World-class instruments in Claremont

It’s a strange turn of events that finds a mild-mannered urologist owning two priceless instruments, each representing the pinnacle of violinmaking.

The long story short is that in the 1980s, Dr. William “Bill” Sloan was given the chance to purchase the penultimate pair—a 1714 Stradivarius and a 1742 Guarneri violin—for $400,000 and $300,000, respectively.

In 1981, Dr. Sloan’s wife Judy picked up the phone and fielded an unexpected query from a friend with a music dealership: “Does Bill still want a Stradivarius?” Bill did and so, after finding a bank willing to lend him the money, he made the five-hour drive from his Toledo, Ohio home to Chicago.

Springing for a world-class instrument like the “Leonora Jackson” Stradivarius, named after the first internationally acclaimed female violinist, was an unusual move. After all, Dr. Sloan is neither a concert violinist nor a museum curator. It’s a maneuver he repeated in 1988 when asked if he wanted to acquire another musical masterpiece, this time the Guarneri.

Dr. Sloan’s motivation for buying the violins was twofold. Their purchase meant the amateur violinist could spend hours coaxing music from instruments made by history’s greatest luthiers. It was also an opportunity to share the dazzlingly rare pieces with the public.

 “Violins are made to be played,” Dr. Sloan said. “Many people put them in banks and vaults, but I like them to be played by people and touched by people.”

His violins will be played this weekend during “Brahms on Strads,” a concert co-sponsored by the Salastina Music Society and the Claremont shop J. Brown Violin Maker, set for Saturday, June 6 at 3 p.m. at Little Bridges Hall of Music. The performance will include six noted musicians performing Johannes Brahms’ Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Opus 36.

At the event, audience members will be invited onstage to view the prestigious instruments. The concert will be preceded by musical demonstrations and a guided tour by KUSC deejay Brian Lauritzen, who will share a bit of the instruments’ venerable history.

Born in 1644 in Cremona, Italy, Antonio Stradivari made violins marked by their rich sound and ornate carving until his death at age 93. An estimated 500 Strads are around today. Those from Stradivari’s Golden period, around 1700 to the early 1720s, are particularly valuable.

Giuseppe Guarneri was born in Cremona in 1666 and only lived to be 46. During his lifetime, he crafted a slew of violins whose quality rivals and whose rarity exceeds those of the Strads.

“The Stradivarius is a finesse instrument, but it can sing you into heaven,” Dr. Sloan said. “The Guarneri is more aggressive. It works better in orchestras and big halls. You have to be a master to play it. You need to have a magical touch.”

String fever

The Little Bridges show won’t be the first time Dr. Sloan has loaned out his musical treasures.

Last spring, his Stradivarius was highlighted during the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Strad Fest LA. Over the years, his violins have traveled across the country and as far as Eastern Europe.

“People around the world realize what these instruments are,” he said.

There are Strads in better condition that Dr. Sloan’s, such as one housed at a museum in Oxford, England that doesn’t have the smallest scratch. Its pristine quality comes at a price, however. The instrument hasn’t been played in 300 years.

Jim Brown, founder of J. Brown Violin Maker, marvels each time he sees Dr. Sloan play his famous violins. “For an amateur to have a Stradivarius and a Guarneri is bizarre,” Mr. Brown said.

When the COURIER caught up with Dr. Sloan he was perfecting a violin-neck at a block plane in the shop’s workroom. He met Mr. Brown in 2007 when the Sloans hosted a meeting of violin-makers at their home.

“He was fascinated by it,” Mr. Brown recalled. “I said come on down by the shop. Anyone can learn how to make violins—it’s a trainable skill.”

The exacting work suits someone accustomed to performing surgery, because both endeavors leave little room for error. “You’re constantly measuring,” Dr. Sloan said. “You measure twice before you cut once. And I measure more than twice.”

He is modest about his musical abilities, noting simply that the he plays every day. Mr. Brown is equally understated, granting that the doctor “is very adequate.” In a realm where virtuosos are called masters, modesty seems to come with the territory. Heidi Li, who builds and repairs violins for the shop, ventures that she “straddles the line between professional and amateur.”

Still, it was a treat for COURIER staffers to be treated to a performance by Dr. Sloan and Ms. Li, who played the second movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, followed by Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” known for its use in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War.

Afterwards, Mr. Brown’s 13-year-old daughter Lydia tried out the pair of violins, deciding she preferred the Guarneri. And before putting his musical treasures away, Dr. Sloan put the violins into another pair of eager hands, those of J. Brown customer Jonathan Lewis.

“It’s like they want to be played,” Dr. Sloan said.

Mr. Lewis, a 22-year-old musician who works at Augie’s Coffee in the Claremont Packing House, played “Amazing Grace” on the Guarneri, noting that the instrument demanded a lot of control, and then tried out the Strad.

“It’s like holding a little bit of history in your hands,” he said. “I’m very happy right now.”

Little Bridges is located at 150 E. Fourth St. in Claremont. Tickets to Saturday’s show are $35 general admission, $10 for students with valid ID and $15 for seniors.

For information, call J. Brown Violin Maker at (909) 624-0849.

Sarah Torribio


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