Andrew Bernardi at Shipley Arts Festival 2016
- Credit: Jim Holden
The recent history of the 1696 Stradivarius is worthy of a Hollywood thriller. After it was stolen and recovered, violinist Andrew Bernardi had to race against the clock to raise the money to buy it. Now, as he prepares for his 16th Shipley Arts Festival, Andrew explains that the violin has galvanised his mission to build community through music.
I have, on a few occasions, been starstruck when meeting a celebrity. Until recently I had never been starstruck when faced with an inanimate object: but then, could a Stradivarius violin really be called inanimate? The wood of its body is so smooth it feels like skin, the beauty of its voice can reduce adults to tears and it hums with the memories of centuries of music.
For violinist Andrew Bernardi, custodian of the 1696 Stradivarius and a long-time resident of Coolham where he lives with his wife Lucy and son Joshua, playing it is still a pinch-me moment. Born into a musical family, he first picked up a fiddle at six years old. Although he was originally earmarked for an academic career, Andrew’s path into music almost seems pre-ordained – he recently found out that an ancestor was Handel’s main soloist, a castrato called the Barber’s Son who was, according to Andrew, “the Pavarotti of his day” (the lineage is not, obviously, direct, but via the singer’s brother). The family came to England from Italy in the 1700s and settled in West Sussex.
If the musical talent of this later Bernardi seems to have been moulded by generations, the path to a priceless violin – one of the best in the world – was rather more circuitous. To obtain it, Andrew had to diversify from being simply a violinist to a player-entrepreneur. He started that journey while working as a schoolmaster at Worth Abbey. “I felt in my heart that being a violinist is my vocation, so I thought I’d better form a professional orchestra, which might seem a silly idea at 23, but I did and that ensemble evolved into what is now the Bernardi Music Group. It was through the support the monks gave me without me realising it that I was becoming an entrepreneur.”
Now, as well as leading his eponymous chamber ensemble and staging concerts – many of them for charity – Andrew is a member of professorial staff at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and also teaches children from local schools, some of whom have gone to music college and become professional musicians. The impetus to use music as a positive influence on society looms large: “Handel gave his fortune to the nation and there is a school in the north of England that still lives off the proceeds. That for me is the ideal: you might make a huge amount of money from your talent, but you use that position, confidence and strength to contribute to others and eventually give it all away.” While he says that becoming the best chamber orchestra in the country is an ambition – “and we’re close to that” – building a community through music is a priority. It is one of the reasons he started the hugely successful Shipley Arts Festival 16 years ago. The festival, which this year commences with a special concert at Goodwood House on 10 April, has become well-known for allowing community musicians to share the stage with internationally-renowned performers. Andrew explained where the initial idea came from: “When I first lived here I could see it’s all very well doing concerts at the Royal Albert Hall but I felt I could use my position uniquely to create pathways and support young musicians. I am passionate about doing that.”
The reputation for helping out young musicians means he gets a lot of phone calls – around 15 a week just from musicians wanting to join the Bernardi Music Group. “Obviously we can’t satisfy that but I always try to find an opportunity. The reason I have tried to create as many concerts as possible is that it means I can employ more musicians and satisfy that demand as well as satisfying audiences. You can inspire people to completely raise their aspirations through music, even people who are already very successful.”
Just as I found holding the ancient instrument oddly humbling, Andrew believes that being in the presence of such a venerable violin and hearing its voice is an edifying experience. The belief that owning such an instrument comes with an obligation to make its voice heard is part of the reason he secured it in the first place.
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The theft of the 1696 Stradivarius from a Pret a Manger in King’s Cross station in 2010 was something of a cause célèbre. Its then owner, violinist Min Jin-Kym, was understandably devastated. When the violin was recovered in Birmingham in 2013, the insurers had already paid out, so it had to be sold at auction. Naturally that caused something of a stir among top-tier violinists, Andrew included. He had been playing a very good violin, a Claude Pierray from 1700, for more than 20 years, and “I have to be honest, I didn’t think I would be lucky enough to get a Strad, it’s every violinist’s pipe dream. For 20 years I had been talking with friends about buying one of those instruments and I had been watching prices go up and up and up – they are well above house prices now.”
The instrument coming to auction in 2013 was a rarity: these violins are usually sold privately for vast sums, but because of some wrangling over the value this one had to be sold publicly. “It was being sold in a hurry and we were in the teeth of the recession,” Andrew told me – which helped his case. He happened to visit the dealer where the violin was being auctioned, Tarisio, on other business. “They had already rung me up to ask if I would be interested. I said I was unlikely to be able to find enough money but they invited me to try it out. I played three notes and thought that’s it, this is the one.” Rather audaciously he asked to play it at a charity concert the next week so he could get to know the instrument better, but “when the auction came along we hadn’t raised enough money. We rang up the auction house and said we wouldn’t be bidding. It was expected to go for two, three, four million pounds, possibly even more and it was heading out of the country or into a bank vault. It wasn’t going to be used in concerts and have its provenance developed.”
Both the auction house and the sellers wanted the violin to stay in the country and, remarkably, extended the auction to allow all the interested violinists time to raise the money. With backing from his friend Richard Anniss, a helicopter dealer, Andrew was able to place a bid. “I had to make an on-the-spot decision to risk everything.” They had five months to raise the rest of the money, with “more stress than you can imagine, trying to save my bacon.” Andrew himself took out a huge mortgage on the violin and with contributions from private investors and hedge funds – 11 in all – was finally able to raise the £1.42m. Despite the stress – and it sounds like the whole story would make a good Hollywood thriller – he feels the instrument makes it more than worth it. “You know in your life sometimes you have to make those decisions where you risk everything? It was the best thing I’ve ever done, apart from getting married and having Joshua. I absolutely love my violin, it’s incredible and it is a very close relationship. It’s a strange thing to say but it is a part of me, an extension of what I am as a person.”
Shipley Arts Festival
The 2016 Shipley Arts Festival, sponsored by Toovey’s and Spofforths, begins with a charity concert celebrating speed and flight at Goodwood House, featuring the world premiere of The Goodwood Variations, composed by Roderick Williams. Tickets are £75 and all money raised will go to Friends of Sussex Hospices.
Other highlights of Shipley Arts Festival include a quintessentially British evening celebrating world-class classical music and England’s finest sparkling wine in Nyetimber’s 15th Century Medieval Barn on 3 June. A concert on 10 July at Christ’s Hospital has Williamson Voices, Bernardi Music Group, and Andrew Cleary performing popular music and conducted by multi-Grammy Award nominee James Whitbourn.
For full listings or to apply to become a Festival Friend, visit www.BMGLive.com
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