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A Stolen, Then Recovered, Stradivarius Returns To The Stage

Mar 14, 2017
Originally published on March 15, 2017 6:51 am

In music, a coda is a passage that brings a musical composition to an end. This is the coda to a musical saga — the story of the Stradivarius violin that was stolen 37 years ago from my late father, violinist Roman Totenberg, and recovered in 2015.

That violin, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1734, was my father's "musical partner" for 38 years as he toured the world.

He used to dream of opening his violin case and seeing it there again. But when he died at the age of 101 — literally teaching on his death bed — he still was seeing the Strad only in those dreams.

We three Totenberg sisters finally saw it again a year and a half ago after it was turned over to us at the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan following a mammoth press conference. Since then, the violin has been living at Rare Violins of New York, undergoing restoration by amazing craftsmen.

On Monday it had its debut at a private concert in New York, played by my father's former student Mira Wang, now a virtuoso performer in her own right.

There never was any doubt she would be the one to play it first. In the family, she is known as the fourth Totenberg sister.

She arrived in the U.S. from China in 1986 to study with my father, living with my parents for a time, and years later marrying her cellist husband, Jan Vogler, on our porch. She and her family remain part of our family to this day.

But as she reminded me this week, she "actually never met the violin, only the ghost of the violin" – and the poster that bore its image outside my parents' bedroom.

But for the last month the Totenberg Strad — and all its vivid colors of sound — has become a reality for Wang as she got the violin ready for its debut.

"It's like meeting a new stranger, but the most fabulous stranger you can imagine," she says.

Musicians know that every great instrument is like an individual, she observes. "So when I first got it, I truly thought the violin hated me. Great masterpieces like these they have their own character. They don't let you do anything you like. So as a player, being able to control the violin, it's always a tricky business."

"You need time to learn how ... to be friends with the instrument, and what it likes and what it doesn't, and to discover the beauty of the true great master, you just need time," she adds.

And so, Wang has been sawing away on the fiddle, every day for hours, becoming its friend — while my father watches.

"I actually have a picture of him right in front of me when I play the violin, and that's where I stand," she says. "I feel he's watching over me saying don't do terrible things to the violin!" And then she laughs.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In music, a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end. And so today, we bring you the coda to a musical saga, the story of the late violinist Roman Totenberg and the theft of his Stradivarius violin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROMAN TOTENBERG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

MARTIN: That's Totenberg playing the Stradivarius before it was stolen 37 years ago. When it was recovered in 2015, his oldest daughter, NPR's own Nina Totenberg, let us in on all the details of the drama. So now to bring the story full circle, here she is once more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: My father used to dream of opening his violin case and seeing the Strad there again. But when he died at the age of 101, literally teaching on his deathbed, he still was seeing the violin only in those dreams. We three Totenberg sisters saw it again a year and a half ago after it was turned over to us at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan following a mammoth press conference.

Since then, the violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1734 has been living at Rare Violins of New York, undergoing restoration by amazing craftsmen. This week, it had its debut at a private concert in New York, so private we weren't allowed to record. But we knew you'd want to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRA WANG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

TOTENBERG: That's Mira Wang, my father's former student, practicing in her New York apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRA WANG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

TOTENBERG: There never was any doubt she'd be the one playing it first. In the family, she's known as the fourth Totenberg sister. She arrived in the U.S. from China to study with my father in 1986, living with my parents for a time, years later marrying her cellist husband on our porch. And she and her family remain part of our family to this day. But as she reminded me this week...

MIRA WANG: I actually never met the violin. I only met the ghost of the violin. I only saw it in the photos, in the, you know, the poster.

TOTENBERG: The poster outside of my parents' bedroom advertised one of my father's concerts with a photograph of the violin. But for the last month, the Totenberg Strad and all its vivid colors of sound has become a reality for Mira Wang as she got it ready for its debut.

WANG: It's like meeting a new stranger, but the most fabulous stranger you can imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRA WANG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

TOTENBERG: Musicians know that every great instrument is like an individual.

WANG: So when I first got it, I truly thought the violin hated me. I always say great masterpieces like these, they have their own character. They don't let you do anything you like. So as a player to be able to control the violin, it's always a tricky business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRA WANG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

WANG: You need time to learn how to be friendly, to be friends with the instrument and what it likes or what it doesn't. And to discover the beauty of the true great master, you just need time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRA WANG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

TOTENBERG: And so Mira Wang has been sawing away on the fiddle every day for hours, becoming its friend while my father watches.

WANG: I actually have a picture, right in front of me when I play the violin, of him. And that's where I stand. And I feel like he's watching over, said don't do terrible things to the violin (laughter).

TOTENBERG: Of course, she played beautifully. And I'm sure that Mr. T, as he was known to his students, was pleased and so happy that his beloved violin is ready to thrill audiences again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRA WANG VIOLIN PERFORMANCE)

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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