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Medici of the Meadowlands

Originally appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on August 3, 2003
By MARK LEVINE

The tangled relationship of art, illusion and the marketplace being what it is -- an ongoing melodrama, set to the strains of keening violins -- it so happened that 250 tuxedoed, gowned and bejeweled members of the patronage class showed up for an Italianate palace ball one night this spring at a defunct train station in a Jersey City marsh. Guests were met at the gate by a young man in a pleated skirt, pointy black slippers and a frilly blouse under a gold brocaded vest, who bowed theatrically and said, ''Buona notte, signori e signore.'' The title of the ball was Palazzo di Cremona, and the domed terminal of the Central Railroad of New Jersey was done up for the evening with garlands of citrus leaves and blood oranges. Three former governors of New Jersey were present, along with Paolo Bodini, mayor of Cremona, Italy, a 2,300-year-old town north of Milan. Cremona occupies a status among violin aficionados akin to that of Detroit among car buffs, having been the ground on which such violin-making luminaries as Niccolo Amati, Giuseppe Guarneri and, above all, Antonio Stradivari thrived. Mayor Bodini was a guest of the evening's honorees, an elderly couple named Evelyn and Herbert Axelrod, who had gained vast wealth by addressing themselves to the needs of caretakers of guppies, goldfish, parakeets, lizards, gerbils and the like, and who elicited, throughout the evening, comparison to the beneficent Medicis of Florence.

For a price, the Axelrods had lavished on the Newark-based New Jersey Symphony Orchestra a collection of 30 stringed instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries. They claimed to have spurned an offer of $55 million for these same strings from the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic and were said, further, to have rejected entreaties from the New York Philharmonic, the orchestral Goliath in whose shadow the Jersey players languish. Instead, the Axelrods opted to accept an almost symbolic offering of $18 million from New Jersey -- a cut-rate price that nonetheless exceeds the orchestra's entire annual budget.

The dinner guests repaired to the train station's south baggage room for a $2,500-a-head inaugural hearing of the new strings. The musicians paraded down the center aisle of the room like members of a wedding party. Zdenek Macal, the 67-year-old Czech-born conductor who has been the orchestra's music director for the past 10 years, mounted the stage, brought down his baton and directed his players to dig into a dance from Respighi's ''Ancient Airs and Dances.'' Bows were drawn across strings. Chords bounced around the walls. It sounded good. The concert continued with three movements of Mozart and wrapped up with a selection from Tchaikovsky's ''Serenade for Strings.'' The players sawed away at their instruments with vigor. The baggage room was awash in rich sonority. Only a moment or two of screechiness intruded. The audience rose to its feet, cheering, before the music ended. The event grossed $700,000.

What did Herbert Axelrod think? ''Awesome,'' he said. ''You could see the players were turned on. They were all really vibrating.''

The object in question -- the Stradivarius violin, of which some 600 remain on earth -- is, fundamentally, a splendidly carved wooden box. Its proportions are reminiscent of some long-lost ideal of the feminine torso: narrow, gently sloping shoulders, pinched waist and flaring hips. The top of the box is usually Norway spruce; the bottom, Bosnian maple. Some ascribe the object's magical sonic attributes to its varnish, the chemical constituents of which remain indeterminate. Although its design has been imitated for 300 years -- there is, at present, a bustling Chinese trade in making cheap instruments that are faithful to the original -- authentic Stradivarius specimens rarely sell for less than a half-million dollars and occasionally fetch as much as $6 million.

