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Doing Business : American Strikes a Chord : A U.S. immigrant in Italy has joined the elite fraternity of the world's top violin makers.

November 15, 1994|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CREMONA, Italy — Not to string you along, but if seeking a singular single malt in Scotland, would you hunt for a distiller named Munoz? Homemade pate in France from a farmer called Kelly?

Pul-ease!

Visiting Antonio Stradivari's hometown in search of a fine violin, would you buy a Carlson?

Gotcha!

Somewhat to his own surprise, Bruce Carlson, immigrant violin maker, is an American outpost in the Italian city that thinks of itself as the stringed instrument capital of Europe. Still, stranger things have happened here in Cremona, where civic pride has been measured in musical craftsmanship for four centuries.

"Anybody told me at high school back in Michigan that I'd be living in Italy making violins, I'd have said they were crazy. Now, I guess I'm here to stay," Carlson said.

Nobody's complaining. It is Carlson who maintains and restores priceless old instruments in the Cremona city museums, and it was Carlson who served as one of five judges at an international violin-making competition here this fall.

Let the record show that in these high-tech times, not all Yankee entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes overseas are MBA fast-trackers. Carlson is emblematic of a relative handful of Americans come "home to Europe" with notebooks, pens, brushes, voices, the vision of poets, the hands of artists. And he is a dean among the elite few who commune with purflings and fingerboards, F-holes, sound posts and tailpieces.

Bruce Carlson of Fenton, Mich., left a lot of good violin makers behind him in America, but he is the American maker people talk about in a place where the word violin simultaneously evokes an instrument and a city's soul.

There are about 90 violin makers--luthiers, as they call themselves--living around Cremona here in the farm-rich Po Valley of northern Italy. Cremona, simply put, is the cradle of the violin.

By the late 1500s, when composers began writing for the violin, the Amati family was making Cremona instruments that still make news. The almost legendary Guarneri del Gesu was Cremonese, and so too--full-chord press--was Stradivari (1644-1737), who made about 1,200 instruments.

About 550 "Strads" are still being played more than 250 years after Stradivari's death. Indeed, most of them, like the one Carlson maintains for the city, have noble musical histories and their own names, and it is always exciting for Cremona when a new one is discovered: In 1987, a Stradivarius turned up in New York that had been stolen from violinist Bronislaw Huberman at Carnegie Hall 51 years before. In January, a violin brought for repair to luthiers in Petaluma, Calif., was identified as the 1732 Stradivarius "Duke of Alcantara," missing for 27 years.

As Carlson and other modern Cremona makers understand--sometimes too well--the luthier's craft has changed amazingly little since the Cremonese, who are history's greatest violin makers, developed and refined the sweet-singing instrument that is the heart of every symphony orchestra.

The craft is, as ever, a labor of love. There is rote, since the dimensions cannot change much, but there is room for personal touches--and for magic.

"Every now and then, one sounds better than the others, and you don't know why," Carlson mused.

The sides, back and neck of Cremona violins are sculpted from Bosnian maple, the supply of which is now interrupted by war. Fronts are spruce from the Dolomite Alps in northern Italy. The curves of the arching are critical and so are the thicknesses of the wood front and back, lest the sound be too weak or too woody and flat.

"Cremona is a calm town with lots of nice architecture and sculpture, but it's not too distracting--a good place to concentrate on work," said Bernard Neumann, a violin maker from Montreal who studied with Carlson and is now his partner and member of a thriving expatriate colony here of luthiers from all over Europe and both halves of the Americas.

They make Cremona instruments whose purfling, those delicate strips of wood inlaid for technical and decorative reasons on the back and top, have always been fashioned from pear and white poplar. Their varnishes are centuries-tested witches' brews of propolis and sandarac, mastic and turmeric, balsam and copal, blended with a touch of serendipity and applied oh-so-gently with special brushes.

"We are reproducing what happened before, trying to get the quality and the aesthetics as good, " said Carlson. "We try to think like a 16th-Century violin maker, but with our faxes and PCs something is bound to get lost in translation."

Violin quality dropped after 1750, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire changed the rules governing guilds, although Cremona production continued. The comeback began in 1937, when a four-year state school for violin making was inaugurated under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Carlson, 47, is a graduate of the school--the long way around. During the Vietnam War, the Navy gave him an aptitude test and concluded he'd make a splendid meteorologist.

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