The Canada Council banks on music

Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman looked after the most valuable instrument in the Canada Council Musical Instruments Bank's collection, the 1696 Bonjour Stradivari. Photo: Red Rubber Studio

Think of a great violin or cello solo. It is a marriage of two things: a well-made instrument and a talented musician. That synergy matters.

This has been the purpose of the Canada Council’s Musical Instrument Bank since it was founded in 1985.

At the time, says the director of outreach and business development, Tara Lapointe, people at the council were casting about for ways to support the music industry and musicians in particular.

When Denis Brott, the cellist and teacher, and William Turner, patron of the arts and businessman, proposed the creation of a bank of instruments, it was the right idea at the right time, Lapointe, who has responsibility for the bank, said.

It is not a new concept. Many conservatories will have instruments available for their students.

But what set this bank apart is these instruments would be for musicians embarked on professional careers after their graduation.

“What happens when they are out of school and don’t have the money to buy a valuable instrument. And they haven’t been paired with a patron or a mentor. This was identified as a gap, an opportunity where the Canada Council could potentially intervene.”

Brott and Turner got to work drawing upon their networks in Montreal and Toronto primarily. They eventually accumulated enough funds and with that initial investment a few instruments were purchased.

Over the years the bank has grown. It now has about 20 violins and cellos in its care dating from the late 17th century to 1900. The instruments are pretty pricey. The collection itself is valued at about $40 million and it includes instruments made by Stradivari and Guarneri. The most expensive is the 1696 Bonjour Cello by Antonio Stradivari valued at a tidy $12 million. The instruments hold their value and usually increase in worth. The Bonjour cello was worth about $8 million, six short years ago.

The oldest is the 1689 Baumgartner Stradivari violin. It’s worth $5.5 million and is on loan to the bank from an anonymous patron.

The instruments are acquired in three ways, Lapointe said.

“People leave us money and then we go and buy the instruments. People will also leave us instruments and then we have a number that are loaned to us by patrons in Canada and the U.S.”

The benefit to an owner is that the instrument is played.

“With that kind of value you don’t want them sitting in a cupboard. They are played, insured and maintained. For the musicians who get to play them, it is an extraordinary opportunity.

“It is a badge of honour. When you apply for a grant at the Council and you are successful; that’s a badge of honour too. You have been asssessed by your peers. It’s the same thing with Musical Instrument Bank.”

The bank assembles a talented jury that assesses applications (this year there are about 75 applications). Those interested submit a CD of their work. The final 20 or so are invited to Toronto where the instruments are kept. And they perform for the jury.

This year’s final auditions will be held the week of Sept. 16 at the Royal Conservatory Music, said Sarah Brown, the program officer for Prizes at the council, including the bank.

After their live audition, the finalists go through a nerve-wracking interview. The jury then ranks the finalists — violinists and cellists ranked on different days. The ranking sets the order for picking the instruments. All the finalists have a list of instruments in mind. Jury ranks the finalists and that ranking is the order they get to select the instruments.

To prepare for their choice of instrument, the finalists are allowed to try them all out.

“Certain instruments are better for certain people. It can be based on what they do. If they are in a quartet, they may be looking for something different from a soloist or an orchestra concertmaster,” Brown said.

“I have handled a Strad,” Lapointe said. I was wearing gloves and under the supervision of the luthier. It’s terrifying. It’s much more exciting when you hand one to a performer and they play from their hearts.”

The artists have to be 18 or older and they have to have shown that they have received professional training such as at university, Lapointe said.  The instruments tend to go to younger musicians in the early years of their career, but more mature artists have gotten instruments in the past. And an artist can be awarded up to three three-year cycles with an instrument. These three year loans are not necessarily consecutive and they are usually not with the same instrument.

Each of the bank’s instruments are valuable. The bank has a “whole spiel” that puts the fear of God into the musicians who have to sign an agreement that outlines their responsibilities to the instrument that they must get reviewed by lawyer.

“We give them these almost indestructible cases,” Lapointe said. “It is made very clear that you can’t leave the instrument on the floor of a rehearsal hall. You can’t leave it balanced on a chair in the hall. You are either playing it or it is in the case. No one else can touch it.”

Apparently there is a video of the type of case used with a car backing over it. The case survived.

“But we don’t want anyone testing that,” she said, “we take our commitment and responsibility seriously and we impart that to the musicians.”

The care of the instruments is in the hands of a luthier in Toronto named Ric Heinl, of George Heinl & Company Ltd.

Heinl’s teams handles all maintenance and repairs, Lapointe said. The instruments are all back in Heinl’s vault getting a tune up as the latest three-year cycle has just ended.

The bank officials know that there are great contemporary makers, but Lapointe says they are sticking for now in the period ending at 1900.

The youngest instrument is a Stefano Scarampella violin from 1900 and an Enrico Rocca violin from 1902.

“When people offer us violins and cellos or bequest to us tend to be from the time period (ending in 1900) because that is what the program is known for. It feels like a nice niche for us but I absolutely acknowledge there are modern makers who produce beautiful instruments,” Lapointe said, adding that if a truly great instrument came along from 1950s the council would consult the bank’s advisors about it.

At the end of the day, it is to marvel at a talent that take pieces of wood, fit them together, cover them with shellac and produce a sound worthy of an angel.

It is also amazing how different they sound from each other.

“When you are sitting in audition room, the finalists will pick three or four of the violins and play same piece on each and they are clearly different. It’s kind of like wine tasting. One will have a bright sound another will be a darker sound with some meat to it,” Lapointe said.

These instruments, she added, “they’re not making any more of them. They are increasing in value because of scarcity but some are no longer repairable or have been lost. So this remains a very exclusive group.”

The bank does have a network that is searching out instruments for the bank. The number in hand now is a good size, brown said, but the instruments on loan are occasionally taken back by their owners and they need to be replaced.

“We quietly cultivate the instruments. We have connections who advise. We also have a lovely alumni, including people such as the violinist Lara St. John, and Chamberfest’s Roman Borys, who is a cellist and they are talking to people all the time about instruments and advocating for the Canada Council.”

While she would like a few more cellos, Lapointe said she believes the bank is in a happy spot right now.

An astute reader might wonder why the bank just holds violins and cellos and not violas?

“I have mixed feelings about violas, Lapointe said, knowing she would anger the violists out there, “but they are not generally solo instruments. The program is geared to a solo career.”

Brown also acknowledged that there is demand for other instruments including double basses and brass and woodwinds but “our ability to fulfill that demand is limited.”

A debate for another day perhaps, but there is no denying the importance of what the bank does hand out.

“I remember watching Matilda Kaul, who has plays in a quartet all over Europe. Three years ago  at the auditions she was ranked sixth among the violinists. They were all waiting around,” Lapointe said.

“The person who was ranked first went in and everyone was wondering what they picked. Then there was the shock of what they did choose. It’s a really challenging day emotionally, it is super exciting but you are on a rollercoaster.

“The fifth ranked violinist went into the vault and took a long time picking. When Kaul finally went into the room she saw her instrument and promptly burst into tears of joy.”

It’s a powerful thing the meeting of a musician and an instrument.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.