Masterpiece restored: Stolen Stradivarius will sing again

Masterpiece restored: Stolen Stradivarius will sing again

WASHINGTON — After a meticulous restoration that took more than a year, a Stradivarius violin that was stolen from violinist Roman Totenberg and missing for decades is about to return to the stage.

Mira Wang, a violinist who immigrated to the United States from China 30 years ago to study under Totenberg, will play the instrument at a private concert in New York on March 13, and more performances after that are possible.

The violin known as the Ames Stradivarius is one of roughly 550 surviving instruments made by Antonio Stradivari, history’s most renowned violin maker. Built in 1734, it’s likely worth millions of dollars, although it hasn’t been appraised since it was recovered.

It was stolen in 1980 while Totenberg was greeting well-wishers after a performance in Boston, and wasn’t recovered until 2015, three years after Totenberg died at age 102.

The presumed thief, journeyman violinist Philip Johnson, was himself dying of pancreatic cancer when he showed his ex-wife a locked violin case in his basement. Nearly four years after his death, she took the violin inside the case for an appraisal and learned it was the stolen Stradivarius. It was soon returned to Totenberg’s family.

It’s not clear how often Johnson played the instrument, but The Washington Post reported that he played it in public as recently as 2011, the year he died.

For Totenberg’s three daughters, who like their father had given up hope that they’d ever see the violin again, its recovery has been a series of joys. Jill Totenberg compared it to “Christmas, even though we’re Jewish.”

They’ll hear it again at Wang’s performance for the first time since it disappeared.

“I’m sure we’ll all cry. I’m absolutely sure of it. Whether we cry at the same time is something else, but we definitely will cry,” she said. “When that violin was returned to us, we really felt like our father was back in the room with us that day.”

Another happy surprise: 35 years after it disappeared, the violin wasn’t in bad shape. Johnson couldn’t take it to a repair shop without being discovered, and he used Super Glue and Elmer’s to patch a few spots. It was unplayable because it had no strings and the sound post inside was broken. But when Bruno Price of Rare Violins of New York first laid eyes on the instrument, he was pleased it was so well-preserved. He and the Totenbergs believe Johnson couldn’t have played it all that often.

“For us, in the restoration of the violin, it was purely conservation rather than any serious repairs of any kind,” Price said. “So, in a way, the violin is probably in better shape for having been stolen — a horrible thing to say.”

Price and his staff took their time with the restoration, trying to make as few major repairs as possible. They sealed some cracks, fixed the broken sound post and replaced the neck, which must be done periodically anyway.

For Totenberg’s three daughters — Jill, a public-relations executive; Nina, the legal-affairs correspondent for National Public Radio; and Amy, a federal judge — there was no question that Wang would play the violin first.

“I’m not sure she assumed it, but all three of us assumed it,” Nina Totenberg said. “She really is like the fourth Totenberg sister.”

For Wang, the instrument presents its own challenges, even though she’s been playing her own Stradivarius for two decades. She had about a month to practice before the concert, a timetable she compares to a jockey hopping on an unfamiliar racehorse just before a race.

“To be able to really know a violin of that calibre, you need years. You need years to really know the nuances and to bring out the certain colours and bring out the different varieties of sound,” Wang said. “But we’ll make the best out of it.”

Wang will perform two chamber pieces: a string quintet by Felix Mendelssohn and a piano quintet by Antonin Dvorak.

No additional concerts are scheduled, but it’s possible that Wang will get more opportunities to play the violin. The family plans to sell it eventually, either to a musician or to a person or organization that ensures it will continue to be played and maintained.

“In the end, there’s going to be one person (for whom) it’s going to suit their type of playing even more perfectly than with Mira,” Price said. “There’s a very personal connection that comes with these great instruments, but it sounds fantastic.”

___

Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols .

Ben Nuckols, The Associated Press

Canadian Press

Just Posted

Kelowna Fire Department. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Abandonded campfire results in Kelowna bushfire

The fire was measured at 20 feet by 20 feet in size and has been deemed not suspicious in nature

The Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce will host the Valley Wide Business Expo May 4 at Predator Ridge Resort. (photo submitted)
Golf raffle helps Okanagan families score homes

Habitat for Humanity Okanagan swinging into action this summer with a new raffle

(Facebook/Kelowna Cabs)
Kelowna Cabs reaches tentative agreement with dispatchers union

The tentative agreement could help end the dispute between the taxi company and the dispatchers

sdaf
Lake Country home destroyed in large blaze, 11 dogs rescued

Fire crews are responding to 10839 Hallam Drive

Bear wanders Kelowna on June 15. (Michelle Wallace/Facebook)
Bear climbs fence, uses crosswalk in Kelowna

The bear was spotted on Baron Road Wednesday evening

Jeanette Megens
KCR: Volunteering is sharing your story

Kelowna Community Resources shares stories of its volunteers in a weekly column

An old growth cedar stands in a cut-block within the Caycuse Valley. More than 100 prominent Canadians, have signed an open letter calling for the immediate protection of all remaining old-growth forests in B.C. (Submitted)
Brian Mulroney and Greta Thunberg among 100 celebrities pushing to save B.C. old growth

List includes Indigenous leaders, scientists, authors, Oscar winners

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on Friday, February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
U.S. border restrictions to remain in place until at least July 21

Safety minister says Canada, U.S. extending restrictions on non-essential international travel

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

This photo of the small wildfire burning above Naramata was taken at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021 (Monique Tamminga Western News)
BC Wildfire on scene of small wildfire above Naramata

Smoke has been showing since earlier in the day

Students in the Grade 10 entrepreneurship program at Summerland Unisus School have completed a cookbook with international recipes. (Contributed)
Summerland students create virtual international cookbook

Entrepreneurship program at Summerland Unisus School uses virtual cookbook as fundraiser

Hundreds of people, young and old, joined the three-day Walking Our Spirits Home procession, honouring residential school survivors, those who never made it home and all those affected by the institutions. Here people walk the third portion on June 13. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Walking Our Spirits Home from Kamloops provides path to healing

First Nations in and beyond Secwépemc territory join in to honour residential school survivors

Himalayan Life helped finance the construction of Nepal’s Yangri Academic Centre and dormitories after a 2015 earthquake devastated the valley, killing more than 9,000 people. (Screen grab/Peter Schaeublin)
B.C. charity founder pledges to rebuild Nepalese school swept away by flash floods

Six years after an earthquake killed more than 9,000 people, Nepal faces another catastrophy

Most Read