''The name Strad is so emotive today,'' remarks Gary Sturm, a curator of musical instruments at the Smithsonian Institution. Stradivari, Sturm explains, was well positioned to achieve marketplace dominance: he was wildly prolific and lived to the age of 93, about twice as long as most of his contemporaries; and he was born, around 1644, shortly after an outbreak of plague had thinned the ranks of competing violin makers. Niccolo Amati, Stradivari's mentor, may have standardized the shape and proportions of the instrument, but over time, Stradivari modified Amati's design in a way that preserved the instrument's sweet sound while providing greater projection. Stradivari's fame, considerable during his lifetime, was further boosted posthumously by the promotional efforts of the great 19th-century virtuoso Niccolo Paganini and later by the market-cornering tactics of instrument dealers like the London firm William E. Hill. ''There was a great deal of hype involved,'' says Norman Pickering, one of the world's leading experts on the acoustics of the violin. ''There's no great difference between the quality of Stradivarius violins and those of many of his contemporaries, not to mention those of violin makers before and since. But it's as if no other violin maker ever existed.''

Almost all top soloists play fine Italian instruments. For workaday orchestral musicians, like those of the N.J.S.O., who earn a base pay of $43,000, buying even a low-cost Strad is unimaginable. Some orchestras, including those in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, own a few heirloom instruments to bestow on their principal players. New Jersey, however, now owns 13 Strads, more than any orchestra in the world.

''When I was a kid,'' Herbert Axelrod tells me, ''we had two violins in our home. One cost $10. We called it Strad. One cost $12. We called it Amati.'' Axelrod, 76, is reclining in an Eames chair in the living room of his house in the seaside village of Deal, just down the Jersey coast from Asbury Park. A bust of Paganini stands on a side table, and another table is crowded with glass and stone and pewter hippopotamuses that Evelyn, his wife of 47 years, collects. Among the Walter Mitty-like tidbits that the free-associating, chronologically challenged, sometimes self-contradictory Axelrod lets slip about himself are these: that he is the author of 87 books on subjects ranging from seahorses to Heifetz; that he has more fish named after him (some 400, he guesses, including, for instance, Hyphessobrycon herbertaxelrodi) than anyone else on the planet; that he smoked cigars and played pinochle with Albert Einstein, exchanged letters concerning goldfish with Winston Churchill, spent a week spear-fishing with King Leopold III of Belgium; that he attracted the fond attention of cigarette manufacturers when, in the early 50's, he performed a mathematical study demonstrating that cancer caused smoking, and not the other way around; that, in 1979, he was named Man of the Year by the American Pet Products Manufacturer's Association.

Axelrod was raised during the Depression in the working-class city of Bayonne, south of Jersey City. His father, an immigrant from Russia, taught high-school math and gave violin lessons at his house for a quarter. Each evening, a group of students would gather to play string quartets; if a player failed to appear, Axelrod was called to fill in. As a result, Axelrod tells me, at an early age he knew by heart the first violin, second violin and viola parts of all the Haydn quartets. ''There was no question in my mind I was going to be a professional violinist,'' he recalls. Around the time he was 13, Axelrod's father took him to Philadelphia to play for Efrem Zimbalist, who ran the violin program at the Curtis Institute. After a two-minute audition, Zimbalist disabused Axelrod of his musical ambitions.

Axelrod enlisted in the Army at 17, then went to New York University on the G.I. Bill. He took a job in a laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History, where genetic research was being performed on tropical fish. His supervisor asked him to write a manual to train other assistants in the proper care of fishes. The manual found its way to a publisher, and before long the 25-year-old Axelrod had earned $100,000 in royalties for his volume, ''Tropical Fish as a Hobby.'' Soon after, Axelrod hired laboratory assistants to write guides for animal care on the model of his tropical-fish book. ''I'd pay them $25 or $50. In a few years, I became the biggest publisher of pet books in the world. That was the company that I sold in 1997 for $100 million.''

In 1970, Axelrod met an instrument dealer in Philadelphia who allowed him to play a Stradivarius violin that was up for sale. ''When I held that Strad,'' Axelrod explains, ''I fell in love.'' He arranged to borrow the instrument for a few weeks. ''I couldn't stop playing. I said to my wife, 'God, it hurts to have to give this back.' So she takes off her diamond ring and says: 'I don't need this. I know you love me. Sell it and get yourself a Strad.' '' The instrument cost $90,000. ''I started going crazy,'' he says. ''All I did was practice. I wasn't taking care of my business. I went to a psychiatrist and said, 'Do I really sound better, or is it in my head?' He told me to bring my Strad to his office, along with my old violin. I played them both for him. He said, 'Yeah, you sound better on the Strad.'

