A Celebration of Stradivari

Annual Concert Is Library of Congress’s Best-Kept Secret

Posted December 16, 2009 at 4:37pm

Every year in December, the Library of Congress has a secret to tell, one that few veteran Washingtonians even know about. This Friday, the Library will again tell that secret.

Since 1936, the Library has held a Stradivari anniversary concert with some of its collection of rare Stradivari instruments. The concert coincides with the death of the instruments’ creator, Antonio Stradivari, who died on Dec. 18, 1737.

As is the Library’s custom in recent years, a talented string quartet is selected to perform. For nearly 40 years, the Julliard String Quartet, a highly regarded musical group founded in 1946, was the Library’s in-residence quartet. In more recent years, however, Library employees have monitored quartet competitions to select a quartet for the anniversary concert from year to year.

The year’s honor goes to the Parker Quartet, a group of four Boston musicians with a broad musical repertoire. Fittingly, the quartet’s selection for this concert will include pieces by Beethoven and Haydn in addition to a commissioned work by French composer Henri Dutilleux.

The Library is one of a few locations in the world with a full collection of Stradivari quartet instruments.

What makes the instruments so special? That answer lies in sound and workmanship. The sound produced by the violins, violas and cellos is very striking while the workmanship of the Stradivaris has yet to be surpassed. To this day, the instruments serve as models for other instruments’ creation.

“It’s really something that they’ve survived so long,— said Jennifer Gavin, a senior public affairs specialist at the Library. “They still sound so good after so many years. The aging of the wood has really helped to improve the sound.—

The Library’s anniversary concert is indebted to Gertrude Clarke Whittall, a well-to-do widow known throughout Washington for her musical soirees. In 1935, after an agent successfully obtained a Stradivari quartet in Europe for her, Whittall donated the four instruments to the Library. In 1937, Whittall would go on to donate a fifth Stradivari to the Library.

Whittall’s donation was contingent upon the instruments’ use in free public events and the Library assuming responsibility for their care. The Library has faithfully upheld Whittall’s wishes for the past seven decades. It does so not only with the annual Stradivari anniversary concert but also with various other concerts throughout the year in which the instruments are brought out for use.

On a day-to-day basis, the Library keeps the instruments enclosed behind a glass case for security and safekeeping. The instruments are particularly prone to cracking from humidity and weather changes. Most appropriately, the instruments are housed in the Library’s Whittall Pavilion.

This concert represents one of many from the “Concerts from the Library of Congress— series, which spans from October to May each year. In fact, the Library sponsors a very diverse lineup, including jazz and folk music.

Many of the Library’s concerts are broadcast over the radio throughout the country. Although the Stradivari concert won’t be broadcast, employees at the Library indicated that it’s a possibility in the future. The Library should also upload the concert in a podcast early next year.

Before the concert, expert bowmaker Yung Chin will talk at 6:15 p.m. about the endangered pernambuco tree, which provides wood for the finest string bows.

This concert is free and will be held at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium at 8 p.m. Unfortunately, all of the tickets for this year’s concert have been reserved. At the same time, it’s rare for the Library to turn away potential attendees, since not every ticket holder claims his spot. Concert-goers who show up at least a half an hour in advance have a good chance of getting in.

Starting as early as 6:30 p.m., standby seats will be available at the will-call desk located in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE. The Library’s concert producer, Anne McLean, also has a limited number of tickets to give away. She can be contacted at 202-707-8432.

The concert will also place overfill audience in the adjoining Whittall Pavilion, right next to the concert’s Coolidge Auditorium.