In keeping with history: Raleigh artisans conjure with musicians – WUNC | Start Classified

On their regular family strolls through downtown Raleigh, something always made the Ferranti boys stop and stare: the large glass storefronts of Montgomery Violins on Hillsborough Street.

They peered in, where long rows of stringed instruments hung on the walls. Folk instruments and violin art are displayed under the music shelves.

Alexander Ferranti, 9, and Benjamin Ferranti, 7, love bluegrass music. As soon as they were tall enough to hold a violin, they began taking lessons from Swedish-born and now local musician and teacher Jan Johansson. They needed their own instruments.

The Ferranti parents knew nothing about buying violins, but they did know that Montgomery Violins had a good reputation.

John Montgomery and his violins were waiting in his shop.

With dozens of violins in his shop, he is a curator of instruments and their owners. As a master craftsman and restorer, he preserves the stories and music of centuries-old violins. And for the past three decades, in his business he has witnessed the magic of bringing people together with their instruments

“Every violin has a voice, just as different as every person has a voice.”

John Montgomery, Montgomery Violins

He provides a selection of instruments for this purpose. He can show several people the same five violins, and everyone will choose differently.

“Every violin has a voice that is just as different as everyone’s voice,” Montgomery said.

For Alexander Ferranti, the choice was clear: a 140-year-old Stradivarius violin made of dark wood. The others he tried just didn’t sound right.

“One of them sounded kind of tinny,” he said. “Everyone but the one I tried just didn’t like how it sounded when I played bluegrass on it.”

Create perfect sounds

Behind the ticket office of Montgomery Violins, classical music is heard from the workshop.

Around the light-flooded shop, the violins glow in warm tones. Two employees tinker with instruments on workbenches. Tools and even more violins hang in neat rows on the walls. In another corner, the uncolored wooden body of a cello lies in pieces, waiting to be assembled.

Montgomery isn’t just a salesman. He also builds stringed instruments – he estimates about 100 of them over the course of his career – and does restorations.

Violins have been around for 450 years in the same iteration as they are played today. Montgomery said he stands on the shoulders of predecessors who have been in the field for hundreds of years and have proven techniques, methods and materials.

“You learn to control your tools. You learn to control your hands. You know the results before you start the project,” Montgomery said.

The unassembled cello is one of Montgomery’s current projects, which he works on between client appointments, restoration work and day-to-day business operations.

His reputation has earned him jobs at the Smithsonian and other positions nationally. He spent 2020 restoring one of Thomas Jefferson’s violins and preparing it for a player capable of performing contemporary music before exhibiting it at Monticello. Soon he will travel there to present it.

He has also worked on the childhood violins of American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa and Fritz Krietzler, an early 20th-century violinist who was born in Vienna and moved to New York City.

When Montgomery opened the store in its current location in 1987, it was one of the few local stores that offered such specialized and quality service.

UNC professor Brent Wissick was one of his first clients in the area. Wissick has been teaching cello, baroque cello, viola da gamba and chamber music at UNC since 1982. He specializes in 19th-century music and plays period instruments – thanks to the help of Montgomery.

In 1984, Montgomery restored a 1776 cello for Wissick to how it would have been played at the time.

Around the same time, someone brought an original cello made by Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller into Montgomery’s shop with a request that it be restored and sold. Montgomery made a copy of the instrument for someone else, which caught Wissick’s attention.

“I played that copy,” Wissick said, “and I said, ‘That’s what I want.'”

So Wissick commissioned a copy of this copy.

Montgomery carved a rosette into the buttery, tiger-striped wood. It appears to be hidden behind the fretboard, but its placement is intentional. Wissick said that the old Goffriller’s fingerboard was shorter than the kind required for the evolution of cello playing today. So John added the rosette in the same place as the original.

Wissick described his sound as “full” and “acoustically powerful”.

“When there’s a rainbow of sounds, you want to be able to get the rainbow of sounds — the spectrum of acoustic colors,” Wissick said. “And that’s exactly what such an instrument enables.”

A day after Wissick’s retirement, when he can no longer play for personal pleasure, he plans to offer his specially made instrument to his son, who also plays the cello. But he said they could also choose to sell the instruments. Maybe they would be sold to Montgomery’s store or something similar.

A musical tradition

The first violin Montogmery played was found in the attic of an old family home, hidden among old suitcases, abandoned gym equipment and college pennants. He took it to an expert in New York who fixed it. Montgomery would later continue to work on it himself and give it to his younger brother.

Montgomery attended the Violin Making School of America on the advice of New York luthier and restorer William Monicle after completing his bachelor’s degree from Lawrence University and a two-year scholarship to study folk instruments in France. When Montgomery finished luthier school, Monicle offered him a job and taught him how to restore instruments.

Montgomery doesn’t play much anymore, but he said he acts as a proxy for his clients, who play all kinds of music from classical to bluegrass and jazz.

“Whether they’re playing an instrument I built or something I’ve worked on for them,” he said, “or just helping them achieve their goal of playing great music, that gives me great satisfaction. “

When Montgomery married and had children, he looked for a place outside of town to raise a family. Through research, he found that this area of ​​North Carolina needed the type of services he provides.

So this is where he settled, and this is where, three decades later, Alexander and Benjamin Ferranti found their perfect violin partners.

Since the young are not yet fully grown, they play broken fiddles starting at 1/16th the size of a full fiddle, then 1/8th, 1/4th, 1/2nd, 3/4th.

Broken instruments are typically played for two years before the musician outgrows them. At Montgomery Violins, customers can trade in their full-size instrument for the next size up.

The Stradivarius model Alexander plays now has been chosen over and over again – about 10 times, out of 10 players, since Montgomery received it in his shop in 1990, he estimates. So its sound is maybe a bit more special than other instruments.

“That makes it a little interesting that it’s not just one person’s tastes,” Montgomery said. “But it’s now the taste of several people that they can choose it over some of the others they’ve tasted.”

Montgomery said that this type of fiddle dates back to a time when the fiddle was a very popular activity for children. Popular wisdom said that violin lessons are an important part of raising children properly.

Parents ordered violins from department store catalogues, such as Sears Roebuck. This is how this violin probably came to America from the German workshop in which it was made.

How Montgomery got his hands on the violin he can’t remember exactly. It was probably one of several ways he gets instruments in his shop: wholesalers, people who find old violins in their attic, or those who just want to sell their instruments.

However he got it, it always raises ears when Alexander Ferranti plays it. People notice its rich sound.

Every two weeks, Alexander and Benjamin Ferranti play the bluegrass jam at the Bond Brothers Eastside, Cary Brewery’s second location in the Music Hall.

At one session, five men stood on stage with their instruments: banjo, mandolin, guitar, double bass. A microphone was lowered in the corner for the two violinists.

The boys didn’t just keep up with the men. They handled the lively plucking with ease.

At the end of one song, an elderly gentleman sitting in the corner of the front row called out to Erica and Tony Ferranti to ask if they were the parents. you said yes

“What kind of violin is that?” he said. “It has a great sound.”

“This is an old German violin in the style of an Antonio Stradivari violin,” said Erica Ferranti. “And it’s at least 140 years old.”

When the Stradivarius model became too small for Alexander Ferranti, his younger brother Benjamin wanted to play it. After that, who knows what other hands it will go through. Whatever happens, the instrument has several more lifetimes within it.

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