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Bridging 250 years for month of music

by Eric E. Harrison | October 6, 2015 at 2:11 a.m.
Drew Irvin will be playing his 1765 Nicolo Gagliano violin in concerts and recitals around the state this month.

Drew Irvin is throwing a month-long musical party of sorts for the 250th birthday of his violin.

Irvin, in addition to the concerts he's playing as co-concertmaster of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, will play his Nicolo Gagliano instrument, made in 1765 in Naples, Italy, in a series of recitals around the state.

ARMusica -- Irvin; Julie Cheek, piano; and Stephen Feldman, cello -- will play Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, op.97, "The Archduke," and Irvin and Feldman will play Arthur Honegger's Sonatine for Violin and Cello in a St. Luke's Festival of the Senses concert, 7 p.m. today at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 4106 John F. Kennedy Blvd., North Little Rock. Admission is free; they'll accept donations to the Thea Foundation. A meet-the-artists reception will follow in the church's parish hall. Call (501) 753-4281 or email

He and Cheek will play the Violin Sonata No. 10 in B-flat major, K.15, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which, Irvin notes, "was published the year my violin was made, written when Mozart was 8 and published when he was 9," and Edvard Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3 in c minor, op.45, written in 1865, the violin's centennial, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Fine Arts Center at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Admission is free. Call (870) 460-1060.

Cheek and Irvin will also play those pieces for the Arkansas Symphony's 7 p.m. Oct. 27 River Rhapsodies series concert at the Clinton Presidential Center, 1200 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock. Ticket information is available by calling (501) 666-1761, Extension 100, or visiting the website,

"That program will also include the world premiere of a Caprice for solo violin by Andreas Oeste, a young composer and oboist raised in Arkansas who is currently in Michigan getting his master's [degree] in Ann Arbor," Irvin says. "It is an idea from [Arkansas Symphony Music Director] Philip Mann and a birthday present to my violin."

And he'll join violinist Leanne Day-Simpson, violist Tatiana Kotcherguina and cellist and Rafael Leon to play Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 11.

Irvin bought the Gagliano violin in 2003.

"The most amazing thing for me about my instrument is the work I do with it," he explains. "So many hours are spent with it figuring out the idiosyncrasies and how to do and say what I want musically.

"It is a part of me; on the best of days, a voice that says all I wish to say and sometimes adds a color or sound I didn't know it had or that I had in me."

Violin-making was a Gagliano family business in Naples. According to Tarisio, an auction house for fine and rare stringed instruments and bows with offices in New York and London (, Nicolo's father, Alesandro, was reportedly an apprentice alongside Antonio Stradivarius in the Nicola Amati workshop in Cremona in the late 17th century, making instruments that bore Amati's label. Eventually, Stradivarius moved on to his own workshop and it's possible that Alessandro Gagliano worked for him for a number of years.

Nicolo used Stradivarius and Amati violins as models, and some of his instruments have been mistaken for Strads. He is credited, with his brother Gennaro and son Giuseppe, with coming up with a particular harder, slightly green-yellow varnish and use of beechwood for linings.

Internationally noted violinist Rachel Barton Pine owns, and plays Baroque music on, a 1770 Nicolo Gagliano instrument.

Irvin won't discuss the price or the value of his violin: "It does make me nervous," he says. "I know with technology and 'Uncle Google' that people can find out what they go for, but I would rather not just say it.

"Many of us string players have to deal with the challenge of finding and affording a professional quality fiddle. When the price gets up there it's tough. I will say I put off buying a house for another decade and instead bought the violin."

("Uncle Google" helped turn up a couple of recent auctions, one in London, one in New York, of Gagliano violins of that era that went for the price of modest houses, not mansions -- between $100,000 and $182,000, and well below the multimillion-dollar price of violins by Guarnerius del Gesu or Stradivarius or mid-six-figure violins by Amati. Which, for many violinists looking for a top-level instrument on a budget, makes it almost a bargain.)

"During the summer I take my violin to the shop of Philadelphia luthier Michael Purcell to get it worked on," Irvin says, and Purcell, while a bit off geographically, describes it this way on his website (

"This is a stunning Nicolo Gagliano from the 1760s. Its a marvel of sculptural power and subtle craftsmanship with a timeless feel of human hands ... both those that made it and those that have used it.

"This violin, though small in size at 35.2 cm [about 14 inches] body length, has great power and clear focus. It is also quite dazzling with its luminous varnish over a shimmering ground. It justly commands the stage at the concertmaster position of a Midwestern orchestra."

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