Quality is elusive. When we encounter it, we know it. But, what are the elements that create it? That is often harder to discern.
Decades ago, when violin-maker David Carón met soloist Ruggiero Ricci and heard him play his Guarneri violin, he knew the instrument was something special. Giuseppi Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744) is known as one of the world's most renowned violin-makers. At the concert, Carón's seat was a good distance from the stage, in a "cheap seat." The sound of the Guarneri violin, Carón recalls, hit the back of the hall like a cannon. He told this to Ricci backstage after the concert. Ricci remarked, "Loudness is only a relative term to something louder or softer, but quality is what fills the hall."
Carón started pondering what this quality was. The next day he dropped his violin form into the wastebasket and started over on his quest to find out how to make instruments with the quality of which Ricci had spoken. He spent the next decade conducting research, studying the structures of many, many violins, from the great ones made by Stradivari and Guarneri to lesser instruments. Eventually, Carón developed some theories about what elements of their construction made for the best instruments.
"My instruments are pretty well-known for their ability to fill a hall," Carón said. "I wouldn't say they're exactly loud, but they're big-sounding."
This weekend Carón is celebrating 60 years of making violins and other stringed instruments with a unique pair of concerts. Saturday and Sunday (June 1-2) at 3 p.m., Taos Soundscapes presents performances exclusively featuring instruments made by the violin-maker.
Carón will introduce the program, which includes selections from Hindemith's "Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 31, No.2"; Frank Bridges' "Lament for Two Violas, H. 117"; Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Phantasy Quintet; Prelude to J.S. Bach's Suite in D Minor for Solo Cello"; Casals' "Song of the Birds"; and Mendelssohn's "Quintet No. 2 in B-Flat, Op. 87."
The concerts are performed by violinists Kay Newnam and Emily Aquin, violists Barbara Sudweeks and Rebecca Glass, and cellists Karen R. Terbeek and Rebecca Carón (who is artistic director of Taos Soundscapes and married to David). The musicians will play a mixture of solo and ensemble works particularly chosen to illuminate the quality of sound for which David Carón's instruments are known.
There were two other significant events, in addition to Ricci's performance, that helped Carón to perfect his craftsmanship. The first was that Carón came across a woodcutter who was cutting up an Engelmann spruce. The tree had been used to make a few instruments which Carón had heard. Impressed with their sound, he bought the whole tree. From 1972 until recently, he has made all of his violins and violas from that particular tree.
The second was that Carón met a missile engineer who had studied violin-making in Europe and was intrigued with making a particular kind of varnish that had been used on Italian instruments in the late 1600s. He was unsuccessful in reproducing it for some time. Then, by accident, he stumbled across a way to duplicate the old Italian varnish. The recipe is based on a resin made from turpentine. He taught Carón how to make the varnish.
Finally, to perfect his understanding, Carón spoke with many fine musicians, discussing with them the details of what they liked and disliked about their instruments. He developed his own style of making instruments, making it a point not to copy other instruments, even those made by the masters. He studied the work of the masters, but made his own original forms. Carón also made most of his instruments to order, for a specific musician, taking into consideration the person's body size, teachers and how they would use the instrument.
"Eventually, I'd say I wasn't trying to make an instrument that would fill halls, but one that would have a large variety in the sound - from almost flutelike to almost oboelike sound, and also very percussive sound," Carón said. "One of my customers who's going to be playing on this program said, 'When I play, people cry. They tell me my sound just goes right through to their core. One old soldier came up to her after a performance and said, 'If I walk out on your performance it's not that I don't like your performance, but just that it take me places I can't deal with right now.' This ability to do that - to use music as a language where you have all the vowels and consonants … that's been my purpose -- to give players a large vocabulary and the largest palette possible. And, as one guy used to tell his students, 'It doesn't matter how beautiful you play if no one can hear you,' so I figured the guy in the cheap seats needs to get to hear it, too."
"David is a master of beautiful sound," commented Barbara Sudweeks, who plays in the concert. "David has figured out how to make violas that have big, beautiful sounds and are still in a size range that make them easy to play. He is truly a master and a genius. His instruments are comfortable in the hand and they don't ruin your hands, arms or back when practicing and playing for many hours a day. I don't know how he does it but he's amazing!"
For the Taos concerts, Sudweeks will be playing Carón's newest viola, named Gasper de Taos.
In 1941, Carón was born to a working-class, musical family in Chicago. He began cello studies at the age of 12. Over the course of his life, he studied with Walter Brauer, principal of the Schubert Theater in Chicago; Karl Früh a cellist in the NBC Studio Orchestra; Marijane Carr Seigal, who played in the Grant Park Symphony and the Lyric Opera; and Robert Swenson of the Walden Quartet at the University of Illinois. Carón also studied informally with Lev Aronson, professor of cello at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Carón began his career as a violin-maker in 1958 at the age of 17. He had learned basic woodworking skills in his father's woodshop and enjoyed making archery equipment and furniture. Violin repair seemed like a good second job that would support his endeavors in music. Carón worked as an apprentice for Kagan and Gains, and within a year was working on bows for members of the Chicago Symphony. Eventually, he worked under violin-maker Franz Kimberg, learning the details of violin repair, restoration and, after a time, violin-making. Carón decided that violin-making would be his main career.
In 1963, Carón became the shop and string department manager for a shop in Champaign, Illinois, and in 1969 started his own business. Looking for sunnier climes, he moved his business to Dallas, Texas, and worked as a partner in a business called Frets and Strings. During this time, Carón made instruments in his home shop in the evenings and on weekends. In 1975, he left Frets and Strings to make instruments exclusively. Carón moved his workshop to Taos in 1989, eventually purchasing land in Valle Escondido where he lives today with Rebecca Carón, several cats and the wild birds who visit their many feeders.
The Taos Soundscapes concerts will given at 210 Ledoux Street, the private home of Vicky and Don Zillioux and the historic site of R.C. Gorman's gallery.
Tickets are $25, $15 for students and free for ages 12 and under with an adult.
Seating is limited. Reserve your space by calling (505) 363-0265, or visiting taossoundscapes.com. Refreshments will be served at intermission and after the concert.
These special performances are sponsored by Jerry and Peggy Davis and David and Rebecca Carón. For more information on Carón's, visit Carónviolins.com.