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Where a Stradivari Equals a Kazoo

I have just returned from a chamber music concert at the Tempe Center for the Arts in Arizona, where it was my great pleasure to collaborate with the fabulously elegant pianist Doris Stevenson and the terrific cellist (and artistic director of the Sonoran Chamber Music series) Thomas Landschoot, in music by Beethoven and Ravel.

Following the concert I spent an extra day visiting with old friends and we decided to check out the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, which bills itself as the “most extraordinary museum you will ever hear” and opened in May of 2010.

The building itself is very attractive and the entrance desk uses corporate terminology – museumgoers are “guests” and staff are “team members” – which is not surprising in view of the fact that the former CEO of one of America’s superstores, Target, is the visionary (and, one suspects, much of the budget) behind this creation. The museum’s goal is to present the musical instruments of all of the world’s cultures, and among its advisors are people like J. Kenneth Moore, Margaret Downey Banks and Darcy Kuronen, all of whom are or have been curators of major American musical instrument collections.

After a promising start in the cafe, the collection itself was something of a let-down, with inartful displays and a rather appalling number of instruments that were made in the late 20th century forward – with many post-2008, which were clearly commissioned by the museum itself. That these instruments are new is not the problem, but the perception that they were made with the priority of filling empty galleries is; when this is the priority then things like authenticity and quality of craftsmanship are likely less important, and the chances of their having been actually played (and vetted) by musicians are marginal. Labels do not give any information beyond the most basic – place and period made, and sometimes the name of the maker – without informing the reader of materials used or any historic context. Screens placed throughout feature very brief video and audio bites of some of the instruments in use; sometimes the performers and works are identified and often they are not.

Some of the best displays – in terms of a didactic, educational experience – are by the museum’s sponsors, whose logos are prominently displayed near the entry. One can see a dissected Steinway piano, a Martin guitar workshop, and soon to come is the D’Addario string manufacturer’s display.If you want to see one of Elvis’ suits or drums used by Andy Summers (of the Police) or artifacts used by dozens of other pop or country musicians, many of whom were unknown to me, then this is the place – although some people might find the inclusion of the Jonas Brothers a bit mystifying. Each has his (and I don’t recall a single woman displayed, although Dolly Parton must be in there somewhere) little section of wall with a musical instrument propped up, a couple of other artifacts, and a brief video of the perfomer in action.

Of course I paid attention to the violins on display, and one of the heartwarming aspects is that, like the harp and bagpipe, the violin has a strong presence in a large number of cultures, often in both folk and art music, although clearly less in the African and Australian continents than in Europe, Asia and the Americas. I was not necessarily expecting to see any especially fine violins on display, but I was surprised by the curatorial carelessness. There is no evident definition of “violin” versus “fiddle,” no hint that perhaps the violin is the more artful form (although classical violinists and dealers will sometimes call them “fiddles,” but this is deliberately casual), or that the kinds of wood used, skills involved and acoustical treatment is different in a violin made by the Mirecourt school and that found in, say, Peru. Among the “Argentinian” instruments on display is a violin made in Saxony, with no explanation of why it would be found in Argentina (presumably brought there by an immigrant?)

What surprised me the most was to find probably the best-made violin in the collection, from the Mirecourt school, in a Cajun/Zydeco display, where it is called a “fiddle” and displayed next to a pair of spoons. Violins made by the Mirecourt school could rightfully be called mass-produced, but they were made by skilled craftmen using good-quality materials and excellent models, such as instruments by Antonio Stradivari, which are still among the finest ever created.

Most of today’s violinmakers are copyists and not originators; it is galling when they claim that their instruments are “as good or better” than the best by Stradivari or the Guarneri family, as without these master craftsmen we would have few fine violins. This process of copying is like taking a great painting by Rembrandt and turning it into a “paint-by-numbers” version. The result may be pleasing and even “artful,” but it is still an imitation and not the same level of brilliance and creativity, by far. (Imagine if I decided to play just like Jascha Heifetz and studied all of his recordings and replicated his bowings, fingerings and interpretation. I might sound quite good – but would still be merely an imitator owing it all to his originality, just like those “Elvises” in Las Vegas.)

There are a few interesting and good examples of the evidently-reviled “Western” instruments, including a glass harmonica, some orchestrions (precursers to the jukebox), and a recording piano for making piano rolls. I also had fun trying to play the “Meditation” from the opera Thais on a theremin in the Experience Gallery, surrounded by children (and some adults) banging away on percussion instruments. A harpsichord in the “American” gallery appears, from the label copy, to have been made by the American maker John Challis (with whom my husband apprenticed) – but is actually an instrument, perhaps centuries old, that he revised in 1966 and probably of European origin. It is displayed adjacent to an exhibit on “Canadian Fiddle Traditions.”

The “Israel” section consists of perhaps five items that include an oud made in Egypt (why?) and a couple of shofars, with a seconds-long video clip of Pinchas Zukerman playing Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic. Go figure. It also seems that the professionals at the Musical Instrument Museum think that Klezmer music is an entirely American musical idiom, without origins and continuing traditions in Eastern Europe.

After encountering scores of instruments made in 2008 and more recently, it was a relief to encounter a full gamelan with some slight wear indicating that it actually has been used by musicians.

The instrument conservator(s) are a main attraction as well; like the chimpanzees in the zoo they are behind a glass partition for the public to gawk at, surrounded by more video screens and instructional signs about insects that like to eat musical instruments.

Arizonans are proud of their new museum – rightfully to a certain extent – but its deficiencies are disturbing to me and I returned home last night wanting to know more about the people and ideas behind this venture. A quotation from European curator Christina Linsenmeyer seems to say it all:

"We don’t feel we need a Stradivarius (violin). If someone offered it, we’d be happy, of course, But I’d have no problem showing a Strad alongside a mirliton (kazoo), with the wax paper and string. Both are the same type of tool; one is not better than the other, and the fact is, kids will probably get more out of the mirliton than the Strad."

A mirliton (kazoo) made from animal bone.

I understand the desire of a museum to be politically correct and not presume that the white anglo-saxon culture is superior to others in music or any other art form. But when the everything-is-equal mentality is combined with an indifference to detail, what could be an excellent educational opportunity is squandered.I also understand the desire to appeal to children, but Dr. Seuss is not Shakespeare and a kazoo and its music is not the cultural equivalent of a great violin and its repertoire.


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