''But I knew I had to sell the fiddle,'' Axelrod continues. ''It was destroying a good life. I found some people who wanted to trade up. They gave me $150,000 for the violin -- and they threw in another Strad. My wife says to me: 'Get me my diamond back, take what you have left and play around buying and selling fiddles. You're doing pretty good.' ''

Thus began Axelrod's entry into the world of rare instruments. He found that favorable deals could be cut with people who had inherited old violins, only to become aware of the tax liability the inheritance posed. ''They need someone with cash, and fast,'' he tells me. ''If someone wanted a hundred thousand, I would offer them 10 or 12. They would come back with 20.'' Over the years, he amassed nearly two dozen Stradivarius instruments, 10 Guarneri del Gesus and 20 more by other celebrated makers. When, in 1997, he donated a Stradivarius string quartet decorated with elaborate carvings to the Smithsonian, it was announced that the gift, valued at $50 million, was the largest ever received by the museum.

"When I joined the N.J.S.O.,'' recalls Randy Hicks, the orchestra's principal timpanist since 1971, ''people would say to me, 'You've got to be kidding.' We were hopeless.'' The orchestra performed in as many as 11 different sites across New Jersey, including high-school auditoriums and movie theaters. The riots of 1967 made Newark a symbol of urban decay, and though the orchestra continued to play downtown in Symphony Hall -- where the roof leaked and the heating system, when it functioned, sometimes drowned out the music -- suburban audiences stayed away. The orchestra flirted with bankruptcy. Nonetheless, the abundant supply of hungry, top-flight musicians in New York helped the N.J.S.O. maintain decent musical standards on a shoestring. In 1997, the N.J.S.O. became the resident orchestra of the glitzy Performing Arts Center that opened in downtown Newark and saw its subscription base rise from 9,000 to 25,000.

Then came the recession of 2001. Fund-raising dried up. Ticket sales declined sharply after Sept. 11. A million-dollar deficit was quickly run up. Macal, the charismatic music director, announced he would step down after the 2002 season. It was amid this financial strain that the president of the N.J.S.O., Lawrence Tamburri, was summoned to meet with Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod one night after a concert and was told that $50 million worth of stringed instruments could be his at half-price.

Axelrod had been acquainted with the chairman of the N.J.S.O. board, a cardiovascular surgeon named Victor Parsonnet, since Parsonnet called him in 1989 to solicit a donation. As Parsonnet recalls, ''I started to tell him who I was, and he said: 'I know who you are. I'll give you $5,000. Don't bother me again.' '' Eventually, though, Axelrod gave much more. In the 90's, he contributed a million dollars to endow a concert series in his and his wife's names. But his offer to make over the orchestra's strings -- a way, Axelrod says, of ensuring that he could drive down the Garden State Parkway and hear his beloved fiddles whenever he pleased -- seemed beyond the reach of the orchestra. ''We were in an overwhelmed state,'' admits Tamburri. ''Where would we get the money?''

Axelrod gave the orchestra until June 30 to make up its mind. The deadline passed. Autumn came. Axelrod grew impatient. He told Parsonnet that the Vienna Philharmonic was interested in the instruments, as were the orchestras of New York, Washington and Baltimore. Finally, Parsonnet cobbled together $14 million in loans, personally guaranteed in part by members of the board. Gov. James McGreevey of New Jersey called Axelrod and urged him to keep his collection in the state. Axelrod reduced his asking price to $18 million. Parsonnet pleaded for further extensions. In February, Axelrod told Parsonnet that a representative of the Bank of Austria, which was intent on procuring the instruments on behalf of the Vienna Philharmonic, was en route to New Jersey with a $55 million check. Parsonnet persuaded his board to wrap up the deal. The N.J.S.O. was still $4 million short, but at the last moment Axelrod agreed to pocket the $14 million and extend a loan for the outstanding balance. On Valentine's Day, the orchestra had its strings. ''It is miracle,'' says Maestro Macal.

