Instruments of Beauty

Local musicians collect rare treasures

Jeff Amberg

Damir Horvat — Music Maker

As a young boy in Croatia, Damir Horvat may not have had any inkling that he’d someday be living in South Carolina, but he did know what he’d be doing: crafting violins. “I’m a third generation violin maker,” he says. “I never had an option. My father said, ‘This is what you will do with your life.’”

After living, working and playing the violin all over the United States, Damir and Ashley, his wife, who is also a violin and viola player, settled in Columbia about a dozen years ago and opened Horvat Fine Violins. Damir is not a dealer; instead, he spends his days building and repairing violins, violas and cellos for professional musicians, students and even the occasional fiddler. It takes Damir between two and three months to make a violin or a viola and twice that for a cello. “A lot of people think that older instruments are better, but in reality, it’s more about the karma and the story of an old instrument. In blind trials, where instruments are judged on sound alone, new ones often win.” Damir’s viola, which is pictured below, was built for the Carolina Makers exhibition at the State Museum.

Cyndi and Bert Williams’ Horns — 

What’s in a Name

For anyone who has ever wondered what a French horn — the circular brass instrument with a rear-facing bell — is called in France, Bert Williams has the answer … and a story. “When King Charles II of England visited Versailles, he was so impressed by the opulence and the music that he decided to replicate it in England,” he explains. “Allegedly, he made a special request for ‘some of those French horns,’ and the name stuck in the English-speaking world. Until then, they’d only been horns.” 

Bert and his wife, Cyndi, not only both play French horns, they also collect the instruments and delight in their stories. One, a Paxman that was made in the late 1950s, turned out to be a rare prototype of another Paxman horn bought later. Cyndi purchased the prototype while playing at The Aspen Music Festival, and they discovered that it was a prototype when the earlier Paxman was sent to England for repairs. Both horns are actually two complete horns in one called a “Double Horn.” Their Scherzer Compensating Horn is an uncommon instrument built by an instrument maker better known for his rotary trumpets; the descant’s unique sound so captivated J.S. Bach that he wrote his Mass in B minor specifically for the instrument. The Williams’ most recently acquired horn is the Wagner Tuba (no relation to a regular tuba) which German composer Richard Wagner created in the 1850s, supposedly to bridge the gap between the horn and the trombone. “Cyndi has played this instrument for performances, but I’m just getting to know it,” says Bert. “It’s a wild animal to play!”

Tim Crenshaw’s Harpsichord — a Baroque Beauty

Entering the University of South Carolina in 1975 as a piano-playing composition major, Tim Crenshaw never thought much about harpsichords. That all changed the day he signed up for one of Dr. Jerry Curry’s harpsichord classes. “His passion was infectious,” he says. “By the end of the semester, I’d changed my primary instrument from piano to harpsichord.” 

 In 1992, Tim contacted Richard Kingston, a renowned harpsichord maker then based in Asheville, about building an instrument that could accompany both traditional baroque pieces and modern compositions. Modern pitches are about one half-step above those used in the 1700s. “Keeping a harpsichord tuned to the modern, higher pitch is stressful on the strings, so Richard built this one to change pitch with a sliding keyboard,” says Tim. 

Tim wanted his harpsichord to look as beautiful as it sounded, so he commissioned world-renowned harpsichord artist Pamela Gladden of Pennsylvania to decorate the soundboard with his aunt and mother’s favorite North Carolina mountain flowers. “They were both moved and thrilled,” he says. “And so was I.”

Taylor Gable’s Dulcian — 

What’s Old is New

Taylor Gable’s road to the dulcian, a Renaissance-era wind instrument that’s considered the ancestor of the modern bassoon, began with the clarinet. “When I was young I wanted to play an instrument,” she says. “I tried the clarinet, but was really bad at it. I thought the bassoon looked cool, so I tried it.” By the time she’d enrolled as a music major at USC, Taylor had become an accomplished bassoon player.

It was during her time at USC that Taylor ran across a historic bassoon. “It got me interested in older works, which would have actually been written for a dulcian,” she explains. Unable to find an old dulcian — woodwinds don’t age as well as stringed instruments — Taylor found a custom bassoon carver in Maine who was willing to make her a dulcian out of curled maple. “There’s not much of a place for the dulcian within the modern repertory, but I love the way it sounds, so I play for at least an hour every day,” she says. “It’s mellow, but grumbly, and it adds great texture to a piece.”

Bert Ligon’s Guitar — An Architectural Work of Art

Can a musical instrument also be considered a piece of art? In the case of Bert Ligon’s handcrafted guitar, the answer is “yes.” Bert is an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the prolific architect whose clean-lined, geometric buildings were designed to complement their surroundings.

Not only did Bert design his home to resemble Midway Gardens, a Wright project in Chicago, but he hired noted guitar craftsman Bill Comins to build a guitar that incorporated several of the design motifs from Midway Gardens. Ornate inlay work on the neck, for instance, resembles a series of decorative cement blocks that Wright used in Midway Gardens’ design; the placement of brightly-colored triangles that form the pick guard are similar to Midway’s stained glass.

“I got a little worried when I didn’t hear from him for six months, but it turned out he’d been researching Wright,” says Bert. “The project ended up taking two years, but I got something way beyond what I’d expected.”

Robert Jesselson’s Cello — 

A Perfect Pairing

The day that Dr. Robert Jesselson finally ended his search for the perfect cello in 1979 played out like the scene from a movie. After striking out at Moennig’s, the esteemed violin shop in Philadelphia, he’d gone on to Chicago and New York, inspecting instruments and turning them all down. Discouraged, he returned to Moennig’s and was about to walk out when he was told that there was just one more, a small-sized instrument from 1716. “They brought it out, and I fell in love,” he recalls. “It had the warm, round sound I was looking for, and since my hand is not huge, it seemed to fit me perfectly. I have been playing it ever since.”

Local luthier, Damir Horvat, did the recent renovations and local inventor and luthier, Chuck Herin, made the very special PEGHEDS. Dr. Jesselson celebrated his cello’s 300th birthday in 2016 by playing a recital with pieces from 1716, 1816, 1916 and a piece he had commissioned in 2016. “The composer of this piece, Mandy Fang (Fang Man), listened to me play, then wrote a work inspired by a lullaby that my grandmother, Oma, had made up and sung to me when I was a baby,” he says. “I still remember it more than 65 years later.”