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A Stolen, Then Recovered, Stradivarius Returns To The Stage

Mira Wang plays Roman Totenberg's long lost Ames Stradivarius violin in New York, on March 8, 2017. Wang, a former student of Totenberg's, played the instrument at a private concert in New York on March 13.
Image credit: Seth Wenig

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, virtuoso 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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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