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Instruments Taking Shape In Hands of Santa Barbara Craftsman

Master violin maker James Wimmer is creating a unique quartet of instruments for Westmont College.

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Master violin maker James Wimmer, in his studio in Santa Barbara, is creating an ensemble of instruments for Westmont College. (Brad Elliott photo)

The Hubert Schwyzer Quartet, a unique ensemble of instruments commissioned by Westmont College, is taking shape under the hands of master violin maker James Wimmer at his workshop in Santa Barbara.

Named for a former UCSB philosophy professor and cellist, the quartet will be used by Westmont faculty and students during the school year and loaned to the Music Academy of the West in the summer months.

“Jim Wimmer’s instruments are among the great ones,” says Michael Shasberger, Westmont’s Adams professor of music and worship. “This quartet will be played by generations of Westmont chamber musicians, shared with the Music Academy of the West and possibly other visiting artists in the city, and will grow in beauty of tone with each new encounter.”

Shasberger first approached Wimmer about making two violins, a viola and a cello for Westmont in spring 2007, after Wimmer repaired a cello for Shasberger’s daughter. Wimmer was surprised to get such a commission from local patrons; the majority of his instruments have sold in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, in Germany, France and as far away as India and Korea.

“Working with a contemporary luthier of Jim’s caliber allows performers to be in touch with the long tradition of violin making, and knowing that it came from here in Santa Barbara makes it all the more special,” says Phil Ficsor, Westmont assistant professor of violin. “These instruments offer a vast palette of color, something that is difficult to find even with much older instruments. What a great privilege it will be to play these instruments.”

Nona Pyron, a renowned cellist and an instructor at Westmont, taught Hubert Schwyzer and chose to name the quartet in his honor. “I was astounded by the quality of his instruments,” Pyron says. “Wimmer is the only contemporary maker I know whose instruments truly sound like 18th-century Italian masters. They are beautiful.”

Wimmer has been making string instruments by hand with a traditional, painstaking European method since 1980. He studied in Germany under Wolfgang Uebel, whose family has been making violins since the early 1700s.

“If you want to get a European tone, you must use European wood,” Wimmer says.

The Schwyzer instruments are all made from the wood of just two individual trees, a distinction the instrument maker says is increasingly rare. The finest woods are reserved for such quartets, and Wimmer visited a tone wood dealer in Germany to find the pieces for this ensemble. The tops, or bellies, of the instruments are carved from a fine spruce, and the backs from a Bosnian maple tree.

“The difficult physical work is done,” Wimmer says. “Now I have the finer work of finishing the instruments.” This includes shaving away paper-thin strips of wood from the body until the top and bottom are just millimeters thick. After carving the f-holes and shaping the necks, Wimmer will use a special method of varnishing to make the instruments appear aged, as befits their classic sound.

He expects to have the quartet complete and ready to play by the end of the year.

Scott Craig is Westmont College‘s media relations manager.

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