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Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist has a date with a Stradivarius

Second violin Sarah Thornblade is given the opportunity to play a rare Stradivarius owned by classical music fans Jerry and Terri Kohl. She will play it for an all-Bach Valentine's Day concert.

February 13, 2013|By Wesley Lowery
  • Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist Sarah Thornblade plays a Stradivarius, one of the finest violins in the world.
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist Sarah Thornblade plays a Stradivarius,… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Quietly giddy, Sarah Thornblade sat on the couch of a Pasadena home nervously anticipating the encounter.

She'd been waiting for this moment for weeks; when it finally came she wasted no time.

Thornblade stood, unzipped a soft, green case and extended both hands, carefully lifting her much awaited blind date: an $8-million Stradivarius violin.

The connection last week was a test run for a more intimate rendezvous coming Thursday. Thornblade, second violin for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, will play the coveted instrument during the orchestra's all-Bach Valentine's Day concert.

But first came the introduction.

The 43-year-old musician's eyes widened as she slowly lifted the 300-year-old violin from its case, taking special care to avoid directly touching the slickly varnished wood of the instrument's body. Oils from her skin, she said, could unnecessarily wear the instrument's body.

Light catches the dense color of the violin's wood, as Thornblade surveys her borrowed tool: a lighter, tan coloration of the varnish near the top of the body gives way to a darker, bolder coloration near the bottom of its hour-glass shaped body.

"The back is so beautiful," she exclaimed as she turned the instrument over and eyed the dark, tiger-like stripes that line the panel.

Purchased in 2006 by Jerry and Terri Kohl — classical music fans and major donors to the chamber orchestra — the violin was previously owned by virtuoso violinist Nathan Milstein. It is believed to be one of just 40 or 50 surviving instruments created by legendary violin maker Antonio Stradivari during his "golden" period from 1711 to 1719.

Jerry Kohl, owner and president of accessories manufacturer Brighton Collectibles, is known for hosting small concerts in his living room, occasions he has allowed musician friends to play the Stradivarius. But, once played daily by Milstein, the violin is now played just a dozen or so times each year.

"Seeing it played is like seeing your child perform," he said proudly, as he eagerly awaited Thornblade's practice run.

While the Kohls, neither of whom play the violin, lend it out on occasion to Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra concertmasters Martin Chalifour and Margaret Batjer, rarely have other violinists been given the chance to run a bow across its strings during a public performance.

But with the all-Bach concert coming up, Jerry Kohl said he decided to reach out to Thornblade, offering her an opportunity to play an instrument of which most violinists can only dream.

"I'd like to invite you on a blind date," Kohl wrote in a Dec. 17 email to Thornblade. "It will be the most exciting blind date ever. I promise!"

Part of Jerry Kohl's proposal was that Thornblade, who has played with the chamber orchestra since 1999, come to his home to meet the violin before using it in concert for the first time. He sat, a few feet away with his wife as a small, private concert began.

The deep, sharp tones quickly filled the room, echoing off the wooden pillars affixed to the ceiling as Thornblade pulled note after note from the centuries-old instrument.

As she guided her bow up and down, a rhythmic melody flowed through the home.

"It is just so responsive. There is so much depth of sound," the musician marveled. "It is a dream to play."

After cycling through a series of scales and Bach songs — using both her own violin and the Strad — Thornblade sat back down, listening in her head to what she had just played.

"My instrument takes a little more coaxing to get the sound to come out of the instrument, with this..." she said as she held the rare violin up to the light "the depth comes roaring out — from the first stroke of the bow."

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Where: Zipper Concert Hall, downtown L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $55

Information: (213) 622-7001 or laco.org

wesley.lowery@latimes.com

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