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Secrets Wonderful and Cruel

The wood that entices a violin maker can also betray her. Rena Weisshaar confronted more than a few demons and doubts on her path to perfection.

August 31, 1997|DUANE NORIYUKI | Duane Noriyuki is a Times staff writer whose last article for the magazine was on Native American team handball players

First is the music of leaves, of branches bowed by incessant wind. Before Bach or Beethoven, before horns or strings or written notes, this concert wafted through the forest like seasons through time. The tree offers song in swell and wane until, in a mighty crescendo, it is felled to the stillness of its winter shadow. Then there is silence. * Decades may pass before venerable wood, precisely cut and properly dried, reaches the hands and wits of the violin maker, who carefully gives new voice, and the musician, who gives new life--who return music to the wood. * If wood could talk, this maple Rena Weisshaar holds in her hands would describe its journey from the Bosnian forest, its passage to America in the possession of a man she loved, sometimes feared and never fully understood, but who is ever-present in her mind as she feels its smooth grain--gently, as if stroking the temples of a dreaming child.

It is precious in its paucity and magnificent in its appearance, strong and feather-light. It is, she says, like gold.

Only wood could explain the mysteries of this centuries-old craft, how Antonio Stradivari created masterpieces that improved in tone over 250 years, creating the ultimate voice for the works of great composers. And it is the nature of this craft that laureled makers die before their instruments, as the mother dies before the child. They never realize how time and virtuosity slowly bring forth full measure of their creations.

The wood could tell stories of legendary musicians and thieves, of a man named Erich Gruenberg, whose Stradivari violin was stolen as he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on July 24, 1990. His words expressed death-like devastation. "It is irreplaceable," he said. "It is my life." Police found it nine months later in Honduras.

It could tell the story of Julian Altman, a strolling violinist at a Russian restaurant in New York--how he entered nearby Carnegie Hall wearing a bulky overcoat and stole the Strad of Bronislaw Huberman while Huberman performed the Bach Concerto in E Major on another violin. Forty-nine years later, on his deathbed, Altman confessed his secret.

And it could tell the story of Vahan Bedelian, who in 1915 was to be sent to what is now the Syrian desert, where 1.5 million Armenians perished in an act of Turkish genocide. He defended himself not with gun nor sword. On the eve of his anticipated journey to death, Bedelian picked up his violin and performed mournfully and passionately before a Turkish general, who listened, then approached him with champagne and these words: "A talent like you we need. You should not be sent to the desert."

His life spared, Bedelian lived to teach the violin to many, including his son, Haroutune, who was accepted into London's Royal Academy of Music at age 15. For this son, Rena Weisshaar will make a violin, in part with this Bosnian maple, from ground now stained by blood of war and ashes of precious trees.

*

The maple was a gift from Rena's late father-in-law, Hans Weisshaar, one of the most respected violin restorers of his time. After World War II, he traveled often from his Hollywood shop to Europe to secure supplies and the finest wood he could find. Rena and her husband, Michael Weisshaar, worked for him prior to a falling-out in 1975.

Rena and Michael moved to Costa Mesa to live by the ocean and open their own shop. For four years, they didn't speak to Hans. Their only contact was through his wife and Michael's mother, Jansje, who visited despite the family's estrangement. Then in 1979, at Christmas, Michael and Rena appeared unannounced at his parents' front door, not knowing if they would be greeted by Hans' kindness or fury. Rena was pregnant with their third child, Marianne, who would be blessed with aptitudes not of the maker but of the musician. Hans invited them in and, over time, peace was restored with one unspoken rule: Business was not to be discussed.

At Marianne's baptism, the family lingered briefly in the church parking lot. Rena nervously pulled out a violin she had just finished and handed it to Hans, hungering for his approval. She watched his face as he examined it, front and back. "It's good work," he said, with characteristic reserve. "Come by the shop. I have something for you."

Later, Rena went to the shop and followed Hans to where he stored his wood. "Take what you want," he said. From Hans, praise sometimes was oblique, unlike his razor-sharp criticism, but Rena understood. This was his way of saying she was worthy of his finest wood--the ultimate compliment.

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