A Stradivari Night at Villa Firenze, With Millions of Dollars of Ancient Stringed Instruments (Photos)

Guards stood watch over them at all times.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Under the watchful eye of federal marshals, the Smithsonian permitted many millions of dollars worth of Stradivarius violins out of the vault and out on the town on Friday night, on behalf of the Year of Italian Culture in the USA. Beneath sparkling Murano glass chandeliers in the yellow and gold ballroom of the Italian ambassador’s residence, members of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society performed a concert on four of the 17th- and 18th-century instruments, along with a Nicolo Amati viola. The concert, called a Stradivari Night at Villa Firenze, featured works by Vivaldi, Cherubini, and Dvorak, among other pieces from the same era as the musical instruments.

Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero, joined by his wife, Laura, addressed the 150 guests as “my music-loving friends.” They included Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough, and Belgian Ambassador Jan Matthysen. After the concert and buffet dinner, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, Kenneth Slowik, allowed guests to get close to the instruments. There were plenty of “ooohs” and “ahhhs.” Musician Steven Dann let one lucky man hold one of the violins on his shoulder. In addition to Slowik and Dann, the musicians who performed were Mark Fewer, Karen Dekker, and Rory McLeod.

Slowik said the National Museum of American History has five stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari and eight by Amati in its collection of 5,000 keyboards, harpsichords, pianos, and other instruments. He added that the museum is frequently visited by those wanting to study and even make replicas of the gems. But, holding a Stradivarius in his hand, he said, “try as they might they can never quite come up with this.”

While the guests enjoyed the buffet dinner of risotto, beef, and pasta (including a Bisogniero family recipe) the instruments were kept in their cases behind a closed door, guarded by a uniformed member of the Carabinieri, the Italian national police. Federal marshals shepherded the instruments to and from the residence. We asked Slowik if there were any other plans for them over the weekend. “They were taken out of the vault,” he said, “and are going right back in.”

The instruments played at the concert were, from Stradivari, the 1687 Ole Bull, the 1700 Greffuhle violin, the 1695 Herbert Axelrod viola, and the 1687 Marylebone violoncello; there was also the 1663 Amati viola, known as the Professor Wirth. The American History Museum is not the only Washington institution with an impressive collection of stringed instruments. The Library of Congress has ten, including six by Stradivari. Slowik said because so few have survived over the years it “justifies keeping some of the most beautiful examples in museums.”

Washington-area residents who have enjoyed the many programs of the Year of Italian Culture in the USA 2013 will be happy to know that it will not end on December 31. Ambassador Bisogniero said it has been so popular and with so much still to do that the programs will extend into 2014.

Musicians Mark Fewer, Rory McLeod, and Steven Dann play ancient music on ancient instruments at the Italian ambassador’s residence.
Musician Steven Dann lets a guest try out a rare Stradivarius violin.