True love: Houston Symphony's Sophia Silivos and her Landolfi violin were madefor each other
I found myself in a room with a 261-year-old violin, a Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi made in 1750 in Milan, to be exact. I should add that the owner of the violin, the amazing Sophia Silivos, a first violinist with Houston Symphony, was also in the room. You too can hear Silivos' violin, along with the rest of the outstanding members of the Symphony, this weekend and throughout the summer.
I heard Silivos play at a Divas World brunch, where she also shared how she came to have her late teacher Anna Tringas' precious instrument. After playing dreamy renditions of Fritz Kreisler's Schön Rosmarin and Fritz Kreisler's Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow), she ran off to make a symphony show. And don't you know it, I ran off after her. Silivos studied with Tringas from ages 7-17 and learned both of these pieces with her teacher. I had to know more.
I saw The Red Violin. These rare objects have souls, hearts maybe, and they rarely pass from musician to musician without a good story.
I was stunned by the object currently sitting atop the conference table. The violinist offered some context. "Mozart was born in 1756, Bach died in 1750, the same year the violin was made," said Silivos, who enters her 20th season with the symphony this fall. The legendary luthier Landolfi lived from 1714-1787. Now, I'm even more freaked out by the history in front of me.
Silivos was perfectly happy with her Soffritti, a modern Italian violin made in 1923. But awhile back, she upgraded to her "dreamboat" bow, as she likes to call it. Casually looking for a new violin, Silivos never imagined she would end up with Tringas' treasured instrument. "She was a mentor to me, a second mother," Silivos said. "I would always visit her when I went home. Usually, I used her bow, but once, I used my bow, I fell in love. The sound spoke to me."
Silivos grew up in Pensacola in a Greek restaurant family where listening to Greek music and pop tunes was the norm. Although her family was not particularly musical, her father recognized that she could play by ear at an early age. He asked around at the local church for music teachers, which is how she ended up a student of Tringas, a Juilliard-trained musician.
Tringas purchased the violin in New York City in 1939. It's very difficult to find out who owned it before that. You have to hire the equivalent of an instrument private detective to get to its history. "She was such a dedicated musician," Silivos said. "She practiced every day, no matter what."
After Tringas' death, owning the Landolfi became a possibility. But because it's such a big investment, it's a huge decision. "You have to live with it," said Silivos, who spent a month trying it out and getting feedback. "It's a great violin for me, it has such color, such an exotic sound to it." Funds from Divas World Productions helped defray the cost, which Silivos would not divulge.
We reached a point in our conversation, where the urge to look closely at this magnificent violin became overwhelming. Silivos gently opened the case and showed me her instrument, eventually letting me hold it for a moment. I couldn't believe how light it was. She showed me the label on the inside placed there in 1750.
"It still has 85% of its original varnish, which is really unusual," Silivos boasted with pride. "It's been knocked around a bit." She pointed to a few of its bangs as if they were badges of honor from its previous owners. It's hard not to wonder what other sets of hands held the violin.
Soon, the warm sounds of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" wafted through the building.
We pondered the future. Silivos is part of a continuum of this instrument's life that may last another few hundred years. She knows full well the instrument will get passed on to someone else.
"I do think about leaving my mark. This is my time with it," she says. "I still can't believe I have it because I grew up hearing it. I sense her soul in her violin."