HANNAH YI: It’s 15 minutes before a concert in New York City and violist David Aaron Carpenter is warming up. The performance is special. He’s using a viola that’s nearly 300 years old.
DAVID AARON CARPENTER: I mean this instrument was, you know, probably heard by you know Bach and Handel and all these, you know, great composers Mozart, Paganini. So just to see, you know, where the timeline of this instrument in our world history is, you know, is quite something.
HANNAH YI: Eight of the musicians along with Carpenter are also using instruments just as old. Stradivariuses, named after the famed 18th century Italian.
DAVID AARON CARPENTER: Antonio Stradivarius was the Da Vinci of his time. He was the master craftsman, absolute musical genius in what he did because these instruments have survived 300 years and still sound absolutely glorious.
HANNAH YI: On this night, Carpenter is playing the Stradivarius viola at an event organized by Sotheby’s. The auction house is accepting bids for the instrument and expects to sell it for more than 45 million dollars. To Carpenter, it’s worth it.
DAVID AARON CARPENTER: There are people out there who are willing to spend over $100 million for Edvard Munch’s, you know, The Scream, or, you know, a great Da Vinci painting. I actually put this in the same category as those master works, and I think these instruments have kind of shaped our civilization and culture, without them, I mean, we probably wouldn’t have the same kinds of instruments today.
HANNAH YI: But to others like violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz, who’s been making high-end violins for nearly 30 years, that price is too high. Especially when the best stringed instruments used by professionals today typically cost around 50 thousand dollars – a miniscule fraction of what the Stradivarius is expected to fetch.
SAM ZYGMUNTOWICZ: People often say, “Well, what makes a Strad great?” And I always find that an off-putting question because it assumes that all Strads are great.
HANNAH YI: Zygmuntowicz makes his violins by hand using the same 18th century tools as Stradivari. But he also incorporates 21st century technology like CT scans and 3D lasers to analyze everything from how the wood vibrates to the shape of the sound holes. He thinks the sound quality produced by his violins are as good as Strads.
SAM ZYGMUNTOWICZ: I really couldn’t tell the difference at first. And then at some point, I had to admit to myself that I actually preferred my own violins at points. And then some of my clients were telling me the same thing.
HANNAH YI: Could his instruments possibly sound as good as Strads? French researcher Claudia Fritz wanted to find out. So two years ago just outside of Paris, she blindfolded ten top international soloists. They played both modern violins and Strads. The musicians tested the violins in a hotel room, and then with a full orchestra at a concert hall. Fritz told us in a Skype interview that many of the soloists couldn’t even tell the difference between the new and the old violins. In fact, many picked the modern violins as their favorites.
CLAUDIA FRITZ: Stradivari violins have probably amazing tone qualities, but they are not unique. We can find these qualities in new instruments. Otherwise if this were not the case, then people would have been able to tell them apart more systematically.
HANNAH YI: But maybe this entire debate about the quality of sound misses a bigger point – that music lovers or investors bidding on the Stradivarius are more interested in owning a piece of history.
DAVID AARON CARPENTER: When you’re kind of putting one against the other and saying one sounds better than the other, it’s almost disrespectful to Stradivarius because, I mean, at the end of the day, those modern instruments are pretty much copies of Stradivarius. To say that one is better than the other, you have to take in account the history as well.
HANNAH YI: And in the case of this Stradivarius, history will come at a price starting at 45 million dollars.