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The New York Violin Makers Bringing the Art Form Into the Future

James McKean

Yorktown Heights, New York

During the summer of 1973, James McKean, then a Russian studies major at the University of Virginia, attended a month-long language-immersion course in Bloomington, Indiana, and played violin between classes to relax. A broken string sent McKean to the local violin repair shop, where he fell in love with the workshop’s scents and sounds. Soon after, he left Virginia and enrolled in the newly founded Violin Making School of America (VMSA), the first school of its kind in the country, located in Salt Lake City.

After graduation, McKean landed a job in the West 57th Street workshop of Frenchman René A. Morel, then New York’s preeminent restorer. “I lasted less than six months, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” says McKean, who immediately started working across the street for an Armenian restorer named Vahakn Nigogosian. “He was one of the great restorers and one of the best people, with a basic self-taught knowledge of acoustics. I would watch him analyze an instrument to figure out how it made its sound.”

McKean started his own shop in 1980, bouncing around the city and its suburbs until 2012, when he settled in Yorktown Heights. Now the 63-year-old makes about six cellos (his specialty) and two violins a year for clients including the New York Philharmonic’s Carter Brey and Eileen Moon. “It’s an interesting question as to how you can make an instrument that has character when the ground rules have been so well established for 500 years,” says McKean. “By combining the different design aspects of the outline, the arching, the f-hole, you can come up with something that is original.”

Sam Zygmuntowicz

Brooklyn, New York

Sam Zygmuntowicz, 60, made his first instrument when he was just 13 years old. He’d thought of becoming a sculptor, but violins held the promise of producing more than a static form. “Now I feel that I am involved in this dramatic transference of energy from one human to another,” he says.

After graduating from the VMSA in 1980, the Philadelphia native moved to New York City for a stint in Morel’s renowned restoration shop. “By working with René, you had access to the great instruments of the past,” says Zygmuntowicz, who stepped out on his own after five years there. He had several studios in Brooklyn before moving his workshop and family to a Park Slope townhouse in 2007, where he makes about eight instruments a year, starting at $85,000.

For Zygmuntowicz, violin making is a collaborative process. He spends hours with musicians, listening to and watching them play, trying to see the instrument from the client’s point of view. After this “discovery period,” he chooses the instrument model, based on either a traditional shape by one of the Italian masters or one of his own contemporary designs. Along the way, he adjusts the form, altering the arch of the instrument and carving the wood to a thickness that suits a player’s style and repertoire. “It is hard to come up with something that does not refer to the past,” says Zygmuntowicz, who has created instruments for musicians including violin soloist

Leila Josefowicz

and cellist David Finckel, the co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “But I know my materials, and I know when I can afford to do something daring.”

Guy Rabut

New York City

“In 1978, after graduating from VMSA, Rabut transitioned to Morel’s restoration workshop in Manhattan until 1984, when he started making his own instruments in an Upper West Side studio, where he still enjoys “the cultural hum of the city.”

Throughout his career, Rabut has worked on a range of instruments and with various musicians, some who specialize in chamber music, others well versed in classical concertos. In recent years, he has concentrated more on the viola, creating pieces for the New York Philharmonic’s Cynthia Phelps and Judith Nelson, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Robert Brophy and solo violinist Elmar Oliveira.

Rabut believes that interaction with players is crucial for producing quality instruments. “You need to know what type of music someone plays, where they play, are they soloists or part of an orchestra. It’s about the fit,” he says. “As a maker, there is nothing more satisfying than hearing your instrument come to life in the hands of a player. People often ask, ‘Aren’t you sad to see your instruments go?’ One of the saddest things is to see an instrument sitting on a table waiting to be played.”

David Wiebe

Woodstock, New York

As a teenager in the 1960s in Beatrice, Nebraska, David Wiebe, who had played piano, violin, cello and bass, decided to become a violin maker but faced a dilemma: There were no violin-making schools in America at the time. Wiebe studied German for a year and landed at Staatliche Berufsfachschule für Musikinstrumentenbau, the esteemed instrument-making school in Mittenwald, Germany. “In addition to my interest in music, I enjoyed a little bit of art, drawing, woodworking and design,” says Wiebe, 66. “All those things came together in my interest in learning how to make new instruments.”

In 1973, Wiebe returned to Nebraska, began making violins and quickly realized he needed a New York presence. “New York had the most vital and exciting musical community and still does,” he says. For a few years in the 1980s, Wiebe was part of an informal club with five artists from around the country who shared a Manhattan apartment as a workspace. Wiebe continued to visit the city and, in 2002, relocated to Woodstock, New York, to live with renowned bow maker Susan Lipkins, whom he married in 2012.

After almost 45 years of making instruments, Wiebe has completed an estimated 55 violins, 87 violas, 90 cellos and eight basses and built a client list that includes violinist Eric Grossman, the curator of the Juilliard stringed instrument collection, and New York Philharmonic cellist Eric Bartlett.

“Violin making is a fervent discipline that people pursue in different ways, but for most of us the desire is never just to duplicate the past,” says Wiebe. “I have so much enjoyment in and appreciation for the beauty of the wood and of the curves of the instruments I make that I feel there are still new pieces of wood to find and curves to be carved.”

Jason Viseltear

New York City

In 1992, Connecticut native Jason Viseltear graduated from New York University with a degree in sociology. Four years later, at 26, Viseltear returned to Manhattan with a master’s in liberal arts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He intended to continue his studies concentrating on the work of modern German philosophers, but “I felt like I wanted to make something for a while,” he says.

A friend had opened a shop for making, repairing and restoring violins in the East Village, and Viseltear offered to help. The gig developed into an apprenticeship, a happenstance Viseltear sees as characteristic of New York’s violin scene. “There isn’t a formal apprenticeship program here,” he says. “You just knock on someone’s door and make yourself useful in their shop.”

He describes his discovery of the instrument as lucky: “The violin contained a lot of subjects that I was used to pursuing. There’s the woodworking part but also acoustics, painting, architecture. I thought I could lose myself in the violin as a subject, and that turned out to be the case.”

By 2004, he had his own East Village workshop, where the 46-year-old continues to create Baroque-style and modern violins, violas and cellos. His clients include Ezra Seltzer, the principal cellist of the early music ensemble the Sebastians, and Kate Read, the principal violist of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, and several of his instruments are included in the collections at Harvard and Yale. Viseltear produces from 10 to 12 instruments a year and says that New York is an ideal location for inspiration: “There is music, art, fashion, people and so many different points of view right outside of my window.”

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