Benning Violins and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Benning Violins and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Not every violinist can have a genuine Stradivarius, not every cellist a Guarneri. But modern violins made to old Cremonese designs and methods do quite well.

If it’s true that imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the violin makers of the 15th through 19th centuries have much to be kvelling about (to use the Yiddish term).

That’s because it’s a common practice among contemporary makers of fine string instruments to craft fine violins, cellos, violas, and basses that largely replicate the design, look and feel of the great luthiers of the past. And while some of the virtuosos of our time – Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, and Anne Akiko Meyers, to name a few – might also play on original Guarneri, Amati, and Stradivari violins, each of them also plays on violins made by today’s most talented violinmakers.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has violinists, cellists, and a violist who play on instruments made by the Benning family of luthiers, whose Los Angeles violin shop is based in Studio City. They are:

  • Minor “Mick” Wetzel, on a Zanetto model viola made in 2017
  • Jonathan Karoly, on a Stradivari model cello made in 2000
  • Barry Gold, on a Stradivari model cello made in 2006
  • Stacy Wetzel, on a Pressenda model violin made in 2015
  • Kristine Whitson, on Guadagnini violin made in 2003
  • Ingrid Hutman, on an Amati model violin made in 2020

In addition, two former members of the LA Phil play on Benning-created instruments. They are Mitchell Newman, whose Guarneri model 2016 carried him to his retirement in 2020 after 36 years with the orchestra. Vijay Gupta joined the orchestra as a teenager in 2007 and plays on a Stradivari model 2010; he left the orchestra in 2018 after winning a MacArthur fellowship worth $625,000 that allows him to apply music to social justice endeavors, to teach, and to develop the Street Symphony organization, which sponsors free concerts in county jails and for the unhoused who reside in skid row in downtown Los Angeles.

How vintage and new fine instruments vary

Comparing a fine vintage with a fine new stringed instrument is hard to do. It’s far from being a simple binary, “A is good at X and B is bad at Y.” Instead, each has their pluses, which explains why great violinists and players of other instruments very often have both types, old and new.

For example, a vintage violin might have incomparable tonal characteristics, with a rich sound because aged wood undergoes certain changes over time. The sound of a new violin might be bright and fresh, given the nature of wood that might have aged less than a decade since the tree was felled.

Other differences include how modern violins benefit from advancements in technologies and techniques for making the instrument. There are, after all, things luthiers have learned since the days of Stradivari (1644-1737). On the other hand, the provenance of instruments that have been owned by kings and virtuosos of previous centuries add to the monetary value and cachet of an instrument. The flip side with modern instruments is they are lower in price, while delivering high quality sound, because the supply is not finite ­(fine older instruments made all the rarer and more valuable due to investors who own them and which are rarely if ever played).

New fine instruments are therefore accessible to developing talent and younger players who thus far lack a sponsor or the income to purchase something for six or seven figures. In a growing world with more talent arising every day, playing at more concerts for new and larger audiences, new fine instruments are essential.