In 2016, we received an email from Jonathan Sparey expressing his wish to donate part of his violin collection to the Jumpstart Jr. Foundation. Jonathan started collecting violins early in his career as a violinist in the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. He bought his first violin, a Goffredo Cappa, for a few thousand pounds he borrowed from his father. In this interview, he talks about his collection and how he acquired it.
Two violins from the Sparey Collection play a special role: the Andrea Amati (1570) and the Brothers Amati (1596).
Andrea Amati (1505-1577) is seen as the father of the Cremonese school of violin makers, and thus the ‘founding father of the violin’. As an instrument maker, he made ‘rebecs’ and ‘viols’ – string instruments developed in the 11th and 15th century respectively, but which were still popular in the Renaissance and the early Baroque. Andrea Amati is widely considered the ‘inventor’ of the violin as we know it today. Through his trail-blazing and bold modifications, including changing the position of the bridge, moving the sound holes further down the body and changing their shape, he developed an instrument that could produce a much greater volume than the string instruments in use until then. Already famous in his time, Andrea Amati is said to have made violins of various sizes and cellos for Charles IX of France, who had them played at the court in Versailles. The oldest surviving instrument made by Andrea Amati dates back to 1564. This instrument which is part of the Sparey Collection, was made in 1570. It is on loan to Alina Ibragimova and Pablo Hernán Benedi, both members of the British Chiaroscuro Quartet.
Brothers Marc and Maarten Slendebroek have bought a violin for the Jumpstart Jr. Foundation. Well actually, they only paid for it – they didn’t pick it out. ‘We’ve held it in our hands just once, like a baby.’
There are three and a half years between them, but their lives are almost synchronous. Both work in finance in the City of London. Maarten lives in London, and Marc has an apartment just around the corner from him, and also lives in Leiden.
And do they share a love of music too? Marc hesitates. ‘I do listen to classical music, and I happen to rather like baroque, but my first love has always been rock music.’ Maarten adds: ‘It was his idea to do something with Jumpstart Jr. Foundation, but I’m the one with musical connections. I’m on the Supervisory Board for the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. Jupiter Fund Management, the company for which I was Chair of the Board until recently, sponsors the orchestra.
Marc Slendebroek knows the Jumpstart Jr. Foundation founders personally. In 2014, he decided to give a young musician the opportunity to start his/her musical career on a violin appropriate to his/her talent, but out of reach budget-wise. ‘Even hard-working guys in the City find it difficult to finance an instrument like that,’ says Marc. ‘So we decided to do it together.’
And then what followed – a joint quest for a violin? They laugh. Maarten: ‘If we’d done that, we’d have quickly blown all our money on a violin that no one wanted to play.’ ‘If we’d been present at the sale, we’d only have got in the way,’ says Marc. Maarten: ‘Even if you have a good ear for music, that doesn’t necessarily mean you also have a good ear for the right instrument.’
They were involved in the process, however. ‘Jumpstart Jr. must have invited us about a hundred times. We’d get an e-mail saying: tomorrow we’re going to be in Frankfurt at the famous this or that. Then I’d think: just send a photo,’ says Maarten. ‘I am interested, but I don’t have the time to be that involved.’
Jumpstart Jr. Foundation looked for the violin, ultimately choosing a 1700 Goffredo Cappa. Maarten: ‘I have to admit that I didn’t know that name. Alongside superstars such as Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati, there are the lesser gods. If I understand it correctly, Cappa made few violins, but they were of high quality. And the condition of this particular violin was also an important consideration.’
Jumpstart Jr. Foundation went to New York, London and Frankfurt to have the violin valued. Research was done into the history of the instrument, and all of the repairs and replacements were meticulously scrutinised. ‘That’s when you find out that there isn’t a single instrument from the 1700s that hasn’t been damaged at some point,’ says Maarten.
While all of this was going on, the brothers kept their distance. Doesn’t that seem strange, when you’re the one paying for such a precious object? Maarten: ‘When are you prepared to relinquish control in a major investment? You can do that when you really trust the party you’re “doing business” with, and have a relationship with. And that was definitely the case with Jumpstart Jr.’
Marc: ‘Maarten and I are both in the investment business. People place a huge amount of trust in you to make decisions with respect to their family, pension or on behalf of other people. That’s why placing that degree of trust in Jumpstart Jr. Foundation is no big issue for us.’
They first saw and heard the violin in London, when it was lent out once for a concert. ‘We were allowed to hold it very carefully in our hands, just as if it were a baby,’ says Marc.
Marc insists that it’s not a financial investment. ‘You give someone the opportunity to play a fantastic instrument. We pay for the maintenance and the insurance, and when we’re old and doddering, we hope to see back the price for which we acquired it. That’s the general idea.’
