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London-based fine instrument specialist Florian Leonhard, foreground, examines a violin alongside Jonathan Solars, the managing director of Leonhard's New York City shop.

Violin students and professionals alike will have the opportunity to play some of the world’s rarest violins this weekend at the Immanuel and Helen Olshan Texas Music Festival on the University of Houston campus. Florian Leonhard, one of the foremost authorities on rare violins, is bringing a collection of historic violins and bows—including four Stradivarius violins—for a lecture and exhibition.

A renowned violin dealer, restorer, and maker based in London, Leonhard specializes in rare Italian violins, among them Stradivarius, Guarneri, and Amati violins. He describes playing such unique instruments as an unparalleled experience.

“[Playing a rare violin] will give you the possibility to express colors and feelings on a level that you could never imagine beforehand,” Leonhard said. “To stand on stage and be able to express with clarity and brilliance different colors is just an exhilarating experience for a player.”

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The 1735 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, ex ‘Ferdinand David was once played by acclaimed Japanese violinist Midori.

The Stradivari are famous for projecting a sound quality that carries all the way to the back of a concert hall. Although more than a thousand were created by the house of Antonio Stradivari in 17th-century Italy, only around 600 of the transcendental string instruments still survive today.

In addition to the four Stradivari, Leonhard will bring the 1735 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, ex ‘Ferdinand David.’ The violin has drifted between owners over the centuries but was once played by the 19th-century violinist Ferdinand David, famous for having debuted the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Japanese violinist Midori also played the Guarneri ex David for many years.

For a musician, a rare violin is significant for more than just its historic or monetary value—or even which greats played it before you. For violinists like Alan Austin, Texas Music Festival General and Artistic Director, they can have a great impact on performance.

“From a visceral standpoint, when you play a really great instrument… you sort of feel it in your body,” Austin said. “If you play your instrument, and you pick up a really great instrument that just sings freely with nothing holding it back, it can be a totally ear-opening experience and something that you feel both physically and emotionally in your body.”

On Friday evening, Leonhard will explain how he discovers the makers of centuries-old violins in a lecture entitled “The Modern Day Sherlock Holmes—A Study in the Process of Authentication.”

“In some ways it’s detective work where we look for details that need to be basically backing up a certain theory about how a violin was made and where it was made and at what time,” Leonhard said.

The next day, Leonhard will offer complimentary violin evaluations and adjustments, allowing violinists of varying levels to play some of his antiques.

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Playing a rare violin, says Leonhard, "will give you the possibility to express colors and feelings on a level that you could never imagine beforehand."

Violin dealers often visit music festivals and bring instruments for musicians to play; however, it is uncommon for a musician to have the experience of playing a Stradivarius as a student. According to Leonhard, lending young musicians great instruments can help them find discover what type of instruments they want to play in the future. Playing these violins can also lead to sponsorships later down the road.

Austin and Leonhard both agree that many musicians search for years to find the perfect instrument for them to express their sound.

“When you’re making music you’re expressing your individual voice, and there’s such a variety of sounds that come from different instruments. Even great Italian violins…they all are so individual,” Austin said. “Really, for a string player, you search for a lot of your life for your voice.”

Florian Leonhard will deliver his free lecture at the University of Houston Moores School of Music June 16, 7 p.m. in Dudley Recital Hall. On June 17, he will offer violin evaluations and adjustments from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the UH Moores School of Music, Room 108. Single admission tickets are available for purchase online.

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