Sweet Symphony

How two rare Stradivarius violins at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra brought Michael Shih and Swang Lin, who both grew up in Taiwan, together.
Sweet Symphony
Photo by Richard W. Rodriguez

Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins” filled the conference room in the administrative corridor of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra office building. The interpretation was a mix of power, eloquence, and swiftness. Applause emanated from behind the closed doors to the room after Michael Shih, the concertmaster, and Swang Lin, the senior principal associate concertmaster—without any other members of the orchestra—stroked their bows across the strings of their violins on the final note.

The extemporaneous recital was a preview of Thursday’s performance in the new sanctuary at the Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, where Shih and Lin will make their public debut as featured soloists playing two extremely rare and incredibly expensive Stradivarius violins.

The Fort Worth symphony is thought to be one of only a few American orchestras with more than one Stradivarius violin, a fact made more remarkable by the story of the men who are playing them. Shih, 41, and Lin, 50, went to the same elementary school in Taipei, Taiwan—Guangren Catholic—and shared one of the same music teachers growing up, yet they did not become friends until they arrived in Texas decades later.

They had bumped into each over the years—at the Aspen Music Festival in 1990 and at the Asia Society in New York in 1999—but it was not until 2001, when Shih joined the symphony where Lin had been since 1991, that they forged a true friendship.

“You know the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?” Lin asked.

“Separation,” Shih corrected.

“The classical music world is not that big of a community,” Lin continued. “You can find common friends”—he snapped his fingers—“just like that.”

The two men took divergent paths to Texas. Lin, shy and thoughtful and a diehard Cowboys fan, served in the military before emigrating to the United States and attending the Eastman School of Music. Shih, a boisterous but tidy high school presidential scholar who came to America not knowing any English, moved here with his mother after seventh grade and went on to the Juilliard School.

Both men have played violin since they were young. “But when it comes to the Strad, it takes a different skill level, a different approach,” Lin said. “You have to draw the sound out. It took me a long time to learn.”

Antonio Stradivari, an Italian luthier who lived from 1644 to 1737, constructed these violins (and some guitars, cellos, and harps) with a distinctive scroll that is telltale for appraisers. He labeled each instrument Stradivarius, the Latin version of his last name. Of the 1,116 Strads he made, about 600 still exist.

“One of the things that really makes it different is that while a lot of modern instruments sound great under the ear, close by, the Stradivari really projects out there,” Shih said. “It has a laser-beam focus.”

Shih’s Davis Stradivarius, on loan to the Fort Worth symphony from Mitzi and Bill Davis of Fort Worth since 1981, dates back to 1710. It is thought to be worth between $4 million and $8 million, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in 2010. Lin’s Eugenie, ex-Mackenzie Stradivarius, loaned by an anonymous donor last August, is from 1685. (The Fort Worth symphony declined to comment on either instrument’s value.)

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra used to have the Eugenie, giving it two Stradivarius violins for a brief period. It was on loan to the Dallas symphony’s concertmaster, Emanuel Borok, who took it with him when he retired in August 2010.

“It was obviously an artistic loss,” said Gary Levinson, the senior associate concertmaster, who plays the Strad that remains in the Dallas symphony’s possession.

The Eugenie, ex-Mackenzie’s owner lent the instrument to Borok in 1993 after his own Stradivarius was stolen. (The purloined violin, which was eventually recovered, is the one Levinson now plays.) But the donor’s heart had always been with the Fort Worth symphony, where the Eugenie was before it was in Borok’s possession. And the donor later developed a kinship with Lin. “Swang and I play Words With Friends every night,” the donor said.

And so it was that two violins crafted in Cremona, Italy, more than three hundred years ago, brought Lin and Shih to the Fort Worth symphony conference room, where they performed $10 million music on works of art that seem too precious to play, but become unplayable if they are not used.

When asked about the Stradivarius “blind taste test”—an experiment recently written about by NPR that concluded that professional musicians could not tell the difference between a Stradivarius and another violin—Lin and Shih defended the Stradivarius. They criticized the test’s inhibiting environment, a hotel room, saying a Stradivarius is meant for a grand room, like the Arborlawn’s sanctuary.

“Playing the Strads,” Shih said, “which were made around the same time that Bach was working, in the setting where he worked all his life, a church, we will strive to create something that will be closer to what Bach’s audiences experienced.”

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