Ever since fiddles first found their footing in Italy in the mid-1500s, generations of music lovers have thrilled to the sound of soaring strings, with gleaming instruments, some more than 300 years old, breathing life into classical masterworks as distinguished elders of the orchestra.
However, many of their string descendants, including those made by Winnipeg violin maker Garth Lee, prove that music can be just as sweet on a modern-day instrument with its varnish still curing. The local luthier’s meticulously handcrafted violins, violas and cellos, created in his own Garth Lee Strings studio, have garnered praise from around the globe for their artistry.
"It’s something that I thought would be an amazing thing to do, as I’ve always been involved in woodworking and music," Lee says of his collection of 37 "Garth Lees" completed since 2008. "Making something that has to function as a musical instrument, as well as be esthetically beautiful, is the ultimate woodworking project.
Born in Fort Vermilion, Alta., Lee arrived in Manitoba in 1998 as a teenager, settling with his family in the small farming community of Pierson in the southwest corner of the province. He relocated to Winnipeg several years later to earn his commercial pilot’s licence through St. Andrews Airport, but he quickly realized his true calling lay not in soaring above the clouds but whittling wood to make musical works of art.
He credits his wife, collaborative pianist/music educator Leanne Regehr Lee — with whom he has 12-year old twins, Matthew and Nadia (yes, both play string instruments) — for encouraging him to chase his passion and explore professional training schools to begin carving out his now-flourishing career as a luthier.
Lee embarked on an intensive three-year program at the prestigious Newark School of Violin Making based in Newark, U.K., where he pored over centuries-old violins, violas and cellos from the workshops of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati, among others, becoming attuned to the subtle differences and details that makes a fiddle sing.
Lee graduated from the program with distinction — and the highest honours awarded in more than five years — subsequently launching into a partnership with his instructor Susanna (Sillberg) Collins and Seisuke Kawamura. He returned home to Canada in 2008 to set up his own shop, which he now shares with his former apprentice Matthew Harder, who specializes in string repairs and maintenance for the local community.
His instruments — now in the hands of artists throughout Canada, as well as England, South Africa, Norway and New Zealand — are modelled after historic instruments, including, of course, the legendary Stradivarius violins made in Italy by their namesake, Antonio Stradivari, and his family during the 17th and 18th centuries.
When Brandon-born, internationally renowned violinist James Ehnes came to town a few years ago with his multimillion-dollar, 1715 "Marsick" Stradivarius in tow, the musician happily loaned his "Strad" to Lee for a full afternoon so that he could examine, measure and play with it in his own studio.
Each violin takes an estimated four months to create from scratch (Lee leaves bows to other experts who have studied their particular idiosyncrasies). He sources his lumber from all over the world, including maple from Belgium and Canadian spruce from British Columbia’s rocky mountainside.
Lee works entirely on commission; there is a one-year waiting list for a "Garth Lee," with violins priced at $14,500, violas at $16,000 and the larger cellos at $30,000.
The lion’s share of his instruments are purchased by local players, and Lee gets a sense of joy whenever a new recipient glides her bow across the strings for the first time.
"It’s always a thrill hearing one of my violins being played, whether it’s by a professional or a young person getting a really good instrument for the first time and seeing what they can do on it," he says. "It’s an honour to be a part of that really special moment in their lives."
“It’s always a thrill hearing one of my violins being played, whether it’s by a professional or a young person getting a really good instrument for the first time and seeing what they can do on it. It’s an honour to be a part of that really special moment in their lives.” – Garth Lee
After each fiddle is finished, Lee rings up Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Gwen Hoebig and WSO associate concertmaster Karl Stobbe to "kitchen test" each instrument before it’s sent out into the world. The two violinists provide feedback regarding any tweaks and adjustments required to create a responsive instrument able to ultimately give voice to a musician’s soul.
Lee is also working on a replica "Landolfi" violin for Hoebig — whose two children with local pianist David Moroz, violist Alexander (Sasha) Moroz and cellist Juliana Moroz, perform on their own Lee instruments — to have on hand as a spare should her 18th-century original be in the shop for repairs, or become unavailable for any reason.
"A violin has to speak quickly and be articulate. It has to also sound great, and have warmth and brilliance and power," says Stobbe, a self-described "violin geek," of the qualities he looks for. He currently plays an 1806 French instrument made by Nicolas Lupot, and say he hopes to commission a Garth Lee for himself someday. "You look at how easily it plays and how much you want to play it. Garth’s violins do all of those things."
Stobbe says having an accomplished luthier in the city is a particular gift to the local string community; Lee is a member of a relatively exclusive club, as there are only about 25 luthiers throughout Canada.
"Garth is basically qualified to be the caretaker of any instruments in the world and I’m incredibly thrilled that he can look after my violin if it needs the occasional work, maintenance or TLC," Stobbe says. "It’s extremely important to those of us in the high-end fiddle community who are fortunate to have these great instruments that we don’t need to fly to places like Montreal for repairs."
One respected local musician who plays exclusively on a Garth Lee is WSO principal viola Daniel Scholz, who also serves as conductor with the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra and is a core member of the Winnipeg Chamber Music Society.
It proved to be love at first bow after Scholz first tried Sasha Moroz’ Lee viola four years ago. He was instantly smitten by its sound and ability to become an intimate musical partner, and immediately commissioned one for himself to replace the instrument he’d performed on for 23 years.
"It has a beautiful sound," says Scholz, who scoured North America for "two or three years" to find the perfect instrument before realizing his dream viola lay practically in his own back yard. "It’s extremely easy to play and responds really quickly, whether I’m performing in the orchestra, in a chamber music ensemble or a recital.
"There’s just a depth to it and the colours are always changing. It can be warm, it can be bright, and I couldn’t be happier with it."
Mikaela MacKenzie loves meeting people, experiencing new things, and learning something every day. That's what drove her to pursue a career as a visual journalist — photographers get a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground look at the world.