Off dusty La Tuna Canyon Road in Sun Valley, where industrial grit gives way to cactus plants, orange trees and ranch houses, lives a violinist with an exceptional violin.
Deep red and striking, with finely figured ribs and distinct flames on its curved back, the nearly 300-year-old instrument is in such pristine condition, it's almost a curse.
This fiddler won't play his fiddle for fear he might hurt it: A trickle of perspiration might upset its perfect varnish, and he doesn't want to go down in history as the guy who destroyed the Rotondo, made by Alessandro Gagliano in 1710. He is simply the caretaker, he says, waiting for someone worthy of the violin. Meanwhile, wrapped in a purple Italian silk sheath, it lies in a custom-built and climate-controlled case, inside a large black Cannon safe that is fireproof, earthquake-resistant and bolted to a concrete floor.
Michael Ferril pursued the instrument for decades and holds it dearer than any other in his collection, favoring it over even his 1709 Stradivarius.
Ferril's intense, conflicted relationship with the Rotondo is far from unusual in the world of classical music. Their instruments are many players' closest companions. They must be respected, cared for, coddled. Some even require their own airplane seats. Insuring them can cost a small fortune. Being separated from them can create extreme anxiety. And they can be objects of profound desire.
"Players are always on the hunt for the instrument -- one that will reflect who they are," says Miguel Harth-Bedoya, one of the three conductors of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. String players especially, he says, are hunters.
Harth-Bedoya, whose instrument is other people, will conduct a performance by Joshua Bell in the Walt Disney Concert Hall next year, and, he says, "Part of the expectation for me is to hear him play his new violin" -- known as the Gibson ex Huberman.
Bell has owned two Strads -- the 1732 Tom Taylor and the 1713 Gibson. On the soundtrack of the 1999 film "The Red Violin," he played the Tom Taylor. He later sold it to buy the $3.5-million Gibson, which has a story similar to that in the movie: Stolen twice from Carnegie Hall, it was recovered the second time only decades later, after the thief -- a cafe musician -- made a deathbed confession.
For both thieves and musicians, the appeal of violins is obvious. A well-made violin can take a year to complete and is created to withstand both wear and repair. Some violins have survived wars, fires and floods and come with yellowing documents that tell of turbulent pasts and illustrious owners.
"A rare instrument has the cachet of a great Renaissance painting, yet it's a tool," says violin maker Trudy Egan.
For those who play it, the violin is a voice. For some, it's their primary means of communicating.
"It's a medium to achieve the sound you have in your soul, in your imagination," says Martin Chalifour, principal concertmaster of the Phil. "It's a little bit like telepathy: You think a sound, and it comes out."
The first time Chalifour held a fine Italian violin, he says, he felt like a sculptor who until that point had worked with only dry clay. Ideally, he says, the violin should be forgotten in your hands.
"An instrument for a musician is an extension of their physical self," cellist Yo-Yo Ma says by phone from New York. "It's like your vocal cords."
A collector of fine instruments, Ma owns a $3-million Stradivarius cello -- one he once famously forgot in the trunk of a cab after a night of playing at Carnegie Hall. It was returned, unharmed. His everyday cello has a nickname bestowed by a friend: Petunia.
Masters of Cremona
For string players, the most sought-after instruments are those made by Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu and Francesco Ruggieri, all of whom worked in Cremona, Italy, in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the golden age of violin-making.
Whereas a modern American-made violin begins at about $10,000, the 1727 Kreutzer Stradivarius went for close to $1.6 million at auction. In private sales, prices can go much higher. A Stradivarius has been known to fetch $6 million.
On this level, few individual musicians can afford the instruments. In addition, insurance is costly -- from a few hundred dollars a month to what Ferril describes as "a small mortgage."
Some collectors, such as Seattle software magnate David Fulton, occasionally make rare instruments available to players. And tropical fish king Herbert Axelrod recently sold his collection of 30 such string instruments to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for the almost symbolic price of $18 million. The acquisition may profoundly change the way that orchestra sounds, says Harth-Bedoya, whose own orchestra -- the Phil -- has three Strads, including one, known as the "Jack Benny Strad," previously owned by the comedian. The leaders of the violin section have the privilege of playing them.