Marc adds: ‘The effort we’ve put into buying the instrument is nothing compared to that of the musicians who study for years and years and hope to join an orchestra eventually.’
But they are hoping for a ‘musical return,’ says Maarten. ‘You hope to develop a close relationship with the violin player but things don’t always work out that way.’ The instrument’s first player happened to be in Ukraine, which made hearing a performance impossible. However, the violin has recently been borrowed by Sophie Wedell, a German player who graduated from the Hague Conservatory last year. Marc: ‘We plan to give a house concert for a few friends in Leiden, and to invite her to play.’ Maarten: ‘And perhaps we can convince others to do what we’ve done. Another possibility is to buy a bow, it’s a smaller investment but also extremely important.’
Four years ago, the British couple Jonathan and Elizabeth Sparey donated 13 violins to Jumpstart Jr. Foundation. They were the couple’s most beautiful instruments.
Jonathan Sparey is a real ‘bargain hunter’, if the term applies to collectors of antique violins. In 2008, he bought a viola made by Vuillaume. The lacquer was damaged, and the bassbar was too small, but those are things that could be repaired, and now the Vuillaume has been appraised for a substantial amount. It was just one of the instruments he and his wife donated to Jumpstart Jr. Foundation in 2016.
Sparey is all too happy to talk at length about his love of violins. As a child, he was fortunate to live in the Lake District, where all of the great violinists of the time, including Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrach, came to play in the new concert hall. As a teenager, he even had an opportunity to play for Menuhin in his hotel room, where the maestro gave him advice on how to play. “He laid on the bed and I stood at the end and played the violin concerto by Bruch for him”.
After his studies, Sparey played in the orchestra for the popular musical Jesus Christ Superstar. “It was a great job”, he remembers. “Six two-hour performances per week, with a 20-minute break. And you could take time off, as long as you arranged a replacement.” He found his calling as a violinist in the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, where he performed from 1974 to 2010. The Fitzwilliam is now one of oldest quartets in the world still performing.
He bought his first exceptional instrument, a Goffredo Cappa, for a few thousand pounds he borrowed from his father. “I hadn’t yet thought about collecting instruments. I just played the violin, and I thought it was amazing”, he says.
His wife Elizabeth adds: “People were always bringing him violins. Jonathan has a good eye and ear for judging instruments. He had that even before he started collecting.” Sparey agrees that it is his greatest talent: “When I pick up an instrument, I can immediately sense the best way to play it and how to get the best sound out of it.”
The Sparey home gradually began to accumulate ever-more violins. According to Jonathan Sparey, it was due to his membership in the quartet. “You can have a violin that sounds beautiful on its own but is completely overwhelmed by the other instruments in a quartet. Or vice-versa. I was always looking for new violins to try out in the quartet.”
An acquaintance of Jonathan’s bought a case with a violin and a bow for 100 pounds during a clearance sale at the Capes Dunn auction house in Manchester. When he got home, he found out it was an Andrea Amati from 1570. Sparey didn’t take the opportunity to play the violin during a visit to his acquaintance in Manchester, though. It wasn’t until a few years later, when he saw it for sale at a dealer’s in London. He bought it there – for 8,000 pounds. “At the time, in the late 1980s, not many people had heard of Amati”, Sparey explains. “He only became famous in 2005, during his 500th birthday celebration.”
The Amati was in poor condition. The scroll and the pegs were damaged, but Sparey was able to find replacements that had also been made by Andrea Amati himself. The top plate was in worse condition. “It was in a terrible state. For years, I played the fiddle with a top plate that I’d had made by a local violin maker.”
But even with the crack, the Amati still sounded amazing, Sparey says. “That’s one of the unbelievable things about the violin, or really about any Italian violin from that period. You can do anything with it. The violin also sounded good with the new top plate.”
The original top plate has since been re-fitted. As Sparey explains, the techniques for repairing instruments have made a spectacular development over the past few years. “You can even have pieces of wood made to precisely fill holes caused by woodworms.”
The violin was a unique possession: the only Amati in the world in private hands, rather than a museum. Today, it is part of the Sparey Collection, under the umbrella of Jumpstart Jr. Foundation and is played by Alina Ibragimova of the Chiaroscuro Quartet.
In addition to the Amati, Sparey also owned two violins by Carlo Guiseppe Testore and a Cremonese violin by an as-yet-unidentified master, but which had once been in the possession of Michael Rabin, a violinist whom Sparey greatly admires. “One of my friends thinks the violin must have come from the Stradivari workshop. It’s the best violin I’ve ever had. Someone once taught me that a truly good violin sounds as if the music is coming from another part of the room. That’s the case with this instrument as well. The violin is wedged under your chin, but the sound comes from over there”, he says, pointing to the corner of the room.
