The Russian word for "entrepreneur" would have been unspeakable in the Soviet Union. That's one of the reasons Leonid Prymak got out as soon as he could.
In 1975 Prymak landed in New York, a 28-year-old refugee who played the violin. Later that year, he joined the Richmond Symphony. By the time he retired from the orchestra in 2002, he was building an investment portfolio and marketing pewter gifts engraved with signs of the zodiac, along with brass samovars and other collectibles. He's published a novel and a children's book. He tunes pianos, teaches violin and hires himself out as a strolling musician for social gatherings.
The grandson of a tsarist-era textile mill owner, he enjoys making money almost as much as making music. "Leonid is a born salesman," one former symphony colleague says with a knowing chuckle. Another longtime musician acquaintance, hearing Prymak's name, immediately asks, "What's he selling now?"
Something a lot more in character than zodiac tchotchkes: violins.
Not just any fiddles, either, but the handmade violins of Vittorio Villa, a highly regarded luthier in Cremona, Italy, the town that produced Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati and other 17th- and 18th-century crafters of what are now called "classic" stringed instruments.
The 60-year-old Prymak knows the product well. He's had a violin in his hand practically every day since he was a child. He studied with one of the great teachers of the instrument, Naoum Blinder, who also taught Isaac Stern. Prymak is a true believer in the Russian style, in which expressiveness and emotion count as much as technique and tone quality -- if you're not playing like your life depends on it, you're not really playing.
About a year ago, frustrated with a violin that too often "made me wonder where the sound had gone," Prymak "decided it was time to have a beautiful instrument," he recalls. "So I did my research and went to Cremona to see what I could find."
He found Villa and tried some of the instruments in his shop. He ordered a violin and waited months for its delivery. (Or her delivery, I should say he named the violin Rose.) "One of the happiest days of my life," he says, "was when I got the e-mail from Vittorio saying, 'Rose is going to sing in two hours.'"
While Villa and Prymak talked music, they also talked business. Soon they made a deal: Prymak is now an "authorized seller" of Villa's violins in this country. He prices them at the low end of the $10,000-$20,000 range in which the instruments have been selling lately.
He has an advantage over many dealers in his ability to demonstrate the product persuasively, not to say overwhelmingly. Forget scales and sweet little ditties; he launches into a full-blown, concert-volume rendition of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. "That G string! That's a real violin!" he enthuses. "You barely touch it and it speaks!" Standing an arm's length away, you feel as if you're being wrapped in sonic velvet.
The art of the sale meets the sale of the art.
Villa's craft and materials are essentially unchanged from those of "the great antique violin-makers," the luthier writes in an e-mail. His instruments are made of maple from the Balkans, with backs made of spruce grown in the Italian mountains. He insists on maple from trees that are 80 to 100 years old. Like Stradivari, he uses wood that has been seasoned for six to 10 years and mixes his varnish from natural resins.
Industrialization has radically altered the environment, but "environmental changes in countries like Romania and Bulgaria showed up at least 150 years later than in the U.S. or [western] Europe," Villa writes. "In general, we cannot notice any changes in the wood we use." But a luthier must be sensitive to differences in density, grain and sound-conduction capacity, he continues "even in pieces of wood that come from the same tree." The margin for error is measured in millimeters, the thickness of the wood that forms the violin's sound box.
Villa plays his instruments many luthiers don't and that "makes me more able to understand musicians and their culture," he writes. "My ears are as important as my hands.
"The sound of a violin is a very complex matter it isn't sufficient to judge if its sound is good, sweet, brilliant, strong, but also how difficult it is for the player" to produce the desired tone.
The cottage industry of violin-making faces unprecedented demand for instruments. With the surge of interest in Western classical music in Japan, Korea, China and India, luthiers count the next generation of potential customers literally in the millions. Handcrafted instruments soon will be out of reach for all but the best or richest string players. (Only the very wealthy can hope to own one of the classic violins, which, on the rare occasions they're sold, typically go for $2 million to $6 million.) So for now, at least, some consider Villa's violins a bargain.
There are already shortages and restrictions on exports of exotic woods such as rosewood, used in the finest acoustic guitars, and pernambuco, used for violin bows. Maple is plentiful, but "there is sure to be a problem with the supply of the better wood in coming years," Villa writes. "The next generation's musicians will have to be happy with violins that are good for sound, maybe, but not good-looking."
Violinists and collectors of instruments, at least those mature and affluent enough to be in the market for a Cremona instrument, already know they're chasing an increasingly scarce commodity. Violins are now luring investors who don't plan to play them but seek "a stable long-term return," according to a recent Reuters report.
No need for Prymak to shout, "Get 'em while they last!" Noting that fine violins can't help but increase in value, that Villa produces only 12 to 16 instruments a year and that the 46-year-old luthier is worried that his hearing may deteriorate is sufficient spin for making the pitch.
Plus some Tchaikovsky at close range for good measure. S
Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.