Sound Scholarship

The Smithsonian collection of 8,000-plus instruments includes 5 by Stradivari. Eric Long, SI

A rare concert captivated guests as they celebrated the 150th anniversary of the republic of Italy earlier this year at the Italian ambassador’s residence here in Washington. Kenneth Slowik, a music scholar and world-class cello virtuoso, discussed the history of the cello and the allure of instruments made by Antonio Stradivari. Slowik, curator of musical instruments and artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), then brought to life the work of two geniuses as he played a Bach suite on the 1688 Marylebone Stradivarius cello, which is in NMAH’s collection of instruments. I watched with pride, and the audience responded to his passionate and perfect performance with enthusiastic applause.

NMAH is one of only a few museums in the world that use their instruments in live, public performances as part of an ongoing, long-term program. There are more than 8,000 instruments in our collection—one of the world’s largest. Slowik is the curator of 5,000 of these, including 5 created by Stradivari. Slowik and his colleagues provide the scholarship needed to educate the public about the collection. Funded by Friends of Music and presented in coordination with the Smithsonian Associates, the Chamber Music Society has been a pioneer in historical performance practice, a movement striving to recreate the way music was originally played, from the Baroque period through the early 20th century.

This season the society’s Axelrod Quartet Series will feature Stradivarius and Amati instruments in quartets by Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, as well as Mendelssohn’s octet, in which the young, prize-winning Old City String Quartet will join members of the Axelrod Quartet. The Masterworks of Four Centuries Series will offer seven programs, with repertoire including Pandolfi, Rameau, Duphly, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak and Arensky. To see a schedule of concerts and to purchase recordings, please visit

In May, Kenneth Slowik received the 2011 Secretary’s Distinguished Research Lecture Award, which recognizes a scholar’s sustained achievement in research, longstanding investment in the Smithsonian Institution and ability to communicate research to nonspecialist audiences. Over the past two decades, Slowik has presented more than 300 pre-concert lectures illuminating the musical and cultural contexts of the works being performed.

Musicians, scholars and collectors from around the world visit the Smithsonian to conduct research and examine and play our instruments, joining us in live performances. Our collection reflects our rich cultural heritage, from the classics to jazz to rock ’n’ roll, and enables us to share the magic of music with the public.

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

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