Saturday, August 26, 2000

Stradivarius? No, it's a Gray

CCM grad builds reputation as violin-maker

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Damon Gray bends over a violin top, squinting as he carefully saws through the thin wood. With short strokes of his blade, he carves a graceful F-shaped pattern. These are the violin's F-holes, he explains — two holes to allow sound to project.

[photo] Damon Gray holds one of his completed violins.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Mr. Gray, 29, is a violin maker.

        “I'm involved with every step of this instrument,” Mr. Gray says. “I have a concept of the kind of sound I'm going for.”

        It is tedious work. The wrong stroke, a jerk or a bump can mean starting over. On his workbench, a pickle jar holds paintbrushes in turpentine; a hot plate warms glue nearby. The silence is broken by a Beethoven violin sonata, humming from a boom box in a corner.

        Mr. Gray has just set up his workshop on the third floor of a warehouse in Brighton, near downtown. He is one of two full-time instrument makers in Cincinnati and one of thousands across the country who take pride in creating hand-made instruments for professionals and students. The string family includes the violin, viola, cello and double bass.

        His is a centuries-old art, practiced before him by Cremonese masters such as Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri. It begins with a passion for music and woodworking, and ends when a musician draws a bow across the strings.

        “I thought he was amazingly talented,” says James Braid, violinist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and concertmaster of Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. Mr. Braid bought the first violin Mr. Gray considered professional enough to sell — then ordered two more.

        “A really good instrument should sound good from day one, and it will continue to get better,” Mr. Braid says. “The thing I like about Damon's violin is the power, the fullness and the quality at the same time. I'm liking it more and more as time goes on.”

        “He's truly a modest, unassuming fellow — he doesn't blow his own horn,” says Steven Rosen, a CSO violist who recently purchased an instrument from Mr. Gray.

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        “I was very enthusiastic when I got the viola, and he put a little note on a piece of paper that said, "Thanks for your support.' He puts all the care into what he's making. It's a beautiful-looking instrument.”

        Mr. Gray tailor-made Mr. Rosen's viola. “It's a very large viola (17 1/4 inches long), but he's a big guy and can handle it,” Mr. Gray says. “It was fun to build an instrument like that.”

        Violin-making requires sophisticated knowledge, precision and talent. Although there are factory-made instruments, the world's finest are still made by hand.

        “It's a pleasure to take it out of the case, just to look at it,” says Eric Bates, a CSO violinist who performs in Music Hall on his “Gray” violin. He used it last season to perform a solo with the orchestra.

        “I had an Italian violin, and needed a second instrument to play outdoors,” Mr. Bates says. “I thought, while he's cheap, I'm going to get one. I ordered one, and it ended up being my first instrument. I think it's a good solo instrument. For a modern violin, it has really great quality.”

Just eight to 10 a year
        In an open window, an unvarnished violin dangles on a wire, soaking up the sun's rays to turn the wood a golden brown. Across the room, another violin is browning in an ultraviolet “tanning booth.” When varnish is applied, the violins will have a radiant glow.

        Mr. Gray's craft is completely hands-on. Each instrument begins as a block of wood, and takes about two months to complete. Because he works alone, he will make only eight to 10 instruments in a year. He often stops his work to stroke the wood, or to tap the top plate (the “belly” of the instrument) near his ear, listening to its timbre.

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        “What I go for when I'm building instruments, is for it to be a responsive instrument, one that's easy to play and feels good in the hands,” Mr. Gray says, fingering the neck on a cello as if he is playing it. “Usually when I build an instrument that feels good and has good response, it has a good-quality sound, too.

        “There's always the excitement when you first set it up (to play). Usually when I'm making it, I have a pretty good idea of how it's going to sound,” he adds. “There have been times when I've been using a piece of wood, and just decided it wasn't going to do what I wanted it to, and just grabbed a new one and started over.”

Offering a bargain

        Because rare 17th- and 18th-century Italian instruments such as Stradivarius and Guarnerius are so expensive, modern violin-making is in the midst of a renaissance.

        “Professional players are looking for a concert-quality instrument, without having to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Mr. Gray says.

        Violins and violas made by contemporary makers usually sell for $12,000 to $20,000. A cello, a larger instrument, may cost $40,000. Mr. Gray, who is starting his business, sells instruments in the $6,000 to $10,000 range.

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        In comparison, the “Taft” Stradivarius, once used by CSO concertmaster Emil Heermann, sold at auction in May for $1.3 million. Last fall, a rare Guarneri del Gesu violin sold privately for $6 million.

        Mr. Gray is betting that Old World craftsmanship is still in demand, even in the 21st century. “I came to it from a playing background, which I think gives me the advantage,” he says.

CCM background

        A native of Columbia, S.C., Mr. Gray came to Cincinnati to study cello at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He worked his way through graduate school at the Baroque Violin Shop in Finneytown, making instrument repairs and cleaning rental instruments.

        The owner, Paul Bartel, an instrument collector and amateur violin maker, encouraged Mr. Gray to practice making violins. He also gave Mr. Gray access to his collection of “great fiddles” — including a 1703 Stradivarius, “Lady Harmsworth,” and Italian instruments by Amati, Ruggieri and Galiano.

        “I ended up really being fascinated with building instruments. I tried to do a little bit on my own,” Mr. Gray says. “When it came time for me to be serious about my life and pick a profession — either really buckle down and practice the cello and take some job auditions, or pursue instrument building — I decided to study making instruments.”

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        “He was torn between the whole violin-making thing and playing cello,” says Mr. Bates, who has known Mr. Gray since they were CCM students.

        “We were all on our way out of school, trying to get jobs. Damon decided to make a violin, and all of us thought, "Gosh, he was really talented at this,' ” he says.

        To perfect his skill, Mr. Gray went to one of the country's centers for violin-making: the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. He spent a year in an apprenticeship with violin-maker Paul Hart.

        “When someone actually bought something from me, I thought, "Well, maybe I can do it,' ” Mr. Gray says. That was three years ago.

        He smiles. “A friend of mine asked a violist what kind of instrument he had. He said, "It's a Gray.' ”

        It was the first time he had heard a musician refer to his instrument the way they regard their Strads and del Gesus.

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        “His reputation will grow as his instruments continue to improve,” Mr. Bartel says. “He has a passion for it, but he also has a talent.”

        Now, if Mr. Gray uses his imagination, he can envision his instrument in the hands of a violinist hundreds of years from now.

        “It should hold up pretty well. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't,” he says with a grin. “It's an interesting profession that way. It carries on after you're gone.”

Handmade or factory-made?

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