News Bureau | University of Illinois

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign logo


2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008
Email to a friend envelope icon for send to a friend

Famed Stradivari instruments coming to U. of I. for display and performances

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Axelrod Stradivarius Quartet
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution
The Axelrod Stradivarius Quartet

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When a University of Illinois alumna returns to her alma mater later this month, her executive jet will reach what musicians might call stradospheric heights.

That’s because Sheila Crump Johnson will be bringing with her four “Strads” – extremely rare, decorated and matched Stradivarius stringed instruments, which their owner, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is lending to the Urbana-Champaign campus for more than a month.

Johnson’s Oct. 24 special delivery of what is known as the Axelrod Stradivarius Quartet kicks off the U. of I.’s 2006 American Music Month, and at the same time becomes its centerpiece, said Scott Schwartz, director of Illinois’ Sousa Archives and Center for American Music (SACAM), which organizes the annual music celebration. This year’s events run from Oct. 27 through Nov. 30.

Johnson, a graduate of the class of 1970, a former U. of I. cheerleader, honor student and music education major, is well known as a highly successful businesswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television.

Not as widely known is her considerable familiarity with violins. She performed in the university’s symphony orchestra and was the undergraduate protégé of Paul Rolland, a world renowned violinist who taught at Illinois.

“Sheila adopted Rolland’s pedagogical approach to string teaching and carried on his tradition,” said Daniel Perrino, a professor emeritus of music at Illinois who mentored Johnson and remains a close friend of hers.

Perrino said that Johnson went on to have some 140 violin students of her own in the Washington, D.C. area, to create a small performing and touring chamber ensemble and to start a string conservatory in Jordan at the request of the then king and queen.

“Queen Noor and King Hussein were so impressed with her work that they gave her the highest civilian award for efforts in education,” Perrino said.

Greffuhle violin
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution
Detail of the Greffuhle violin, 1709.

While showcasing the Strads, the November festival will celebrate a wide spectrum of music genres, events and musicians. This year’s salute to American music is titled “An Illinois Chautauqua: Lifelong Learning Through the Arts.”

At least a dozen events – for schoolchildren, adults and families – have been planned around the Strads, Schwartz said. In addition to the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, which is a sub-unit of the University Library, the Smithsonian Institution and many U. of I. units are co-sponsoring events.

According to the Smithsonian, the spectacular 17th-century instruments – two violins, a viola and a violincello – make up the only surviving set of decorated string instruments made by Antonio Stradivari that are actively used today. They are called “Stradivarius” because the master luthier Latinized his name when applying his maker’s label to the instruments. Renowned for their extraordinary craftsmanship and tonal beauty, the instruments are the core of the Smithsonian’s Chamber Music Program, Schwartz said.

While all of the instruments have names – the “Ole Bull violin” (1687), the “Greffuhle violin” (1709), the “Antonio Stradivari viola” (1695) and the “Maryleborn violincello” (1688) – they never have been in the Midwest before or at a university, Schwartz said.

Over his lifetime, Stradivari (1644-1737) made about 1,100 instruments – mostly violins, but also cellos, harps and guitars. His earliest documented violin dates to 1666; he completed his last violin at the age of 92. According to the Smithsonian, some 650 Stradivarius instruments survive today.

Sheila Crump Johnson
Click photo to enlarge
Sheila Crump Johnson will bring to campus four “Strads” – extremely rare, decorated and matched Stradivarius stringed instruments, which their owner, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is lending to the Urbana-Champaign campus for more than a month.

Two Smithsonian curators will accompany Johnson and the instruments on the trips to and from Illinois; they are Gary Sturm, chair of the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment and executive director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Program, 2000 to 2004, and Stacey Kluck, deputy chair of the same division.

Several members of the Smithsonian Chamber Players will follow on later commercial flights, including Steven Dann, viola; Catherine Manson, violin; and Kenneth Slowik, cello and artistic director of the Chamber Music Program.

The Smithsonian granted Illinois affiliate status a year ago, which made it possible for the university to arrange to bring the instruments, curators and musicians to campus.

The instruments will be exhibited from Oct. 27 to Dec. 3 in the university’s Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, and will only be removed from display for their concerts and other scheduled events over the celebration month.

Accompanying Johnson will be Susan Starrett, Johnson’s longtime friend, former high school music teacher and mentor, and a 1962 U. of I. alumna; and Cynthia M. Dinkins, president of the Sheila C. Johnson Foundation and of the Washington Mystics Foundation.

Johnson lives in Virginia, not far from the capital. Born in Pennsylvania, she was raised in Illinois, and attended Proviso East High School in Maywood. While at the university, Johnson was a member of Mortar Board, an honorary society for senior women who meet high academic standards and who participate in leadership positions in campus organizations. She was the first African-American cheerleader at Illinois.

The Stradivarius events include:

• Nov. 8, 6:30 p.m., performance-lecture, “My Violin’s Bellybutton: Music From the Inside Out,” featuring Donna Hladish, a local violinist and teacher; Peter Schaffer, professor emeritus, School of Music; and Sturm, in a Prairie Breezes Mini-concert for Kids, location: Urbana Free Library, free, sponsor: Urbana Free Library and SACAM.

• Nov. 12, 1 p.m., concert, “A Musical Serenade: Stradivari’s Decorated String Quartet,” performed by the Smithsonian Chamber Players, WILL-FM’s “Second Sunday Special Concert,” location: Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, free, sponsor: WILL-FM, School of Music, University Library and SACAM.

Slowik will lead a tour of the Stradivarius exhibition after the concert. The concert will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on Nov. 26 on WILL-FM (90.9; 101.1 in Champaign-Urbana).

• Nov. 14, 4 p.m., music lecture and demonstration, “String Theory: The Craft of Antonio Stradivarius,” Hladish, Schaffer and Sturm, location: the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, tickets required, sponsor: the U. of I. Alumni Association.

Reception at 4 p.m.; private music lecture and live performance at 6 p.m., Hladish, Schaffer and Sturm.

6:30 p.m., pre-concert prelude, location: KCPA’s Tryon Festival Theater foyer, free, sponsor: KCPA.

Slowik will talk with audience members during this 30-minute pre-performance “Creative Intersections” activity.

7:30 p.m., concert, “An Evening With the Strads,” featuring the Smithsonian Chamber Players, location: KCPA Foellinger Great Hall, tickets required, sponsor: KCPA.

Players include John Elwes, tenor; Slowik; and Delores Ziegler, mezzo-soprano.

• Nov. 15, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., public school orchestra music clinic, “American String Festival,” location: Krannert Art Museum, free but reservations required, sponsor: SACAM, School of Music and the Champaign County Community Center for the Arts.

Exclusively for middle- and high school-music students and their teachers. Includes three hands-on string clinics on traditional fiddling, blues, and American orchestral performance techniques; also, a guided tour of the Stradivarius exhibition and a performance-demonstration on the historical instruments. Call Schwartz at 217-244-9309 or Robin Kearton at 217-384-2946.

Exhibition and programming for the 2006 American Music Month is supported in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Illinois General Assembly, Sheila Johnson and the Chancellor’s Office.