The Open String: Donating Instruments Where They’re Most Needed
Twenty-five years after a Christophe Coin recording and the perfection of a loaned cello stunned his heart and filled his imagination with awe, master luthier Robert Brewer Young returns the favors bestowed upon him.
Over the course of the 20 years that Young has been handcrafting string instruments played by renowned musicians including Yo-Yo Ma, Mstislav Rostropovitch, Richard Yongjae O'Neill and others, he has brought smiles to the faces of over 500 children by placing free, high-quality instruments into their hands. Eager to establish a durable foundation that would outlast and outperform his lifetime of quiet giving, Young, with Designer and Director of Development Lucien Jamey and Managing Director Elfin Vogel, co-founded the all-volunteer nonprofit, The Open String, in 2014.
Open String supplies students and teachers in underserved communities worldwide with free instruments and materials for music programs. In the Bay Area, Open String in 2015 partnered with Enriching Lives through Music (San Rafael), The Alameda Music Project (Alameda), and Music Team and Music Mission (San Francisco) to supply 90 violins to students enrolled in rigorous, entirely tuition-free programs.
Announcing the first annual Open Strings Grant Concert on Dec. 8, American-born Young sounds less like an executive director — the position he holds with Open Strings — than like the student of philosophy he continues to be while making and repairing instruments and pursuing a doctorate in France. “Music has a power that poets and philosophers and people on the street have been trying to describe forever,” Young says. “A kid playing Mozart on a violin for the first time changes things around her and inside her as well.”
The Grant Concert at the Gray Area Foundation’s Grand Theater in the Mission district will feature the Guadagnini Quartet (actually a quintet of instruments); two violins and a spare, a viola, and a cello. Crafted by Young and modeled on the work of Italian master Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786), the family of instruments will be played by cellist Zoë Keating; Swiss violin soloist, conductor, and composer Gilles Colliard; San Francisco Symphony cellist Amos Yang, and special guest musicians.
Co-founder Jamey says the Grant Concert will launch Open Strings’ national campaign to raise $180,000 during a 2015/16 season of programs across the United States. Aiming for $30,000 in proceeds from the Bay Area concert, 100 percent of the funds generated at the concert will support the four local partner programs with instruments to expand programming, provide maintenance and supplies, or to initiate special classes.
Guadagnini drew on the legacy of Cremonese master luthiers, fashioning his innovative instruments with unique attributes that favored the soloists of the era. Young says Guadagnini created “instruments that were like race cars: small, fast, powerful, and fun to drive.” Similarly, Young made modifications in the instruments he calls “a copy of a masterpiece” to address demands on contemporary soloists. “The bass bar is stronger, the soundpost a little thicker, and the neck angle greater, putting more tension on the instrument to make it handle better in front of an orchestra.” While accommodating today’s standard tuning (A=440 over the 18th-century’s usual A=415) and the demands of larger halls, Young sought to retain the original instruments’ “spontaneous grace” and the acoustic, stylistic, and visual unity that results in a string quartet’s coherent appearance and sound.
Despite violin making being a craft that he says requires him to be “mildly dissatisfied” with what he produces in order to evolve and improve, Young’s enthusiasm remains undiminished. “Though I have now made 81 cellos myself, that initial sense of wonder remains with me completely,” he says. And about providing hundreds of instruments to at-risk children who studies and anecdotal accounts have proven might otherwise succumb to boredom, low self-esteem, or even violence in response to deprivation, Young adds, “Like making instruments, it honestly gets more exciting with each one.”