Before then, violins made by Austrian Jakob Stainer were more sought after than Stradivari's. The Smithsonian also has an entire string quartet - two violins, a viola and a cello — made by Stainer in the 1600s. They, too, were donated by Herbert Axelrod.
All the instruments get played. Sturm referred me to Kenneth Slowik, professional cellist and artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. Slowik oversees the use of these instruments in the master classes and the chamber concerts on the Mall. Last season Smithsonian groups held 17 concerts, featuring works from Rameau to Bartok.
"But we're careful," Sturm said. "Even if the instruments travel, we use them under controlled circumstances. We have security guards, and humidity and temperature controls."
Sturm has never had any disasters with the Strads in his years at the Smithsonian. "These are in amazingly fine condition. Mostly we just keep 'em clean and change the strings."
Appropriately, the Chamber Music Society's quartet, known first as the Smithson, then as the Party of Four, now is officially named the Axelrod Quartet — the same name given to those glorious Strads they get to play.
"I can't tell you," Sturm marveled, "how it feels to play them, the smoothness, the ease with which you can draw out a rich sound. You just don't have to work so hard."
Well now, maybe that was my problem. I played the violin from the age of 4 until I discovered girls, and I practiced for an hour every day, struggled with the high school orchestra, sweated over the annual solo performance, and it was hard work, all right. It was agony every minute, trying to keep it from squeaking, the way a violin will.
Maybe if I'd had a Strad . . .
By Michael Kernan