. Bach is so deep – if I have free time I practice Bach sonatas. It's like walking through the great cathedrals; you never get tired of it. Every note has meaning—when I was a kid I just played the notes. Every note means something to me now. Every time I play it [the Bach Double], I find something new about the piece."
In the past few decades, it has become possible to find recordings and performances of Bach and other baroque composers that use "Baroque performance practice," meaning that they return to the technologies and styles used in the 17th and early 18th centuries. But on Saturday night, Shih and Lin will use instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries "set up" in the modern way, for the projection and brilliance that contemporary listeners are accustomed to.
Lin says he wasn't trained in Baroque performance practice, "and it would take a lifetime to learn. …I want to interpret Bach if Bach had access to these powerful instruments, this hall—I think he would like this practice. The instrument, especially the bow, has evolved. I don't think he would object [to modern performance practice]. I hope not!"
◊ Note the early curtain time of 7 p.m. for this Gala Event.