"It’s a bit like comparing old wine to new," said Bob Brode, a master violin and viola maker. "We appreciate the past, work with it day to day, but it’s kind of frustrating. We’ll never know how good the instrument will sound when it’s really ripe -- 200 years from now."
Delaware County Times October 30, 2005
Brode is one of three craftsmen who build the delicate wooden treasures at David Bromberg’s Fine Violins in Wilmington.
Bromberg, a violin wholesaler and celebrated musician in his own right, is a highly sought-after expert in the authentication of fine antique instruments who turns up at auctions in Brussels, London and Paris each year.
He’s also assembled one of the world’s finest collections, roughly 250 historic, handcrafted American violins that reside at his cut-stone building on Market Street.
In the early 1980s Bromberg attended "violin-making school" in Chicago, but discovered his passion and talent was not as a builder but rather as a trader of violins and violas.
His longtime road manager, Steve Bailey, negotiated a deal with the city of Wilmington giving Bromberg a four-story building for free (he invested $600,000 in renovations), in the fall of 2002. So Bromberg picked up his family and moved to Wilmington.
In exchange Bromberg agreed to help jump-start Wilmington’s music scene by bringing other celebrated musicians to town. And he’s made good on that promise.
Bromberg, himself, will be performing with his Big Band at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington. He’ll also perform in concert Nov. 12 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside.
Maestro on strings
- When Bromberg was in his 20s, the Tarrytown, N.Y. native moved quickly from lead guitarist for Jerry Jeff Walker to headlining the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the 1970s, fronting a band that performed folk, bluegrass and blues with equal verve.
During the touring years Bromberg played guitar, violin and banjo on numerous recording sessions with other legends including Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, George Harrison Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, Dr. John and Rev. Gary Davis.He points to B.B. and Albert King, as well as Charlie Christian and Rev. Davis as influences on his musical style.
The tall, broad-shouldered Bromberg draws comparisons on violins’ places of origin and their value. He makes his living dealing in European instruments, but it’s his American violin and bow collection that he envisions as his brand of financial security. He pegs their value at more than $1 million and hopes a museum will exhibit them some day.
"A collection has a mind and an appetite of its own," says Bromberg, smiling. "It shouts at me, ‘I need that, hey feed me.’ A violin is valued much like artwork: who created it, when, where, what’s the condition and how does it perform? Stradivarius, the gold standard, can be worth anywhere from $1 million to $7 million."
Across from his desk stands a walk-in vault with steel-lined walls and door. The walls are fixed with cubbyholes filled with valuable violins that are owned by Bromberg or waiting to be repaired.
His oldest American violin dates back to 1850 with the bulk of the collection being built from 1880 to 1930. Eighty bows are kept there as well.
A long wood corridor takes you from the showroom to the ground floor workshops where his artisans work.
Master bow maker at work
Glenn Beardon, a master bow maker with wispy gray hair, is engrossed in his work. A one-of-a-kind bow with a photograph of its owner is coming to life.
It’s carved from Pernambuco hard wood imported from Brazil’s eastern coast. When rehairing bows Beardon uses only Argentinian horsehair -- the thinnest and strongest hair. It’s culled from a specialized line of horses.
"I can alter the performance characteristics for any bow, from sluggish to more articulate, from a narrow tone to one much broader," explains Beardon. "I work on bows from as early as the 1780s, as well as modern bows."
Creating the perfect violin
Bob Brode and Whitney Osterud traveled divergent paths in becoming violin and viola makers. Brode bailed out on a graphics design career when computers seized control in 1990. He apprenticed in Philadelphia for seven years with renowned violinmaker Clifford Roberts, who studied in Cremona, Italy, the hometown of Stradivarius.
Finishing up an eye-popping, reddish-orange elongated violin for a New York City artist, his creation will appear in a "Distorted Objects" arts exhibit in Seattle.
Brode builds violins and violas for a range of top players, including ten members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Brode prides himself in taking time to discern the particular sound each client hears.
He’s built 93 instruments, with his commissioned works selling for $9,500 for a viola, $7,500 for a violin. Time invested ranges from 1½ to 2 months.
"It’s like an impressionistic painting, loose and fun," he observed. "They’re all the same shape and wood, but the tone is always different. I’m able to translate the fun in my head to my hands with the least amount of interference.I hope people like it that way."
Osterud attended the Chicago School of Violin Making with Bromberg, then worked under Carl Becker, who many experts consider the top violinmaker in America.
The mystery of what makes an instrument sound good has been pondered for centuries.
"It’s a combination of all aspects including the bridge height, the purfling (inlays), a good varnish, and the shape of the arch," said Osterud, who hails from Minnesota. "Like a painter you must know your materials and how they work together to achieve a balance."
Osterud and Brode’s other mission is restoring and rejuvenating the work of great violin builders of the past.
Reunited with his Big Band
After spending nearly 25 years collecting, repairing and selling fiddles, Bromberg’s back to playing one.
He’s revived his music career playing concerts with the masterful musicians from his old days as well as Tuesday and Thursday night gigs at Wilmington’s 4W5 Café.
"I really haven’t had jam sessions like this since I was in New York years ago," he said. "The area musicians are delightful and inspiring people and they’re as good as anywhere I’ve ever played. These days I couldn’t envision my life without the violin trade and performing."
Bromberg will be reuniting friends/musicians when he stages the David Bromberg Big Band Reunion, Nov. 10 at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington.
Performances will be a give and take between musicians, completely spontaneous with no set pattern of selection.
"I’ve been playing with these guys over 30 years so I get a feel for what comes next and the guys, they feel it as well," explained Bromberg. "We have such a huge repertoire of songs, but occasionally I’ll think of something we never played before and spring it on them."
Bromberg’s blues songs are always a highlight of his live shows, and one of his best is "I’ll Take You Back." It’sinevitable that he performs "Sharon," the humorous diatribe about a carnival stripper, and "Where are the Men."