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.