A collection of any kind is also a responsibility for its owners, and Jonathan and Elizabeth Sparey didn’t want to burden their heirs with it. They briefly considered starting their own foundation, but that would have required them to pay a large amount in taxes. For a time, the Spareys loaned the Amati to another institution but they kept the instrument in a drawer, and to their horror the institute lent it out to students who cycled around London with it on their back.
When they heard about Jumpstart Jr. Foundation, they saw an opportunity to donate their best instruments and have them played by talented young musicians. At the time the Spareys donated the instruments to Jumpstart Jr. Foundation, they were still on loan to the musicians that the couple had sought out themselves. They made an agreement with Jumpstart Jr. Foundations that the violins would be set aside for new young, talented violinists selected by Jumpstart Jr. Foundations after they are returned. The Spareys still have another 25 excellent violins in their collection that are not associated with famous craftsmen.
They were pleased and relieved when the paperwork for the donation to Jumpstart was finalised just before the Brexit referendum. Jonathan Sparey: “I wanted the instruments to go to people who would respect them and use them. And who loved them to bits!”
Baroque violinist Emmanuel Resche-Caserta, concertmaster for Les Arts Florissants, has been playing Jumpstart Jr. Foundation’s Francesco Rugeri violin built in 1675 since June 2019. He now knows the difference between a good violin and an excellent violin that does everything the player asks of it.
It’s almost dangerous, says Baroque violinist Emmanuel Resche-Caserta. With the Francesco Rugeri from 1675, everything he plays sounds beautiful, no matter what he does.
“With all of the violins I’ve had before, I had to play very precisely to get the sound that I wanted. I had to think about how I used my fingers, where I started the bow, and which gut strings I used. I used a new E-string for each concert in order to keep the sound as clear as possible. I also kept the hair of my bow scrupulously clean for a precise attack. And now? Anywhere I put the fingers of my left hand, the violin reacts to it and does exactly what I had in mind.”
Emmanuel considers the dynamics to be what makes this violin so exceptional. “I can play pianississimo with one hair of the bow, and it’s still audible at the back of the auditorium. But the violin also produces a full fortissimo. I can study more tonal colours than ever before.”
Resche-Caserta is bilingual; he was born in France to a French father and Italian mother. His mother taught him to play piano, but his brother and sister already played piano, so when he was seven his parents suggested that he switch to the violin.
Emmanuel had never even seen a violin before, but it was love at first sight. “I still remember the first lesson like it was yesterday. I thought it was amazing that you had to hold the instrument so close to your body.”
The Resche-Caserta family lived in the countryside of the Auvergne. Every Wednesday, his mother or father drove the children to the music school in the nearest town, Clermont-Ferrand; an hour there and an hour back.
He didn’t come up with idea of making the violin his profession until relatively late, at the age of 25. What does a young man do with all of the credentials necessary to enrol in the renowned Sciences Po University without even taking an entrance exam? Of course – he goes to Paris to study Political Science. But it wasn’t the the right decision for Resche-Caserta. After he received his Bachelor degree he switched to Art History.
Fortunately, he still had a violin, and an acquaintance asked him to fill in during a concert of early music in Nice. “That was a revelation. I remember that we played something with vocalists by Pergolesi. Everything was new and exotic; the pipe organ, the sheet music. I’d played sonatas and works by Bach before, but always on a modern instrument and with modern techniques.”
From that moment on, Resche-Caserta was entranced by Baroque violin. He took lessons from a variety of teachers, at the conservatory in Paris, in Palermo, and at the Julliard School of Music in New York. He is grateful for those experiences in retrospect, because they taught him the different styles of playing early music.
“For centuries, French violinists were mainly accompaniment for dancing”, he explains. “They only began to write special sonatas for the violin at the end of the 17th century. Texts from the time praised French violinists for their rousing style, as a motor for the dance.”
Among the Italians, the violin had been used to express emotions as early as the 1640s. That led to more virtuoso performances, with ornamentation, double stops and fingers higher on the fingerboard. The French may have had a better bow technique, says Resche-Caserta, but they played with their left hand solely in the first position. “My teacher in Paris taught me the ‘grammar’ of Baroque music, but in Palermo I learned the phrasing and about the quality of the sound.”
He spent the last year of his studies in New York, where he met William Christie, the Franco-American founder of the Baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants. Resche-Caserta was named the ensemble’s concertmaster in 2017.
