Early in 2023 the phone rang. “Hello Helen, do you know about Klanggestalten? Would you like to join us this year?”. It was an enticing offer and I was keen to accept.
The German violin makers’ association Klanggestalten (Designs in Sound) has long been on my radar. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it was formed by a group of like-minded violin and bow makers to share ideas and promote their work. The highlight of their calendar is an annual exhibition in Berlin of the work of its members. The number of participating makers is swelled by the invitation of about fifteen guests each year, giving a fresh perspective and new interactions between the players and musicians.
Several months of intensive work followed, squeezing extra instruments into a schedule which is busy with commissions. I was keen to play to my strengths, making the non-standard size instruments that have become my trademark. So I made a violin based on the 1735 Guarneri del Gesù “d’Egville” with a 350mm back length and correspondingly shorter string length, a viola to my own 36cm inch cornerless model, and a 40cm viola based on Paolo Maggini.
Eventually the date came round; all instruments finished, tested by several players and adjusted for optimal sound quality, packed and ready for the long journey. My helpful husband came too, and we opted to go by train to avoid the hassle of air travel. A long journey ensued: Manchester-London-Brussels-Berlin, using Eurostar and the new European Sleeper service.
The top floor of the venue, the CPE Bach Musikgymnasium (high school) was set up for the exhibition. Cellos and basses had their own rooms, and violins and violas were displayed in the lovely concert hall, on long tables covered in velvet cloths, with lighting. A vital feature was the Klanggestalten Café, where tea, coffee and a range of snacks which we had all contributed were available in return for a donation.
A stand-out feature of Klanggestalten is the playing events. Spread out over the weekend violins, violas, cellos, basses and bows each got their own Klangprobe or Sound Trial in the hands of a top player; a member of the Berlin Philharmonic or a music college professor. Each musician played a short excerpt on one instrument from each maker, and then the sequence was repeated with different music. Finally the bows got the same treatment, this time on the player’s own instrument. The instruments were identified by a number, and we were given sheets to help us record our thoughts. At the end the names of the makers were revealed.
The Friday evening saw one of the highlights of the event; the concert by the Mandelring Quartet. One set of instruments and bows was selected for each of three pieces: Haydn op. 74 no. 3, Janacek “Kreuzer Sonata” and Dvorák “American”. Despite having such limited time to get to know the instruments, the Mandelrings played as if they had lived for years with these instruments, really leaning into the sound qualities they discovered. To my absolute delight, my violin was picked by the leader for the Janacek. It was a thrilling experience to hear it in such capable hands.
As the weekend wore on I had the chance to show my work to a number of good players.There was also plenty of opportunity to meet other makers and to compare the similarities and differences between the violin making worlds in the UK and in Europe.