Nippon Music Foundation is fortunate to be a custodian to 19 top quality stringed instruments.
Interviewed by Miyako Yamada
President, Nippon Music Foundation
Nippon Music Foundation, as an organization, perhaps has the largest collection of Stradivarius instruments. When did your foundation start to acquire the top quality stringed instruments to loan them gratuitously to musicians?
The activities of Nippon Music Foundation are fully supported by The Nippon Foundation. At the time of establishment in 1974, the main objective of the Foundation was to enhance music culture within Japanese school education. At the occasion of the 20th anniversary in 1994, the Foundation started to focus more towards international needs within the world of classical music and began to acquire the top quality stringed instruments such as Stradivarius as well as Guarneri del Gesu instruments in order to loan them gratuitously to musicians regardless of their nationalities.
How did this idea come about?
The President of The Nippon Foundation, Mr. Yohei Sasakawa, had always felt that Japan has not yet made enough international contributions in the area of "culture", while having made significant contributions in numerous other fields. Mr. Sasakawa met with many musicians and asked them what is the universal concern for the world of classical music. The musicians replied "the price of top quality stringed instruments have become too expensive for an individual to purchase". Having heard their sincere concerns, Mr. Sasakawa proposed the "Instrument Loan Activity" to the Nippon Music Foundation and invited me to take on this new direction, when I had just left my previous job at Sotheby's.
The Foundation hopes to assist a player at the final "leap" stage of becoming a world class musician.
How many Stradivarius does Nippon Music Foundation own?
It was very fortunate for us to have been able to acquire a Stradivarius quartet when we had just begun the "Instrument Loan Activity" in 1994. It is a dream for any stringed instrument collector to assemble a Stradivarius quartet - which includes two violins, one viola and one cello. It is almost impossible to find a Stradivarius viola because Stradivari only made a dozen violas in his lifetime. Nippon Music Foundation acquired "Paganini Quartet" from the Corcoran Gallery of Arts in Washington D.C. When I was informed that this Stradivarius quartet will be available for sale, I knew instinctively that this might be the only opportunity to acquire the Stradivarius quartet during this century, so I made a quick decision to purchase this quartet for 15 million US dollars.
US$ 15 million!?
Yes, it may sound a large sum of money, but relative to oil paintings, it will probably be comparable to one beautiful Matisse at an auction. I believe that stringed instruments can provide more social value compared with other art object. Top quality stringed instruments can provide players the opportunities to attain the highest artistic possibilities in addition to enriching the lives of so many of us in the audience. Moreover, owning one Matisse painting will not make one world class collector, but owning just one Stradivarius quartet already ranks you as a major collector. As such, the purchase had another advantage of getting the newest information from the instrument market.
However, when the Foundation made the decision to purchase this quartet, we did not have enough budgets. I therefore bowed very deeply considerable number of times to The Nippon Foundation for their financial support. With this as a good start, we have been able to acquire instruments every year and we have now come to own top-quality 17 Stradivarius and 2 Guarneri del Gesu.
|PROFILE◎ Graduate of the International Christian University in Tokyo. Became one of the first female Japanese-English simultaneous interpreters and worked in the United States. In 1979 joined Sotheby's and became President of Sotheby's Japan in 1989. President of Nippon Music Foundation since 1995. Serves concurrently as President of Nippon Taiko Foundation.
Is it true that each of the Stradivarius has a nickname?
Nicknames are usually derived from the previous owners of the instruments, or sometimes from the distinctive character of the instruments. All 17 Stradivarius we own also have nicknames such as 1702 "Lord Newlands" violin, 1716 "Booth" violin, 1709 "Engleman" violin, 1716 "Booth" violin, 1717 "Sasserno" violin, 1696 "Lord Aylesford" cello from the previous owners, and "Paganini Quartet", 1725 "Wilhelmj" violin, 1715 "Joachim" violin, 1730 "Feuermann" cello from the well-known players who have used the instruments. The 1714 "Dolphin" violin, which is currently played by Ms. Akiko Suwanai, had been used by Jascha Heifetz. This violin was named "Dolphin" in 1800s because its striking appearance and colour of its back resemble a dolphin.
The "Huggins" violin is slated to the Grand Prize winner of the Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in Belgium. The Grand Prize winner will be able to use the "Huggins" violin for 4 years, until the next violin competition. Currently, this violin is on loan to Ms. Baiba Skride from Latvia, who is the Grand Prize winner of the 2001 Competition.
Comparable to Stradivarius, Guarneri del Gesu instruments are also considered world's cultural assets. Nippon Music Foundation owns two Guarneri del Gesu violins, one of them is nicknamed "Ysaye" and we were fortunate to acquire this violin from the late Isaac Stern who had used it for the last 20 years of his career. The name "Ysaye" comes from Eugene Ysaye, who was considered as the national virtuoso of Belgium and was the violin tutor of the Queen Elisabeth at that time. When Ysaye died, this violin took part in the procession of Ysaye's State funeral being carried on a pillow in front of the virtuoso's coffin.
Do most of the top level string players use one instrument throughout their career? Or do they often change their instruments?
This is similar to a "marriage". Some people stay with one person forever or some divorce and marry someone else. I have heard of a violin not responding to the player as if in jealousy after that player has flirted with other instruments!
