LONG BEACH — 'I can make any student violin sound like a Stradivarius.'
Alfredo Galea has a subversive idea.
In the world of violins, he says, older is not necessarily better. When one listens to a truly great instrument, he says, "what they hear is . . . not the age" but the varnish.
It is a simple concept, yet one that has made the spectacled, balding gentleman a controversial figure among area musicians and the recipient of both lavish praise and bitter scorn. It is also a concept he has been laboring to prove for 20 years in the small, cluttered, unmarked shop on Broadway where he bends over the construction, varnishing and re-varnishing of violins with calloused hands stained yellow and red.
"I can make any student violin sound like a Stradivarius," said Galea, 76, who is accredited as a master by the Italian National Assn. of Violin Makers in Rome.
"Hogwash," said John Morey, owner of Morey's Music Store in Long Beach and a dealer in string instruments for 43 years.
Between those extremes lies a lifetime of struggle.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, of Italian parents, Galea moved as a young man to South Africa where he eventually became principal violinist with the Durban Symphony Orchestra. It was during that period, he said, that he began building violins and experimenting with various formulas by which to varnish them.
Formula Is Kept Secret
After 35 years of trying, he said he hit on a formula--now a closely guarded secret--that he believes creates a sound comparable to the "silvery and human" voice traditionally associated with the fine (and very expensive) Italian violins made two or three centuries ago.
"All the boxes make noise," Galea said. But by tempering the wood with just the right varnish, "the varnish becomes the sound."
Some musicians have reacted quite favorably to his work. "They are exceptionally good-sounding instruments," said Peter Marsh, principal violinist in the highly regarded Sequoia Quartet.
A violin instructor at California State University, Fullerton, Marsh recently played two of Galea's creations and said he was impressed. "He does manage to get the quality that one would think of as being old in these instruments," Marsh said.
And Janice Redford Luna, a violinist formerly with the Long Beach Symphony who has played a Galea for several years, said she prefers it to an Italian instrument she once owned that was more than 100 years old. "I loved the one I had, but this one is even better," Luna said of the Galea. "It's a beautiful violin."
Most of the old Italian instruments, including Luna's and the more famous Stradivarius models, were produced in the city of Cremona during the 17th and 18th centuries. Generally considered the finest in the world, those instruments are now worth anywhere from $50,000 to $1.5 million, experts say.
In contrast, Galea sells his handmade instruments--of which he painstakingly produces only two a year--for $10,000 to $15,000. In addition, he orders unvarnished instruments from around the world, finishes them in his shop and sells them for $1,500 to $2,000. And on occasion, when requested to do so by a customer, he re-varnishes instruments created by other makers to enhance the quality of their sound.
That re-varnishing has incurred the wrath of some dealers and fellow instrument makers. "If you have a good maker and you take the varnish off, you've diminished the value considerably," said a skeptical Morey.
Ralph Morrison, an amateur violinist and professional electronic engineer who has known Galea for several years and owns one of his instruments, commented: "If you took a painting and decided to change the color on it, you would be . . . violating all principles. Violin makers view (Galea's) retouching of instruments in the same light."
But more upsetting than his refinishing of other people's violins, the experts say, is Galea's claim that by varnish alone he can duplicate the sound of the old Italian greats--a claim that, if accepted, could turn the violin market upside down by seriously undermining the considerable value of the older instruments.
"Older instruments are seasoned," Morey argued. "The instrument is broken in and it has its feel and its sound and there is a close warmth that is very hard to beat. I would say that Galea's instruments are good, but . . . not as good as (those of) first line master instrument makers."
Then Marsh countered: "(Galea's claims) are threatening. (They) really upset the market and people have to make a living."
Boon to Classical Music