Dozens of people sat in a room in New York City. This room was among the more breathtaking I’d seen—a rich scene defined by oil paintings, warm wood paneling, ornate window treatments, and crown molding—but everyone sat and stared straight ahead at a blank white screen, occupied with other concerns.
Soon, the purpose of the gathering revealed itself. The solo violin entrance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto rang out from an unseen source. Shadows danced behind the screen, projecting the same allure as a magician’s act, indicating the music’s player lurked behind. But before too long, the violinist stopped. After a pause, the player began again—this time, the instrument speaking with a slightly different, deeper tone. After a few measures, the music stopped. Then it started from the top again, once more sounding slightly recalibrated.
This repeated over and over. The listeners remained silent. Some closed their eyes or scribbled notes.
I was at the headquarters of the Kosciuszko Foundation, an organization promoting Polish culture and history on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The 1917 mansion is footsteps from Central Park. For one weekend last October, people gathered there for the sixth annual Contemporary Violin Makers Exhibition, presented by Reed Yeboah Fine Violins. It included the work of 57 luthiers from around the world, and the event’s second day featured a blind-listening test, the first ever at the exhibition.
Minutes before the sounds of Tchaikovsky filled the room, Fan-Chia Tao, director of research and development at D’Addario, explained the format: Four violinists would play different excerpts on ten contemporary violins in two rounds. The first would contain shorter excerpts lasting around 30 seconds; the second round would include longer excerpts, three with piano accompaniment. In each turn, the player would go down the line twice, so listeners would have more than one chance to discern differences in sound quality, projection, tone, and response. At the end, listeners were to review their notes and select three favorites. Behind Tao, violinists Adelya Nartadjieva, Daniel Phillips, Rachell Wong, and Giora Schmidt stood at the ready.
There’s a certain draw to the challenge of listening in this deeper way. Especially with some tests in recent years juxtaposing old Italian instruments with contemporary ones—in which listeners and even players often could not distinguish one from another—more people outside the violin world seem interested in what comprises the enigmatic special sauce of a violin’s sound.
It appeared I was not the only one intrigued.
The room bustled. Participants who didn’t snag a seat perched by the staircase or stood along the walls. Not all were makers and players; a woman confessed to me she never played violin, but came because she’s always found the concept of a blind test fascinating.
Tao asserted that this was not a controlled scientific experiment. Rather, it opened ears to a deeper learning experience. As the first leg of round one began with the Tchaikovsky, Tao and an assistant placed signs indicating which violin, one through ten, was featured at any given time. We followed along on ballots.
After hearing the Tchaikovsky passage 20 times, I had had enough mystery. Feeling like Dorothy Gale ignoring commands to “pay no attention,” I snaked my way to the front. With permission, I peeked backstage. Despite Tao’s assertions that this was not a strict experiment, the site appeared meticulously organized. Chosen from 39 the day before, the ten violins sat in a neat line on a rectangular table. The sight of each popping with arborescent hues and textures was as satisfying as viewing chocolates perfectly aligned behind glass. In between players, organizers swapped shoulder rests with the agility of restaurant cooks on the plating line.
As the test’s name demands, players donned sight-inhibiting goggles. But some elements were indeed not controlled. Each player used his or her own bow. Between turns, players sat on the side to watch, appearing in full view of the instruments. The pre-selection process, wherein Wong and Nartadjieva played and rated violins, did not have audience listeners, even though Tao admitted that a violin’s sound under the ear can differ greatly from how it resonates to the audience. Despite tall ceilings and the same august atmosphere found in many grand performance venues, it was not a perfect concert space; a window cracked open to relieve the warm room invited the sounds of horns and screeches from 65th Street below….