by Joe Kitchen
On May 18, my wife Dorothy and I flew to Washington, D.C., to hear a concert at the Library of Congress, given by our son’s quartet, the Borromeo String Quartet. The quartet played to a packed, enthusiastic audience in the Coolidge Auditorium, which has long been a prestigious venue for chamber music in the capital. That alone might have been sufficient reason for Dorothy and me to make the trip. But this was not just another string quartet concert. At the beginning of the concert there was a twenty-minute ceremony during which the Library was officially given one of the world's great violins, the Baron Vitta Guarneri del Gesù. The Library’s extensive collection of musical instruments already included six priceless stringed instruments – a quartet of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius (two violins, a viola, and a ‘cello), an Amati violin (the Brookings Amati) and, most remarkably, the “twin” of the Baron Vitta Guarneri, a Guarneri del Gesù that had belonged to the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler. Both the Baron Vitta and the Kreisler Guarneri were made in the 1730s by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù from the same blocks of spruce and maple. Yet there was more to the ceremony. It was announced that the Library would be loaning the Baron Vitta Guarneri to our son, Nicholas, for the duration of his career (formally, the time that Nick continues his work as a professional violinist...).
How all of this came about is an amazing tale.
The Baron Vitta Guarneri (so named after its original owner) belonged to Nick’s teacher at the Curtis Institute, Szymon Goldberg, who had a long and distinguished career as violinist, conductor, and teacher. Born in Poland in 1909, Goldberg began playing violin as a child. At the age of eight, he went to Berlin to study with Carl Flesch. His professional career as a violinist began at age twelve with a recital in Warsaw. When Goldberg was 16, he became concertmaster of the Dresden Philharmonic, and at age 19 he was appointed to concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. He vacated the post in 1934 when it became unsafe for him to remain in Germany. He then toured Europe and made his American debut in 1938. While touring Asia he was taken prisoner by the Japanese, and held from 1942 to 1945.
Eventually he came back to the United States and became a US citizen in 1953. He was one of the founders of the Aspen Music School and taught there from 1951 to 1965. Later, he taught at Yale, Juilliard, Curtis, and the Manhattan School of Music. He was also active as a conductor. In 1955 he founded the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in Amsterdam, which he led for 22 years. From 1977 to 1979 he conducted the Manchester Camerata, and from 1990 until his death in 1993, he was one of the conductors of the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo.
Goldberg was married twice. His first wife died in the 1980s, after a long illness. Later he married Miyoko Yamane, a professional pianist and teacher. Nick has written the following of her:
“I first met Miyoko Yamane Goldberg in my last two years of study with her husband Szymon Goldberg at the Curtis Institute. It was wonderful to witness the happiness and musical camaraderie shared by my teacher and Mrs. Goldberg, a pianist. They worked on, discussed, and eventually recorded numerous sonatas in their years together. In Philadelphia, Mrs. Goldberg arranged social gatherings where we all freely discussed musical ideas and enjoyed the Goldbergs’ sense of humor. She also played many of his recordings, which, in his typically principled fashion, he did not consider good enough to be held up as examples.”
When Mr. Goldberg died in 1993, Mrs. Goldberg initially felt that his violin, the Baron Vitta Guarneri, should not be played, and it was displayed at the Smithsonian Museum for the next thirteen years. Eventually Mrs. Goldberg reconsidered and asked Nick if he would think of playing the Baron Vitta. Of course, Nick was thrilled and honored to consider this possibility. With the aid of Anne Marie Soulliere, a close friend of the Goldberg’s, she set in motion the process whereby Nick could gain the use of his teacher’s magnificent violin. In April of 2006, Mrs. Goldberg and Nick, accompanied by a Japanese TV crew from KNB, escorted the Baron Vitta out of the Smithsonian. Its first visit was the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, where it was reunited after more than 270 years with its “twin”, the Kreisler Guarneri del Gesù. With cameras rolling, Nick and Mrs. Goldberg performed the beautiful slow movement from the Brahms d minor violin sonata, performing it several times on the two instruments.
