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WASHINGTON — Ten world-class soloists put prized Stradivarius violins and new, cheaper instruments to a blind scientific test to determine which has the better sound. The results may seem off-key to musicians and collectors: The new violins won handily.
The top choice out of a dozen old and new violins was by far a new one. So was the second choice, according to a study released Monday.
Five of the six old violins were made by the famous Stradivari family in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Strads and other old Italian violins have long been considered superior instruments. They cost 100 times the violins made today, the study authors said.
“I was surprised that my top choice was new,” said American violinist Giora Schmidt, who lives in New York City.
“Studying music and violin in particular, it’s almost ingrained in your thinking that the most successful violinists on the concert stage have always played old Italian instruments,” he said.
Another participant, French soloist Solenne Paidassi, said “there’s a paranoia” about new instruments, compared to “a glamour about old instruments.” The idea was to try to unlock “the secrets of Stradivari,” to figure out what makes the famed instruments so special, the study authors said. Their results are in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study attempts to quantify something that is inherently subjective and personal — the quality of an instrument, said authors Joseph Curtin, a Michigan violin maker and Claudia Fritz, a music acoustics researcher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France.
A few years earlier, the duo blind-tested violins in an Indianapolis hotel room, but this test was more controlled and comprehensive. The 10 violinists put the instruments through their paces in a rehearsal room and concert hall just outside Paris. They even played with an orchestra. The lights were dimmed and the musicians donned dark welder’s glasses.
The 10 violinists were asked to rate the instruments for sound, playability, and other criteria, and pick one that they would want to use on a concert tour.
Even Curtin who makes new violins for a living, said he was surprised by the results.
“I remember trying the old violins and the new violins among ourselves just before the testing got going and saying, ‘You know maybe the old ones will win’,” Curtin said.
But when the lights were turned down, all that could be judged was the sound. Some violins were 300 years old. Others days old.
The dozen violins together were worth about million and the older, more expensive ones required special security, Fritz said.
After they had whittled down their choices, the soloists were asked whether the remaining instruments were old or new. The musicians got it wrong 33 times and right 31 times.
Canadian soloist Susanne Hou has been playing a rare million 269-year-old Guarneri del Gesu violin and knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. A video of the 2012 experiment shows her playing some of the violins for only a few seconds, then holding the instrument out at arm’s length in apparent distaste.
But, like other participants, she was drawn to a certain unidentified violin. It was new.
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