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violinist’s shoulders and neck can reasonably be expected to support. The bridge, crafted from solid maple with hardwood plates, incorporates a pressure-sensing piezo pickup of his own design.
Johnson, a craftsman and pioneer of the modern instrument, was inspired in the 80s when he came across a practice violin from the Victorian era, with a skeletal structure in place of a conventional hollow chamber. At a time when electric folk music was undergoing a renaissance, and when transducer and amplification technology was moving apace, the electric violin’s moment had finally arrived.
Johnson’s Violectra company is now 20 years old. Happy owners of his bespoke instruments include violinist Nigel Kennedy, who last year recovered two $40,000 instruments stolen after an appearance in The Cavern in Liverpool in 2005. There was no mistaking them when they turned up for auction last year after a dealer had picked them up for $30 each; fortunately, they had been decked at Kennedy’s request in claret and blue, the colours of his football team, Aston Villa.
No two Violectras are the same. Tognetti’s instrument is made of maple, the density of the wood producing a richer and more intense sound than that of poplar or other alternative woods. American classical violinist Leila Josefowicz, who like Tognetti is an aficionado of the Guarneri del Gesu, asked Johnson to include the Guarneri’s distinctive flowering scroll. Davide Rossi, the Italian who contributed much to the distinctive sound of Coldplay’s album Viva la Vida, plays a five-string jet-black viola. The glamorous Escala Quartet reached the finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2008 playing instruments with a metallic silver finish.
Handcrafted instruments take time: typically Johnson makes only a few each year, each one a work of art in its own right. The relationship between soloist and maker is a close one. ‘‘ You think you’ve finished your work when you hand it over,’’ he tells Review, ‘‘ and then someone like Richard Tognetti takes it to another level.’’
Dean’s Electric Preludes evolved further in rehearsals as he, Tognetti and sound designer Bob Scott discovered new tricks. In an echo of Dean’s 2006 work for violin and orchestra, The Lost Art of Letter Writing, the six preludes are played together.
The arpeggios doned Playground, of in the first prelude, Abansummon haunting images derelict space. The inspiration for the second, Topography, was an exhibition of Western Desert art featuring the work of artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri at the National Gallery of Victoria early last year. It begins with Tognetti blowing across the strings, as a flautist blows across a reed, a technique discovered by accident during rehearsals in old Slovenian cinema for the piece’s international debut in that country at the Maribor Festival last year.
While the novel manner of playing is made possible by the Violectra’s extraordinary sensitivity, Scott says amplification is not high on the list of features he and Tognetti will be exploiting. He says amplification gives the instrument greater presence, abbreviating the distance between audience and performer, but cranking up the sound simply increases the difficulty of maintaining balance with the rest of the orchestra.
In a world of ubiquitous loudspeakers, the classical concert hall as it was once imagined, where electricity powers nothing more than a light bulb, is a sanctuary of acoustic purity. For this performance, however, the entire ACO will be amplified. Subtle ‘‘ enhancement’’, as it is euphemistically known, is already used more frequently in concert halls than many audiences are aware. ‘‘ When it’s good the audience doesn’t notice it,’’ says Scott.
For Scott, who worked with Dean on Bliss, the new piece is especially challenging; the frequent changes of sound and maintaining the balance with the rest of the orchestra require a virtuosity of its own. Dean says: ‘‘ It’s a bit like a double concerto in that sense. I think Bob was both as anxious and exalted as Richard was on the opening night.’’
Scott, in turn, pays tribute to Dean, who will be conducting. ‘‘ It’s a cracker of a piece,’’ he says.
For the reassurance of traditionalists, Electric Preludes will be bookended by Haydn’s La Passione and two familiar Mozart pieces. For these Tognetti will rely on his del Gesu; whatever sound emerges will be his alone, uncomplicated by digital artifice.
For it is a comforting fact that while we are capable today of digital tricks Mozart’s first audiences would have mistaken for alchemy, the sound of a Guarneri or a Stradivarius cannot be reproduced in anything but an inexact form. It may be the wood or the glue, who knows; let us hope we never find out.