Since that day in April, Nick has performed well over a hundred concerts using the Baron Vitta. To do so, a number of legal hurdles had to be cleared. In particular, the attorney general of Pennsylvania had to intervene before Nick could take the violin outside the United States. One of these many concerts was a recital with Mrs. Goldberg which inaugurated the Szymon Goldberg Memorial Chamber Music Festival in Toyama, Japan, in September of 2006. This is the city where Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg spent many of the last years of Mr. Goldberg’s life – in a hotel in the foothills of the Tateyama Mountains. The recital was held in the same hall where Mr. Goldberg played his last concert with Mrs. Goldberg. Sadly, Nick’s concert there with Mrs. Goldberg was to be the last concert of her career. She died from a lengthy illness during the month following that concert.
Which brings us back to the 8:00 pm concert on May 18th, 2007, in the Library of Congress....
The beautifully printed program booklets for the concert were fifteen pages long. In the middle of the cover page, the following appeared:
In the lobby of the Coolidge Auditorium was a display dominated by a handsome poster showing front and back views of the twin Guarneris. Also on display were photographs of the Goldbergs along with assorted memorabilia, including programs from the nine recitals that Mr. Goldberg had given at the Library.
At 6:30 p.m. there was a pre-concert event in the Coolidge Auditorium at which Nick performed on both of the twin Guarneris. With pianist Wu Han, he played once again the slow movement of the Brahms d minor Violin Sonata, the same piece he had played with Mrs. Goldberg one year earlier. Nick played the piece twice on each of the violins so that the audience could appreciate both the beauty of the two violins as well as their tonal differences. After that, the Borromeo Quartet played a movement from the Bartók Quartet that would be part of the subsequent concert. Nick played on the Baron Vitta Guarneri and second violinist Kristopher Tong played on the Kreisler Guarneri while Mai Motobuchi and Yeesun Kim played on the Library’s Stadivarius viola and ‘cello mentioned above.
The pre-concert event concluded with a brief question and answer session.
One of the more technical questions was answered by a good friend of ours, John Montgomery, who lives in Raleigh and is responsible for the care of the string instruments in the Library’s collection. (John had also provided scientific evidence that the twin Guarneris had, in fact, been made from the same wood.)
After the pre-concert event, the Coolidge Auditorium was cleared; its doors were reopened at 7:30 p.m. for the audience to assemble. As Dorothy and I sat in our seats reading the copious program notes, Dorothy leaned toward me and whispered, “You won’t believe who just came in.” I looked up to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice entering the third row of seats from the front. She did not attend the posh reception following the concert, but she did go backstage to congratulate Nick and speak to the members of the quartet. Her presence was felt at the end of the concert in a curious way. After the final notes of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, the audience erupted into shouts of “Bravo” and loud applause. Many people toward the back of the hall immediately stood up, but toward the front of the hall people seemed more hesitant to join in the standing ovation. Hesitant, that is, until Rice stood, at which point everyone else stood, too.
At eight o’clock, five people entered the stage. Three gave speeches: Susan H. Vita, the head of the Music Division of the Library, James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress (i.e., the head of the Library), and Anne Marie Soulliere, who, acting on Mrs. Goldberg’s behalf, had negotiated the transfer of Mr. Goldberg’s violin, the Baron Vitta, to the Library, and had also negotiated its long term use by Nick. Susan Vita announced that henceforth the new name of Mr. Goldberg’s violin would be the Goldberg Baron Vitta Guarneri del Gesù. The other two people on stage were Nick, holding the Goldberg Guarneri, and Mrs. Goldberg’s sister, Hiroko Yamane Ohki. After the three speeches, there was a wordless symbolic action: Nick handed the violin to Mrs. Goldberg’s sister, the sister then handed the violin to Mr. Billington, who, in turn, handed the violin back to Nick. Nick gave a short acceptance speech, and the ceremony came to a close when Susan Vita presented Nick, Mrs. Ohki and Anne-Marie Soulliere with copies of the poster on display in the lobby.
And oh, yes, the concert was great!
Note: The violin, in company with Nicholas Kitchen and his colleagues, will be heard in Durham on 10/28 when the Borromeo String Quartet performs at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. For details, see our calendar.