reviving the strings

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reviving the strings
“A poet is a man who puts up a ladder to a star and climbs it while playing a violin,” says
French writer Edmond de Goncourt. Danny Chan, Director of Orfeo Strings, is no poet but
he rises with his own business – by playing, and more importantly, restoring the string
instrument

                                               ■ Being a gifted violinist is a dream for many of us but putting
                                               right the wonderful string instrument may be just a fantasy. For
                                               Danny Chan, Director of Orfeo Strings, violin restoration is more
                                               than art, but a business of his love and interest. Graduated from
                                               the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts after completing
                                               a bachelor degree in music, majoring in violin performance, he
                                               didn't want to be a professional violinist. Instead, he makes violin
                                               restoration his career.
                                                    “I think the restoration work of violins and other string
                                               instruments is more fun and interesting,” he said. His endeavor
                                               in this unique field owes a lot to his outgoing personality. In his
                                               childhood, Danny didn’t like sitting still and doing his homework.
                                               When he was five, his hobby was to disintegrate different items,
                                               such as clocks, toys, radios and recorders, and then restoring
                                               and putting them together again. Doing arts and crafts, and
                                               making sculptures were his strengths when he was a student.
                                                     During his school days at the arts academy, Danny learnt
                                               about the history and craftsmanship of string instruments and did
                                               a lot of research on the area. In 1998, he started Orfeo Strings,
                                               a professional dealer and repairer of violins. His French partner,
                                               Vincent Gonthier, now works with him in the shop on the second
                                               floor of an old commercial building in Wanchai.
                                                    “I met Vincent in 2004 and I invited him to come and work
                                               with me. He has spent all his years learning to make violins and
                                               he has worked for top class violin restoring companies in the US
                                               and Italy,” Danny said. “When he was a kid, he learnt about making
                                               violins from his father and he made his first violin when he was 12.
                                               At the age of 17, he was apprentice of a French master. France
                                               has the highest standards in terms of violin restoring, thus Vincent
                                               has rich restoring experience and is up to world class standards.”
                                                    Danny has great trust in Vincent’s professionalism and way of
Danny Chan, Director of Orfeo Strings          working, so he leaves Vincent to be in charge of the corporate


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strategy and direction. Vincent is also        play violins, the family would sell their      Danny’s wife, a secretary, and two
in charge of the workshop and devotes          collection.”                                   apprentices. One apprentice specializes in
all his time in the arts and craft of violin        A professional violin could be worth      bow restoration and the other specializes
restoring in the workshop inside in the        half a million Hong Kong dollars to            on violin restoration. As the shop
shop. As for Danny, he is mainly involved      HK$4 million, Danny said. “We are a violins    develops, the staff's restoring skills have
with marketing work and he does all the        seller, so everyone can come to us. But        continuously improved and Danny has
networking with professional violinists. He    we mainly serve professionals,” he said.       established a bigger network in Europe.
flies to Europe about four times a year,            Other string instruments that can              Danny said it is very difficult to find
mostly traveling to the UK and France,         be restored at the shop are double             the right person to be an apprentice.
and sometimes Germany and Italy. In Asia,      basses, cellos, violas, and cello bows         First, the apprentice needs to have a
Taiwan, Japan and China are also markets       and violin bows. The shop has also sold        passion for violins and he has to play the
for Danny.                                     a few bows so far this year at a price         instrument well. And it is not just a matter
     Orfeo Strings is also a violin            of about HK$350,000 to HK$450,000.             of passing the Grade Eight examination
dealer and it sources valuable musical         The buyers are individual performers or        of The Associated Board of the Royal
instruments that produce perfect               professional players from orchestras. “A       Schools of Music. He or she has to play it
sounding for professionals and students.       layman would have no idea how a bow            exceptionally well, or 20 years later, there
“We source violins with a good structure       can cost so much. The direction of our         will be something the apprentice is not
and craftsmanship, and also those that         company is different from music centres        capable of doing in violin restoration.
have good brand names. Good violins            that run chain stores. It is a matter of two        “Our customers are professional
do increase in value over time,” Danny         different worlds. We don’t work on basic       players. To serve them well, we need
said. “We source our violins from private      instruments,” Danny said.                      to understand what they say or need.
collectors. For example, a family may have          In 1998, Danny started his business       I am a professional player and this is a
collected violins for a few generations,       small, and he did it with only tens of         big advantage. I need to relate what the
and if a senior member of the family           thousands of dollars. Now, the shop has        musician says to the craftsmanship. When
passed away and the grandchildren don’t        six staff: Danny himself and Vincent,          the musician says the sound of the violin
                                                                                              is not powerful, is dark, is not brilliant,
                                                                                              or the musician wants more tone quality,
                                                                                              the restorer has to understand these
                                                                                              vague terms, listen to the sound of the
                                                                                              instrument, and make his own judgment,”
                                                                                              Danny explained.
                                                                                                   In this niche industry, professional
                                                                                              knowledge and judgment is very important.
                                                                                              Once, one of Danny’s customers bought a
                                                                                              violin worth HK$200,000 and everything
                                                                                              looked good. But at the end, it was
                                                                                              decided that a cut should be made to the
                                                                                              bridge of the violin, and the thickness of
                                                                                              the wood is reduced – only as much as
                                                                                              one piece of hair. “The sound comes out
                                                                                              and was improved. So who should decide
                                                                                              whether to go ahead with the cut? We
                                                                                              have to make a decision, and the wrong
                                                                                              decision would ruin the instrument. It is


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about judging the sound and knowing why              As Danny enjoyed integrating clocks       standards, it feels great. I can try
the sound is not perfect,” Danny said.          and toys as a child, restoring violins is      playing my products and listen to their
    The challenge of working in this            simply a lot of fun to him. The process        performances. I like the idea of restoring
industry, Danny said, is that there is          involves lots of details and something         violins for others to perform on stage,
no one to teach you. In Europe, some            missing in one step would affect the           and helping people to enjoy playing this
masters would not disclose certain              results of the later steps. Buying and         wonderful instrument,” Danny said. ■
technical skills or “recipes”, say on dealing   storing the wood and polishes, cutting
with wood, to their apprentices, not even       and reshaping, dealing with the strings
when they die. These knowledge cannot           and other accessories like the bridge and
be bought with money, he said, adding           the sound post...it is all about artwork and   Eunice Wong
that he has acquired the knowledge mainly       craftsmanship.
through self-learning and exchanging ideas           “When you find that more and more
with industry players.                          violins are restored up to professional




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