How do you decide to whom the instruments are to be loaned?
Nippon Music Foundation's Instrument Loan Committee is responsible for selecting performers to whom the instruments are to be loaned. This committee is composed of members representing Europe, United States and Asia. The Chairman of this committee is Maestro Lorin Maazel. The members are cellist Professor Janos Starker; violinist Ms. Kyung-Wha Chung; Comte Jean-Pierre de Launoit, President of The Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium; Professor Bin Ebisawa, Vice President of New National Theater, Tokyo; and myself.
This committee meets annually and discusses each candidate who applies for the loan of our instruments and also reviews the activities of the current recipients. Sometimes, we ask the new applicants to audition in front of the Committee. The Foundation hopes to assist a player at the final "leap" stage of becoming a world class musician. The Foundation does not only loan the instruments, but also organizes concerts in order to support the growth of each player.
How do you maintain these instruments that are also considered as an art object? Do you entrust each player to look after them?
The Foundation pays for all maintenances and repair works as well as the insurance. Our annual budget for the maintenance and insurance is roughly $250,000. Some say that the maintenance cost should be borne by the players. However, we believe that we as a foundation should keep all records of the repair logs for each instrument. Since we consider ourselves a custodian of world's cultural assets, we intend to do what is best to preserve these top quality instruments.
The Foundation requires for each players to take the instrument to designated violin shops every three months for professional cleaning and check-up. We ask for the condition reports to be sent to us directly from the shops. This way, we are able to monitor the condition of each instrument. When we receive the invoice from our designated shops, we know that the player is abiding by our requirements. This is the reason why we pay for all maintenance and repairs, and these invoices act as the ledger for our Foundation.
We understand that the loan of the Foundation's instruments is not for a life-time. I could easily foresee that some players may not wish to return the instruments even after the term of loan comes to an end.
You are absolutely correct. The most difficult thing is to determine when the loan should end for a player and to ask the player to return the instrument to us. As a foundation, we are not able to loan our instruments permanently. They will need to be returned to us when the time comes.
There is also a serious problem for a player to conquer the difference between the Stradivarius and their own instrument. On the other hand, the most important thing is that when the players are given the opportunity to use the top quality instrument even for a short time, they remember that sound and tries to get the same sound out of their own instrument. The late Professor Dorothy DeLay of The Juilliard School said to me once that "it is therefore very important for a player to be able to have an opportunity to play on the good instrument even for a short time". Professor DeLay, who was a member of our Instrument Loan Committee, appreciated our Instrument Loan Activity.
Every time I visit violin shops and collectors in Europe and USA, I explain to them that we are not doing this only for Japan. I say to them, let's join hands to preserve the world's cultural assets for the future of the world's global music community.
Looking at the list of recipients, I see many European, American and Japanese names. Are you planning to loan the instruments to up and coming talents from Asia and Middle East in the future?
When Nippon Music Foundation started to acquire Stradivarius to begin the Instrument Loan Activity, people often said "Well, Japanese foundation will probably only loan their instruments to Japanese players". That is absolutely not the case. We began the Instrument Loan Activity, because we have been grateful and wanted to give back our appreciation to the classical music communities in Europe and USA who have historically nurtured and provided opportunities to many young musicians from Japan.
Contrary to some collectors and institutions that only loan their instruments to players of their own nationalities, we have from the beginning had a policy to loan the instruments to promising artists regardless of their nationalities. Nippon Music Foundation currently loans the instruments to not only Japanese players, but also to players from Russia, Georgia, England, Canada, Latvia, Denmark, USA, Iceland, Israel and Germany.
What is the Foundation seeking to acquire next?
Well, we have been very fortunate to be able to acquire top quality stringed instruments so far. As far as what we will be able to acquire next, we will have to see what becomes available. Stradivari has made 600-700 violins, 70 to 80 cellos, and about a dozen violas of which, I believe, six of them are tied to quartets. All major instrument collectors certainly wish to own a viola and we would also like to own a second viola. We were grateful to be able to loan a viola from the Royal Academy of Music in London for this concert, but it would be great if we could present Mendels-sohn Octet with all our Stradivarius instruments.
It was very timely when our Foundation began to acquire the instruments.
It happened to be the time for the change of generation for the post-war stringed instrument collectors. Instrument collectors are often amateur players who love the instruments dearly. And their biggest concern is to find the best custodian for their beloved instruments to be placed after they leave their hands. We have more collectors who appreciate what our Foundation is doing with the instruments and the players.
Our instrument advisor, Mr. Andrew Hill, also sympathizes with this policy of our Foundation and helps us make a wonderful collection of stringed instruments. Some collectors and dealers in Europe say "don't let the instruments go to the Far East". Mr. Hill, on the other hand, supports us because he is most concerned about entrusting these instruments to whoever could preserve and maintain for the future generations of players.
We are not trying to accumulate a big collection and boast about the number of instruments we own. We are most concerned about how to preserve the instruments to the next generation of players while having them kept in good playable condition. We do what is best for the instruments by covering them by the insurance, having the condition checked regularly, carrying out necessary repairs by the most distinguished luthiers, and having them played by conscientious players. Every time I visit violin shops and collectors in Europe and USA, I explain to them that we are not doing this only for Japan.
I say to them, let's join hands to preserve the world's cultural assets for the future of the world's global music community.