"Buying the instruments was a risk calculated to enhance our prospects of survival,'' Tamburri says. The orchestra is betting that the collection will be a magnet for attracting donors, subscribers, tourists, first-rate musicians and, perhaps, even a high-profile music director to replace Macal. Soon after announcing the acquisition of Axelrod's strings, the N.J.S.O. began a $51-million fund-raising campaign. It is also selling the rights to name the collection. For $10 million, the entire collection can be named for you; for $1.5 million, you can have a Strad in your name.

Although the N.J.S.O. fully expects that the strings will appreciate in value, Axelrod's claim that the collection is worth $50 million has been met with some eye-rolling among instrument dealers. Christopher Reuning, a Boston-based violin dealer who is familiar with many of the Axelrod instruments, tells me, ''An $18 million sale price seems fair to me.'' Another violin specialist, who has dealt with Axelrod in the past and who would speak only on the condition that he not be named, confides: ''Axelrod is a real operator. No one leaves the table ahead of him. For him to give the impression that walking away with $18 million was an incredible act of generosity is a joke.'' Even Parsonnet admits that the orchestra's independent appraisals of the instruments produced a figure for the collection that was ''somewhere closer to 25 million.''

Moreover, New Jersey's bragging rights -- that it had nabbed a collection that could have gone to New York or Vienna -- may have been an exercise in institutional ego-boosting. Zarin Mehta, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, assures me, ''To my knowledge, this was never presented to the New York Philharmonic.'' Inquiries to Vienna produced an e-mail response from Prof. Wolfgang Schuster, press officer of the Vienna Philharmonic: ''Mr. Herbert Axelrod offered the National Bank his collection. After a short consultance the National Bank of Austria has had to refuse the offer, because of the costs.'' Schuster continues: ''It wouldn't have made much sense. . . . It would not improve the quality of the sound if all players would play Strads or Guarneris.''

Of course, all ambitious marketing -- be it the self-mythologizing efforts of a self-made man, or the brand-building zeal of an overachieving, financially strapped orchestra, or even the act of transforming a beautiful violin into a singularly priceless commodity -- involves a certain amount of exuberant storytelling. The tall tale, repeated often enough, develops the ring of truth. Perhaps Axelrod is not, as some of his self-published books claim, ''the best-known tropical-fish expert in the world.'' (According to Lawrence Page, president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists -- fishes and frogs -- ''Axelrod doesn't have standing in the field.'') But art and the marketplace regularly trade in imaginary values. It is surely unlikely that any orchestra in the world is currently staffed with more contented string players than those in New Jersey. N.J.S.O.'s concertmaster, Eric Wyrick, sounds dazed as he talks about finding himself playing a Guarneri del Gesu. Ming Yang, a four-year member of the orchestra, describes driving home for the first time with the 1672 violin by Francesco Ruggieri that she chose from the collection: ''It was this terrifying and thrilling feeling that there was something more important than me in the car.'' Jonathan Spitz, the principal cellist who now plays on a rare Strad cello said to have been owned by a czarist prince, says simply, ''With this instrument, I have enough.''

Norman Pickering tells me that countless studies have determined that listeners cannot distinguish between Strads and instruments that sell for one-tenth as much. ''There's a lot of mystique surrounding those instruments,'' he says, ''and the mystique goes along with the dollar sign. When I pick up an instrument that's listed for two and a half million dollars, I can't help being affected by it.'' That invisible -- or inaudible -- effect is the mystical music the N.J.S.O. has staked its future on. Perhaps it's true that, as the cellist Spitz predicts: ''We're going to have a truly world-class string sound. It's going to be the calling card of the orchestra.'' After all, when you play a million-dollar fiddle, it's hard not to sound like a million bucks.

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