Re-crafting a violin masterpiece

A doctor and two violinmakers combine their talents to nearly exactly copy a priceless instrument.

Stradivarius violins are so prized that their name is synonymous with perfection. Three Twin Cities men say they have come close to re-creating that ideal using a mix of modern technology and old-school artistry.

Dr. Steve Sirr, a radiologist from Minnetonka, teamed with two St. Paul violinmakers, John Waddle and Steve Rossow, to make replicas of a 308-year-old violin known as the Betts Strad, owned by the Library of Congress. Sirr, who works at FirstLight Health System in Mora, Minn., took nearly 1,000 CT scans -- the same kind doctors use to examine tissue in a noninvasive way -- of the instrument to make three-dimensional records of its innards and to measure wood density.

"The scans are like a virtual dissection of the instrument without ever having to take it apart," Sirr said.

Rossow, who's handy with more than violins, designed and built a CNC (computer numerical control) machine that meticulously measured and carved wooden parts chosen from Waddle's stock -- spruce for the top plate, maple for the back, just like the original.

Waddle, a seasoned luthier (those who make stringed instruments), finished and assembled the carved parts, carefully bending ribs to match those of the original, and then varnished it.

The unlikely trio -- Sirr, the doctor with a sense of whimsy; Waddle, the dry-witted, seen-it-all master of his craft, and Rossow, the young, arty techie -- get together every Friday at Waddle's shop, which occupies half of a duplex on St. Clair Avenue. Though it's clear they have different personalities, they banter easily and knowingly, united by their common passion and mutual respect. Their ultimate goal may be to sell the reproductions they've taught themselves to make, but they seem motivated more by the journey of discovery, the challenge of fitting different pieces of a puzzle together.

Sirr, 62, took up the violin as a young adult because "it was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard." He hit on the idea of scanning violins in 1989, while working at Hennepin County Medical Center. He often brought his instrument to the hospital to practice during downtime. One day, in a rush to get to a gunshot victim's surgery, he set his violin down on top of the CT machine. Later, it occurred to him to try scanning it.

More than just the wood

"I thought a violin was a shell of wood surrounding air, but there was a lot more anatomy than I realized," he said. "Like people, they have a wide range of variations. They can be fat or skinny, athletic-looking or couch potatoes. Just as the scans help diagnose diseases in people, they can show flaws in violins that aren't visible to the human eye."

He took the scans to Waddle, from whom he had bought his first violin, without telling him that the images were from the insides of a violin. After a few minutes, Waddle was seeing things in violins he never had before.

"It's totally changed the way I look at them now," Waddle said. "He's exceptionally good at measuring and analyzing the anatomy of the instruments."

In the years since then, Sirr figures that he has scanned about 600 violins, a few dozen of which were built before the mid-18th century. As interest has grown in both medical and musical circles, he has given presentations nationwide, most recently at FirstLight Health Systems in Mora, where Sirr works. Waddle invited another accomplished local luthier, Bill Scott of Golden Valley, to make his own Strad copy, using Sirr's scans and some of Rossow's carved parts, bringing the total number completed so far to three.

"It's probably one of my best-sounding instruments," Scott said. "I've gotten very positive comments from professionals who have tried it."

Close to greatness

The three partners got permission to scan and copy the Betts when it was brought to an annual violinmakers' convention in Oberlin, Ohio, last June. Since it's worth several million dollars, the fancy fiddle traveled there from D.C. via armored car, with a security detail.

Many of the violins made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona, Italy, especially those crafted during his "golden period" of 1700 to 1725, are valued at several million dollars -- well out of reach for almost every musician in the world. The three partners say their replicas are accurate to within one-tenth of a millimeter, and hope they'll be considered the next best thing.

Waddle said that so far, there are some interested buyers but none have committed yet, though he has sold a copy he made earlier of a violin made in 1679 by Amati, another Cremona luthier whose instruments are considered comparable to Strads. At about $32,000, the replica Betts Strads will cost a good deal more than than a $300 beginner's model, but are within the means of many serious musicians.

Oleg Chelpanov, a substitute violinist for the Minnesota Orchestra and former member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia, has briefly played one of the Betts replicas.

"Violins need to be played a while before you can really tell, and this one's practically fresh off the tree," he said. "But for the 10 minutes I played it, I liked it, it responded well. I'd like the chance to play one for a long time to hear how it sounds. If it sounds as good as a Stradivarius, every musician in the world would want one."

A sound hard to equal

Classical-music scholar and NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, who once had a chance to play the actual Betts, compared it to "a great race car -- there's more power than you need and it responds to the slightest touch."

He said that even if the replicas are dimensionally the same as the Betts, it's unlikely their sound will be.

"You can re-create proportion and density, but you can't re-produce the trees from which he cut his wood, how much sun and rain they had, exactly how it was put together," he said. "Every few years some new article comes out claiming to have discovered the secret to Stradivarius. Some people say it's the varnish. But there is no one secret, one recipe. You could use modern technology to analyze a Rembrandt painting, but you still wouldn't be able to re-create his genius."

In other words, you can't scan mystique. You can't isolate and copy je ne sais quoi, that certain undefinable quality that makes something special.

The trio's attitude is that, well, maybe you can't, but you can have a heck of a good time trying.

"We excel at fun," Sirr said. Next up: a Stradivarius cello.

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  • Photo gallery: Re-crafting a masterpiece.

    Thursday January 26, 2012

    Violin-playing radiologist Steve SIrr of Mora, Minn., has perfected a technique of re-creating priceless Stradivarius violins using CT scans...

  • One of the replicas under construction compared to the Betts Stradivarius violin.

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