Ottawa’s Yolanda Bruno’s account with the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank

Yolanda Bruno holds the Taft Strad. Photo: Donna Santos

Three years ago Ottawa native Yolanda Bruno got a Stradivarius violin. She didn’t have a rich benefactor, nor is she wealthy. She got her instrument from an important institution, The Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank. In this interview with ARTSFILE, Bruno talks about her choice of the Taft Strad. Her three years with the instrument are up. But she can apply to get it again. More about the Bank itself Wednesday.

Q. Why did you want an instrument from the bank?

A. I applied in September 2015, three years ago. I felt that my violin at the time was holding me back. Many professional colleagues also noted that I needed a better instrument to continue growing. All candidates apply in the spring and then are invited for a live audition in September. This happens every three years.

Q. How was the audition? How much pressure did you feel?

A. The audition consists of 20 minutes of playing and then a five to 10 minute interview with a panel of judges. There are some requirements for our repertoire and then the rest we can choose. It is exciting to see what music everyone plays. We all choose our repertoire carefully as we want to play music that best shows our strengths and our love for music. Some people’s specialities might be early music, others might feel more comfortable with contemporary music. One of the candidates played her own original compositions.

I chose to play pieces by Beethoven and Bartok – two of my favourite “B” composers. The Bartok Violin Concerto No.2 is one of my favourite pieces written for violin. I feel it showcases many different elements on the violin and it shows the performer’s technical ability. It also shows the performer’s harmonic and musical choices and allows for both melodic and folk elements to come out. With only 20 minutes, it’s challenging to find music that best demonstrates all of strengths and passions.

After the performance, we sat down and spoke to the panel about our upcoming projects, our previous projects and accomplishments and our future plans. I was very nervous about this section of the audition. I thought carefully about my goals as a musician and what is most important as a performer. They asked ‘Why do you feel you need another instrument? What do you hope to achieve?’ and they also asked: ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’

I would say we all were under a lot of pressure. It is not very often a performer has the opportunity to apply to play on such incredible instruments. It’s rare to have access to them. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity nowadays. I once spoke to a respected violin dealer in London who told me that in the 1960s, musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra could use three months earnings to buy an old Italian violin, a Gagliano for instance. Today, you would spend a lifetime saving up for a violin like this. To have the opportunity to take one home is a dream come true. There’s no question we are all under a bit of pressure during the audition process.

Q. You chose the Taft Stradivari, why?

A. I chose the Taft because of the warmth and richness of the violin. The Taft also has an incredible silky honey-like sound on the E string. The Taft is very particular in the way it likes to be played – if I force the sound and am aggressive in my approach, it fights back. For older repertoire from the 18th and 19th century, it is an incredible violin. With contemporary music, the violin is fussier and there is some resistance. I’ve had to compromise my approach – less physical and violent and more refined and warm in my right arm. It’s interesting because the violin forced me to be more caring in my approach it has helped a lot with an injury I had several years ago. Thanks Taft!  It has been a privilege learning the ins and outs of this violin over the past three years. She has revealed many beautiful colours and sounds.

Q. Is there pressure in the responsibility of caring for this instrument?

A. There is a lot of pressure. It’s easier now than it was in the beginning but it’s a big responsibility. It really feels like I am walking around a city with a part of history in my hands. It’s like having a Renoir, Picasso or Vermeer painting strapped to your back. It is quite surreal. Stradivari made his instruments in Cremona. On my father’s Italian side, I have a second uncle who lives in Cremona where he works as a police officer. This feels very special  — as if having this violin is in some way part of my heritage and my family’s past. It’s quite symbolic. It was a special feeling bringing this instrument home. I imagine that my ancestors may have known Stradivari or met him in passing.

Q. Do you feel like the guy in the move The Red Violin?

A. I constantly feel like the guy in The Red Violin. I was often day-dreaming about the violin. It survived two world wars, it is older than Napoleon. Who played this violin? How did it survive so many winters without indoor heating? How did survive in old leather cases in the hot summers in Italy? People used to smoke – did ash fall on this violin? There are lots of scratches on the back of the violin – I wonder how they happened. I currently also play on a baroque violin – with gut strings and historical bows. I’m often dreaming of what this violin would have originally sounded like. Violins were modernized (the necks were changed and adjustments were made so that the instrument could handle more tension and in turn produce more sound). The Taft is no exception. Its original neck is long gone. It was once a Baroque violin, set up with a different bridge and gut strings. What would she have sounded like? Quieter, warmer?

I do imagine the many violinists who’ve played on this instrument before it made its way to me. I often fantasize about the many more violinists who will play the Taft once we are all gone. I hope the violin lives for another 300 years!

What did it mean to have such an instrument in your hands?

A. It’s an honour, a once in a lifetime opportunity. For a violinist, it’s a dream.

Q. Do you pay the insurance?

A. The Canada Council for the Arts covers the insurance of the violin. I could never have afforded the insurance on such an expensive 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.