How can the bow survive?

Violin bow-makers are up in arms. The rare wood they have used for 200 years may be banned. For the virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos it's good reason to get strung out, he tells Michael Church

Friday 27 October 2000 00:00

When the international trade in ivory was outlawed, piano dealers had to tread with care. When Brazilian rosewood was put on the protection register, guitar-makers were forced to use other materials instead.

When the international trade in ivory was outlawed, piano dealers had to tread with care. When Brazilian rosewood was put on the protection register, guitar-makers were forced to use other materials instead.

But those events were as nothing compared with the upheaval now facing the violin-bow industry, thanks to a threatened ban on trade in pernambuco from north-east Brazil. Since 1800, virtually all bows have been made of this wood - nothing else, it seems, will do. "This ban will kill the business," says Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos. "Not only will people be forbidden to make new pernambuco bows: it will also be illegal to tour with them. The bow-makers are up in arms."

Checking out Kavakos's assertion, I find the violin world in decorously muted ferment. The editor of The Strad says the issue has huge ramifications, but her magazine will only splash the story when the moment is right. The international fraternity of bow-makers have hired a spokesman in Paris who specialises in defending crafts that are under threat from ecological pressure groups.

But beyond telling me that the situation is "serious" - and hinting that the "demagoguery" of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth is the thing he most fears - he declines further comment.

Peter Oxley, the leading British bow-maker, is more forthcoming. If the balloon goes up, he says, it will happen in late 2002, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species puts pernambuco into a category that makes its import illegal in Europe. His worst-case scenario has customs officers swooping on British orchestras and demanding proof that their bows were bought prior to the ban.

The price of old bows, which can already fetch as much as £50,000, will go even further through the roof; pernambuco will be worth its weight in gold.

Bow-maker Jutta Walcher says she'll have to shut up shop if the ban becomes a reality. "There's nothing that can replace the combination of resilience and weight of pernambuco, and although I have stocks for another couple of years I'm worried. It's already extremely hard to get hold of." What about the carbon-fibre bows that many professionals use with their reserve instruments? "They have nothing to do with the craft of bow-making. You make a mould and press them out."

Kavakos himself dismisses "plastic" bows as a travesty, but given that he's the nearest thing we have to Paganini, this comes as no surprise. His principal bow, he tells me with pride, is a $100,000 (£69,000) job from the early nineteenth century. But what does it do for him? "It sucks the string. It gives me a great feeling of security. It extracts everything that is in the violin, makes such a vibration that the instrument gives all it has got. A really good bow is a matter of weight and camber - every maker has his own style and shape - and though I know three excellent makers, the great art of bow-making is lost."

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But if bows get him going, one particular violin does so even more - it's marked the milestones of his life. He went in for the Paganini Competition in Genoa not because he wanted a prize, but because the winner got to play a concerto on Paganini's violin. "Just one performance, but for me that was a dream. And when I did win and played it, it was unforgettable. Holding it was like holding Paganini's spirit, but physically it's also one of the most beautiful violins in existence, with an unbelievable sound. Very dark in the low register, and extremely powerful at the top - whereas most violins are either one or the other." This venerable Guarneri is kept in a glass case in Genoa and only gets played twice a year, which Kavakos says is a pity. "It should be heard, and it also needs to be played, to keep the wood opened up. When a violin is opened up, its sound becomes more complex, more mature." The worst thing about investors buying violins and stowing them in bank vaults is that they do the instruments subtle harm.

Five years ago, when the Metropolitan Museum in New York held a Guarneri exhibition, he again got his hands on the Paganini, but fumes at the memory. "The finger board was adjusted to suit Paganini's very big hands, and it takes a lot of getting used to, so I got them to agree that I could practice on it before my concert. But the security was crazy - a few minutes before the concert I was put in a very small room with mirrors all round and a lady guard in attendance, and wherever I looked I saw her image.

"So I asked if she would mind sitting just outside the door, and she said no, she had to stay with the violin. I pointed out that as there was only one door, I couldn't possibly escape by another, but it made no difference."

Asked for his heroes, he reels off a list including Brahms's male muse Joachim and Stravinsky's favourite fiddler Dushkin, plus Ysaye, Kreisler, Heifetz, Menuhin, and Oistrakh. Then he quickly adds that they all stood on Paganini's giant shoulders: it is in his honour that Kavakos has titled his current Wigmore series The Demon Violin; he is the "violinist of all violinists". And while tonight's recital focuses on composer-fiddler bonds, the previous one concluded with some Paganini variations which left us gasping in disbelief. There's nothing Kavakos can't do, and all with a showman's breezy smile.

But whence comes this talent? Indirectly from Epirus, that part of Greece that borders on Albania, where virtuoso fiddling is the prime folk art. Kavakos's grandfather was a whizz on the laouto - halfway between the oudh and the mandolin - and played with his band at weddings. Kavakos's father, a violinist in the same tradition, gave the five-year-old Leonidas his own small instrument, and started to teach him. "But we had constant clashes, because he was extremely strict, so strict that three times I stopped altogether, and vowed never to touch the violin again."

Kavakos was saved, he said, by the teacher he was sent to at nine - a devoted man who took no money from poor pupils, and who used to drop in unannounced to check they were practising. "I went in for my first competition," he says "because I wanted to bring honour to him."

* Leonidas Kavakos next plays at the Wigmore Hall, London (0207-935 2141) on 9 Nov

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