What: “The Red Violin” film screening
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend
Cost: $7, plus fees
Contact: towertheatre.org or 541-317-0700
What: Elizabeth Pitcairn performs “The Red Violin” concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7 (6:45 concert talk for ticketholders)
Cost: $42, $10 children
Contact: highdesertchambermusic.com, email@example.com or 541-306-3988
Thanksgiving has an extra portion of meaning to violin virtuoso Elizabeth Pitcairn.
It was on Thanksgiving Day 1990 that she learned her family’s secret bidder had successfully won the 1720 Red Stradivarius at auction at Christie’s of London.
“These kinds of instruments, they don’t surface, except once in a lifetime,” she said. “And if it happens in your lifetime, it’s amazing.”
It picked up the name Red Stradivarius while in possession of 19th century Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. After the Christie’s auction, it was learned the instrument had been owned by relatives of composer Felix Mendelssohn, who had a quartet.
“So now, it’s known in history as the Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius,” Pitcairn said. “They were a very wealthy banking family, but amateur musicians, loved music. Then there was only one owner in between them and me, a kind of anonymous businessman from New York who was an amateur violinist who kept it secure in his private collection for 45 years.”
The instrument dates to what’s considered luthier Antonio Stradivari’s golden period, a 25-year stretch when he made what are considered the peak of his powers.
The 1720 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius boasts both a high pedigree and an aura of mystery around it: Though the instrument’s recent history is accounted for, no one knows who owned it for nearly 200 years of its existence.
The case of the missing Stradivarius has led to much speculation among historians and writers across the media spectrum to speculate about the mystery of the Red Violin. Filmmaker Francois Girard is one of them, and on Saturday, you can catch a screening of his 1999 film, “The Red Violin,” which depicts the instrument and its keepers in a number of times and settings, including Vienna, China and Montreal.
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, the film’s score earned an Academy Award for composer John Corigliano. In addition to the screening, Pitcairn will share by way of video her experiences with the prized violin.
On the following weekend, you can get a look at the instrument in its present life with Pitcairn, who kicks off High Desert Chamber Music’s 2017-18 season with “The Red Violin” concert Oct. 7 at the Tower Theatre. She’ll be joined by pianist Louise Thomas in a program that includes Corigliano’s “Red Violin Chaconne” and Fritz Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro.”
Pitcairn hails from a musical family: her mother, Mary Eleanor Brace Pitcairn, was a Juilliard-trained cellist and her father, Laren Pitcairn, an opera singer. By the time she received the violin at 16, she was something of a veteran. She first picked up a violin at age 3; she made her orchestra debut at 14.
Listening to her tell the story of getting the violin, it’s easy to sense Pitcairn’s youthful excitement over the Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius.
“My mother took me over for a 24-hour trip from Pennsylvania to London,” Pitcairn said, recalling that she’d received “special permission from the auction house — and permission from my high school to miss a day of school.”
She remembers the day vividly. “We had private arrangements for me to be able to play on the violin for 20 minutes. I got to actually touch it and play it in the crowded auction room, kind of off in my own corner. People were walking all around, coming over to listen. I was in my own world, because the sound was so glorious.”
The buyer was anonymous, acting on behalf of a professional musician, according to reports at the time.
“Every time Thanksgiving rolls around, I have that feeling like, that was the day that we found out,” she said.
Keeping a secret
High Desert Chamber Music founder and executive director Isabelle Senger remembers those days, too, in a sense. As a young girl, Senger performed with Pitcairn in two top youth orchestras, the American Youth Symphony and the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra.
“Her grandparents purchased the instrument back in that time, but I didn’t know; we didn’t know,” Senger said. “If you read her website, you’ll see that was a conscious decision to keep that a secret until she had made it on her own accord as a performer.”
According to elizabethpitcairn.com, the young violinist and her family kept mum about owning the violin until her “burgeoning solo career brought her into the public eye on international concert stages after nearly three decades of rigorous training by the world’s most esteemed violin teachers.”
Not every teenager could be trusted with such a prized instrument, but Pitcairn knew what she had in her possession.
“Going to college … I wasn’t allowed to have it in the freshman dorm for my first year. No surprise there,” Pitcairn said, laughing.
History in her hands
Over the past 27 years, Pitcairn has built a strong reputation through appearances with major orchestras and as an educator. This past spring, she and her Strad toured Europe, visiting locations of major musical significance.
“(It) was an amazing trip through history, because I started off in Salzburg, where Mozart was born,” she said. Next she went to Vienna, where it’s believed the violin had visited prior to Pitcairn’s owning it.
“From Vienna, I went to Prague and ended up playing in the hometown of this Czech violinist who had been loaned this Red Strad to make his debut with his U.S. debut with the Boston Symphony in 1896,” she said.
The concert was in a chateau outside of Prague that had been owned by a count who commissioned Vivaldi’s Four Seasons — which she happened to be playing.
“It was this little walk through history,” she said.
“I always refer to it as though I’m the lifetime caretaker because I do have it for my lifetime, but it will pass through my hands to someone else,” Pitcairn said. “I think the violin’s enjoying these couple of decades here because it’s out on the big concert stages.”
Pitcairn said she thinks of the instrument almost as a sibling, and a precious one at that.
“I think people don’t realize — even I don’t realize — that a part of my brain has been on alert since I was 16,” she said. “I just live with it. I admire people who have children, because children have legs and can get up and run around and get into all kinds of terrible things.
“Thankfully, my violin doesn’t do that. But I do have to look out for it and make sure I don’t set it down and forget it. I’m grateful to my mom because she trained me from a young age, even with the previous instruments, how to properly take care of them.”
Pitcairn doesn’t have firm plans for the Red Mendelssohn’s 300th birthday in 2020, “but I may retrace the journey of the movie,” she said. “All those countries are places I do have connections to, oddly enough.”