Best Fiddler’s Friend

Down the pathway beside the house on the West L.A. hillside, past the red door and down the steps, Kyozo Watanabe sits surrounded by bright, gleaming, brand-new stringed instruments: s, violas, cellos, perhaps a few double basses — enough to start up a full-size philharmonic, with enough for a chamber-music concert to spare. “There is no instrument here that I made,” says the soft-spoken, smiling Watanabe with some pride, “but there is no instrument here that I won’t make better.”

Some instruments were made in China, mass-produced of perfectly good wood — maple and spruce, some native Chinese, some from Sri Lanka — but not very good quality overall before arriving in Watanabe’s Cremona Violin Shop. “They are all what I call ‘China basic.’ You can buy instruments like this right out of the box in big stores for under $200, and give them to beginning children and make them think they are playing a violin. What I do is to add at least $165 worth of improvements: a better bridge, fingerboard, pegs, a soundboard. I can sell the finished product for only a couple of hundred dollars more, but it’s a real instrument.

“If music is going to survive, the first thing we have to insist upon is that beginning students must have good instruments. A child starting in is surely no more talented than the violin in his hands, and if it’s a bad violin that can’t respond to what he expects out of music, he simply gets discouraged and gives up. I don’t mean he has to start in with a Stradivarius. It’s just that he can’t start out with a piece of junk, or a toy.” Watanabe’s mission is to furnish the newcomer (of any age, by the way) with the first real instrument of his life in music.

Born in Japan, Watanabe commuted from Munich to the Bavarian town of Mittenwald, which, like Italy’s Cremona, is one of the world’s learning places for violin craftspeople. His wife, Miwako, was a member of the fondly remembered Sequoia String Quartet and still performs in chamber concerts here and in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the world. Watanabe himself is neither a retired virtuoso nor a frustrated conductor; his serenity and quiet humor bespeak a man who’s doing in life exactly what he wants to do.

CREMONA VIOLIN SHOP 3213 Midvale Ave., West L.A., by appointment at (310) 475-5897

LA Weekly