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Pulling the Strings

Eliyahu Ackerman

If your cembalo has begun to squeak, or your sitar no longer sounds like it should, you can bring them to Reb Uri Gvili’s workshop in old Yaffo. As the soundman for many of the country’s most popular religious events and a craftsman with the rare skill of repairing antique instruments, Gvili shares the story of his journey back to the ancient strings — and the ancient melodies of the soul he was separated from for so long.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

music makervili doesn’t advertise, but within the small clique of antique musical instrument aficionados inIsrael, work of his unusual profession is passed from person to person. He can’t help you much if your electric keyboard or guitar has stopped working, but if your cembalo has started squeaking or your lyre isn’t cooperating, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself headed for his small workshop in Yaffo, a few minutes from the old port.

There are no stacks of instruments waiting for repair here. He selects his projects carefully, focusing on one or two at a time, explaining that restoring ancient instruments requires expertise, love, and primarily a lot of patience. He considers each instrument that he repairs a personal project.

Ancient instruments have distinct personalities. For example, there are no two violins that produce exactly the same sound. In a good violin, the sound is influenced by all of its components: the wood, the strings, the box, the finish. And like fine wine, it improves with age.

The Stradivarius family inItalycrafted violins known for their unique sound more than 200 years ago. “Do you know the biggest secret of their violins?” he asks.

I concede that I have no clue.

“It’s in the lacquer,” he replies, his eyes twinkling with this piece of trivia. “Imagine, thousands of people have tried to solve the mystery, and it was just a small detail that no one attributed much importance to. There is a message here for us, don’t you think?”

He may have never had the chance to repair a Stradivarius, but his interest in violins led him to the cello, the qanun, and other string instruments.

Gvili, who’s become an address for the esoteric and exotic in the world of musical instrumentation, broadened his scope beyond strings to become a collector of rare wind and percussion instruments, and has accrued an impressive array of singular percussion tools fromSouth America. 

A few years agoHungary’s national orchestra came toIsraelfor a concert and someone somehow misplaced the cembalo — an ancient Roman instrument that resembles a piano, but is based on plucking strings and not on the striking hammers. Someone told the Hungarians about Gvili’s niche expertise, and said that if there’s a chance to find someone who knows how to obtain a cembalo here inIsrael, it would be him.

“Were you able to help them?” I asked.

“Sure. I lent them a cembalo from my personal collection.”


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