By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
A shorter version of this article appeared today in the above newspapers.
When Anne Akiko Meyers appears on stage as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony tomorrow at Ambassador Auditorium, she will be playing a new instrument … new to her, that is. Actually it’s an historic instrument called the “ex-Napoleon/Molitor,” a Stradivarius dated 1697 that she purchased last Thursday for a world-record price of $3.6 million. Saturday will mark the first time that the instrument has been played in public in 16 years.
The PSO will open its 82nd season with concerts at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. James DePreist, the orchestra’s artistic advisor, will conduct the program, which will also include Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. (For more details, click HERE)
Myers (right) bought the “ex-Napoleon/Molitor” at an online sale conducted by Tarisio Auctions in New York City. The price is the highest on record for any musical instrument sold at auction and was well over the pre-sale estimate of up to $3 million.
Once believed to have been the property of Napoleon Bonaparte (thus the “ex-Napoleon” moniker), the instrument takes its name from another owner, Count Gabriel-Jean-Joseph Molitor, a General in Napoleon’s army. Other previous owners include the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the American violinist Elmar Oliveira, who last played the instrument in 1994 when he retired it after purchasing a 1729/30 Guarneri del Gesu.
Meyers — who for the last four years has played a 1730 Strad known as the “Royal Spanish” violin because it was formerly owned by the King of Spain — raved about her first experience with her new instrument.
“I wasn't looking for a new violin,” says Meyers, “but I was in New York a month ago playing concerts. I visited Rene Morel [a famous luthier] to get my violin checked when he showed me this majestic fiddle. It was love at first sound; I was instantly beguiled. Its power, feel and range of color are extraordinary. I played on the violin for a total of about one hour before playing it in an evening promoting my new album, 'Seasons...dreams' in Evanston, Illinois.”
Meyers says she will, reluctantly, have to sell the “Royal Spanish” (she also owns a modern instrument, made by Duncan Emck and modeled after the famous “ex-Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu). “Every violin is different, much like people,” she explains. “Its soul and personality completely change depending on the person playing it. The 'Royal Spanish' is warm and burnished and feels like an old friend I enjoy having a glass of wine with. The ‘ex-Napoleon’ is a rocket. It has a laser-like sound and its power is vast. I really look forward to becoming friends with it sharing this sound with the world.”
Having an instrument like “ex-Napoleon/Molitor” come on the market is highly unusual. “It’s a rare opportunity when a Stradivarius of this quality comes for sale at auction,” says Jason Price, director of Tarisio, commented. ‘The Molitor’ is the perfect convergence of historically important provenance, impeccable condition and first-class sound.”
Meyers concurs. “These violins are incredibly rare and were owned mostly by performers before they became luxury items,” she says. “That they are more than 300 years old and have incredible provenances and histories behind them make them even more exclusive and unattainable.”
“Most have been picked up by foundations and collectors in the 20th and 21st centuries,” she continues, “and are, therefore, rarely heard in public other than on limited terms. It is almost a small coup that a performer with my schedule is afforded this opportunity to bring the instrument to the public's ear. I feel unbelievably lucky for this to have happened as I have spent my entire life building my violin career.”
That career began in Southern California (Myers was born in San Diego). Now age 40, living in Austin, Texas, where she is Distinguished Artist and Professor of Violin at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music and the mother of a three-month-old daughter, Meyers was living with her parents in Ridgecrest at the age of seven when her mother drove her more than three hours each way to Pasadena so Myers could study with famed teacher Alice Schoenfeld at The Colburn School.
Meyers’ rise in the musical world was meteoric. She appeared twice on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson at age 11, made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut the same year and a year later soloed with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. At age 23, she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, the only artist to be the sole recipient of this annual prize, and embarked on an extensive recording career with RCA Red Seal (at the time one of the most prestigious labels in the industry).
That career continues today, if not quite in the way many people imagined back then. In addition to playing concerts of familiar concertos around the world, Meyers has premiered works by contemporary composers such as John Corigliano, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Jennifer Higdon, Olivier Messiaen, Joseph Schwantner and others. In recent seasons, she has collaborated with jazz artists such as Chris Botti, pop singer Il Divo, and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who composed cadenzas for her to use in Mozart’s G Major Violin Concerto, which she played last month with the St. Louis Symphony.
In 2009, Meyers’ recording Smile topped the Billboard charts and her newest recording, Seasons … dreams (recorded with harpist Emmanuel Ceysson and pianist Reiko Uchida) has reached a similar lofty level. This month SONY will re-release several of her older recordings made on the RCA Red Seal label.
Like the Pasadena Symphony, Meyers tomorrow embarks on a new chapter in her career as she plays the “ex-Napoleon/Molitor” at Ambassador Auditorium. There’s a lot at stake, not least of which is the first return on a $3.6 million investment.
Tickets are available for both concerts tomorrow. Information: 626/793-7172, ext. 16; www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org.
(c) Copyright 2010, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.