Why this Santa Rosa violin and cello maker uses 300-year-old techniques
When world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited the nearly completed Green Music Center in 2011, he did not bring either of his famous cellos: the Davidov Stradivarius crafted in 1712 or the Montagnana cello made in 1733. That became a problem when pianist Jeffrey Kahane asked him to perform an impromptu concert.
Coming to Ma's rescue was Santa Rosa luthier Andrew Carruthers, who loaned out one of his finest cellos so Ma and Kahane could perform a Rachmaninoff sonata in honor of Kahane's 55th birthday.
“Needless to say I agreed immediately and took it as a huge honor,” Carruthers said. “Afterwards Yo-Yo Ma, who is a known mensch, said some complimentary words about the cello as he handed it back to me. It was a gratifying and memorable event.”
For more than 30 years, Carruthers has been quietly toiling away in his small, Santa Rosa workshop, flying under the radar while restoring and handcrafting violins, violas and cellos using ancient techniques and materials that haven't changed in more than 300 years. Most of the instruments are sold to musicians in Chicago, New York and beyond.
“My market is not local musicians,” Carruthers said while surrounded by wood chips from a cello top he is in the process of shaping. “My clientele is mostly serious students, either going to music school or graduating from musical school and looking for their first job.”
Those who have purchased one of the 300-some instruments Carruthers has made through the years praise the instruments' clarity and power.
“I always get complimented on the evenness of the sound and the balance,” said Carruthers, a self-deprecating chap raised in the U.K. “People tell me my instruments have a particular sound ... but that they are all slightly different.”
Although most luthiers concentrate on violins, the shy, bespectacled Carruthers has carved out a niche with the cello, the tenor/bass instrument of the violin family that is constructed using the same components as a violin, only larger.
“There are fewer people who will do cellos at a high quality,” he said. “ Violins - that's where most people go. It's more prestigious.”
After enrolling at the Welch School of Violin Making and Repair at age 32, Carruthers served an apprenticeship under cello restoration specialist Russell Wagner at the high-profile Bein and Fushi shop in Chicago.
“What I like about the cello is the range, because it's more similar to the voice,” the 61-year-old luthier said. “And the body is similar to a human body.”
‘People find me'
Over the past quarter century, Carruthers and his hand-carved instruments have caught the eyes and ears of serious musicians through word-of-mouth as well as through internationally known dealers, including Ifshin in Berkeley and Roland Feller in San Francisco.
“People find me,” he said simply. “The reputation is finally starting to work after 20 to 25 years.”
Locally, a handful of professionals and serious amateurs play on Carruthers' instruments, including retired Santa Rosa Symphony violist Ellen Watson and Santa Rosa violinist Richard Heinberg.
“I wanted to have a violin by a local maker,” said Heinberg, who owns a Carruthers and two other violins. “This violin has a good, strong sound, evenly balanced across the strings ... his violas and cellos are a little more remarkable. He uses different woods for the backs of the violas, and he manages to get a really beautiful, woody sound.”
Watson has been playing on a Carruthers viola since 2001, after trying out various violins from some of the top Bay Area dealers.
“The one that Andy made is very refined and very lightweight,” she said. “The tone has only become richer over time.”
Hand-crafted works of art
Like luthiers working in Cremona, Italy, during the Golden Age - from the house of Amati in the 16th century through Stradivari, Guarneri, Ruggieri and others in the 17th and 18th centuries - Carruthers makes each instrument by hand and assembles it from more than 70 different molded pieces of wood, using mostly spruce, maple and domestic poplar. He adapts each instrument to the particular qualities of each piece of wood.
“It's all air-dried,” he said of the wood, which he measures for density and weight. “It dries slowly and tends to be stronger. You want lightweight but strong wood.”
It's especially important to use lightweight wood on the top of an instrument, Carruthers said, because it needs to vibrate easily yet be strong enough to withstand the pressure of the string tension, which equals more than 80 pounds on a modern violin.
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