A Violinist Goes From a Strad to a Zyg and Finds Happiness


Mr. Hoopes’s Zyg is a copy of an instrument by another celebrated maker from the 18th century, Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri. He was the youngest son in a family of violin makers and was also known as Joseph Guarnerius del Gesù (and his violins as “del Gesùs”). If Strads “were considered the Rolls-Royce of the trade,” the writer John Marchese wrote in his 2007 book about Mr. Zygmuntowicz, “those by Guarneri del Gesù were on the order of Jaguars — more erratically made, but powerful and distinctive.”

Mr. Hoopes’s Zyg is a copy of a Guarneri del Gesù that Mr. Zygmuntowicz made for Isaac Stern, who owned the original instrument. “This was relatively early in my career,” recalled Mr. Zygmuntowicz, who had left his job as a violin restorer in 1985 to build his own instruments full time. “Working with Mr. Stern was like working with the pope, or something.” (Mr. Stern’s del Gesù had an illustrious past before him: It once belonged to the celebrated Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaÿe, and it is Ysaÿe’s name that is associated with it.)

Photo

Mr. Zygmuntowicz in his Brooklyn shop in 1998.

Credit
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

When it came to the copy he had made, Mr. Zygmuntowicz listened, and not just to the music. Mr. Stern “played it for a while, and at a certain point, I asked how it was, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s good — not as deep as the original,’” Mr. Zygmuntowicz recalled. “I thought, I really want him to be happy, so I took it apart, I did some minor rebuilding, I opened it up and he was happier.”

All that happened while the violin’s future owner, Mr. Hoopes, was a toddler in the Midwest.

He started violin lessons when he was 3. “My older sisters were playing and I was desperate to be doing what they were doing,” he said. At 13, he won first prize in the junior division of the Menuhin Competition, a prestigious contest named for the virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, who started it.

“My now-manager said, ‘You need a Strad,’” Mr. Hoopes recalled, and before long he was introduced to a British investor who said, “Hey, I have a few nice violins.”

“When someone says that to you,” Mr. Hoopes said, “it could be something he pulls out of the attic, a keepsake.”

It was a Stradivarius, made in 1713. Mr. Hoopes, who said it was worth several million dollars, described it as “the violin on which I really learned to play.”

“When you’re playing on a Strad, you have this illusion — ‘we don’t need modern violins,’” Mr. Hoopes said. “We — violinists — have these beautiful instruments on loan. Strads are wonderful. When you play a Strad for seven or eight years, you hear that sound in your ears.”

The prestige reaches well beyond concert halls: “When you’re at the security line at the airport and you say, ‘It’s a violin, it’s fragile,’ and they say, jokingly, ‘Is that a Strad?’ you can say, ‘Actually, it is.’”

But on Christmas Eve 2015, the owner told Mr. Hoopes he wanted it back in six months. Mr. Hoopes was devastated. He negotiated a few extra months, which let him appear with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and began hunting. He was offered a couple of Guarneri del Gesùs, he said, “but nothing lived up to what I’d been playing.”

Then David Finckel and Wu Han, the co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, invited him to a dinner party. Mr. Finckel is another of Mr. Zygmuntowicz’s customers. Mr. Hoopes knew who he was, and as it happened, Mr. Zygmuntowicz had brought along one of his violins, the copy of the Ysaÿe.

Mr. Zygmuntowicz let him try it. Mr. Hoopes said he felt a “sensational connection.”

“There were so many things I liked in this violin in the first few minutes,” he said. “With some Strads, it takes years.” (Or maybe the magic never happens. As Mr. Zygmuntowicz explained: “If you have a Strad, you feel you’d better get used to it because it’s a Strad. If something’s not comfortable about it, it’s your fault” — not the instrument’s.)

In pursuit of the Zyg, Mr. Hoopes began pursuing its maker. “I went to Brooklyn,” Mr. Hoopes said. “I begged: ‘Can I buy this one?’ He says, ‘I have to think about this. Why don’t you just take it and play it?’”

Returning the Strad to its owner made Mr. Hoopes more determined. “I called him: ‘Hey, Sam, I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but — ’ And finally he said, ‘O.K., you can buy it.’” Mr. Hoopes is reluctant to talk prices — other Zygs have sold in the low six figures — and Mr. Hoopes said he was lucky to have had the grant money to help with the purchase.

“Of course it’s an investment,” he said, “but this was about needing a tool. Some of us are lucky to have lifetime loans, but at some point you have to have your own violin. If you take away the romance — ‘He plays on a Stradivarius’ — you realize you can find your voice on any instrument.”

Mr. Hoopes played the Zyg and the Strad, when he still had it, in a blind test in London. A violin dealer who attended chose the Zyg, thinking the sound he liked had to have come from the Strad. Mr. Hoopes says he now disdains comparisons because one violin is not necessarily better than another — they are just different.

But it is the Zyg that Mr. Hoopes will play in three concerts at Lincoln Center in the next two weeks — on Thursday in two Chamber Music Society concerts and on April 15 in a solo recital on Lincoln Center’s Great Performers “Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts” series.

“When people hear me now, like my mom — she’s my toughest critic — she said, ‘Chad, I had no idea, but this is a serious violin.’”

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