For 10 years, he played on a Baroque violin made especially for him. It was a beautiful instrument, he says, but he still wanted to play on an authentic period instrument. “The old masters achieved such a perfection in their craft, that contemporary builders simply cannot equal it, no matter how good they are.”
Resche-Caserta is honoured to have had the opportunity to audition for Jumpstart Jr. Foundation and to receive the Rugeri on loan. Thanks to this instrument, he now no longer needs to focus on the technical aspects while playing and consequently has grown as a musician. “During a concert, I can focus solely on the music and the reaction of the audience. That may well be the most important effect of playing on such a beautiful instrument. You can dive deeper into the music.”
There is only one disadvantage to the loan, however: He will have to give the Rugeri back in June, 2029. “I’m already dreading that day.”
Violinist Bojan Cicic (40) had the opportunity to play a Rugeri violin on a 10-year loan from Jumpstart Jr. Foundation. He owes his career to it. “This violin demands something brilliant from its player.”
The Francesco Rugeri violin made Bojan Cicic a better violinist. In the 10 years that he had the violin from 1675 on loan, he developed from a workmanlike player in Baroque ensembles to a concertmaster, conductor and leader of his own ensemble, the Illyria Consort. He turned into a soloist.
In fact, the Rugeri made him a completely different kind of violinist. “When I was searching for a new violin to replace the Rugeri, I started to ask myself: it’s a nice Baroque violin, but can I also play the Beethoven concerto on it?”, he said in his house in Oxford, UK. “That’s when I realised that I’m not just a Baroque violinist anymore.”
We will discuss that in more detail later, but first we must travel back to the year 2009. Cicic remembers how he auditioned with a Vivaldi concerto and two sections of a partita by Bach, but was astonished that of all the candidates, he was the one to receive the Rugeri on loan. Apparently Jumpstart Jr. Foundation saw something in him that he did not yet recognise in himself. “When they gave me the violin, I was paranoid that I would leave it lying in the train or that someone would steal it. It took a while to sort of relax.
He had to become accustomed to the Rugeri, and the Rugeri had to become accustomed to him. Cicic: “I’d never had an instrument with so many possibilities for expression. I had to learn just how far I could push it. And the more I played, the happier the Rugeri sounded. The wood reacts to the player, which is one of the characteristics of a good instrument.”
Cicic describes the Rugeri as ‘sweet’. “It’s not large and doesn’t have a robust sound. But it’s not about the number of decibels you can produce; it’s the interesting colours and tones you can create that gets the audience’s attention. This violin is not intended to overwhelm the listener. I’ve become a more precise player thanks to the Rugeri, and hopefully a more refined one as well.”
Around half-way through the loan period, Cicic set a definitive course for his career. Was it because others knew he was allowed to play this instrument, or was it the violin itself that forced him to play as a soloist? Perhaps it was both. “I was fortunate enough to be named the concertmaster at Florilegium”, Cicic says. “That gave me the opportunity to show what I could do.” A YouTube video of one of the concerts he had played with his own ensemble, The Illyria Consort, also helped him gain a wider audience.
The violin challenged him to choose ever-more virtuoso pieces to add to his repertoire. Locatelli. Vivaldi. Mendelssohn. And recently even the Baroque-tinted solo sonata by Max Reger, from 1905. “This violin demands something brilliant from its player”, says Cicic. “You can play chamber music on it, of course, but it’s also worth listening to as a solo instrument. The Rugeri isn’t entirely a Baroque violin; it also has elements of a modern instrument, so why shouldn’t I use it to play music from later periods too? After all, there are enough modern violinists who play ‘our’ repertoire with their own musical convictions.”
During the last two years of the loan period, Cicic tried to get as much out of the Rugeri as possible. He recorded CDs with his own ensemble, playing the violin concertos by Giovanni Gionorvic and the violin sonatas by Carbonelli, and he sought out a different, wider audience. “My priorities have changed. I want to play Locatelli and Beethoven with an orchestra. And if I can’t do that in the United Kingdom, then I’ll do it somewhere else.”
Since giving back the Rugeri, Cicic has had the privilege of playing an equally wonderful Tononi from 1701. This was the violin he chose to play Beethoven’s violin concerto last year. There is still one hurdle yet to cross, however: Cicic need to find a group of investors willing to purchase the instrument on his behalf. But he has ever confidence that he will succeed, first because he was appointed as leader of The Academy of Ancient Music in 2018, and second because he has blazed a new path that differentiates him from other Baroque violinists.
“That would never have been possible without the Rugeri”, he says. “I couldn’t think ‘big’ before. It’s not only the fact that I’ve become a better player and sought out a different repertoire. I also needed the self-confidence and self-worth to see myself as a soloist. That’s what Jumpstart Jr. Foundation gave to me.”