A craftsman's expertise makes these strings sing sweetly once again

Ole Steffen Dahl knew what he was doing back in the '60s when he set up shop in Bloomington, Ind., where classical music blooms 52 weeks a year. This restorer of violins, violas, and cellos was looking for a small-sized city with plenty of Mozart, Stravinsky, and Bach - not just rock - on its concert menu. Well, he found it.

With Indiana University's School of Music just a few blocks away, the Danish-born craftsman reaped enough business to keep ample bread and pickled herring on the table. The University, with its 275 stringed-instrument students, supports five orchestras, ranging from a 25-piece baroque group to a full-scale philharmonic. Add to these the town's symphony orchestra and chamber group. That's a lot of music-making in the environs, and rest assured, someone's instrument is always popping a string or splitting a seam.

Mr. Dahl arrived in Bloomington at a time when the School of Music was burgeoning to its capacity enrollment of about 1,650. Today, his shop sits in a back alley behind Aristotle's Bookstore, but it's not hard to find because patrons' cars point the way with their musical doodads hanging over dashboards or bumper stickers that read, ``The older the instrument, the sweeter the sound.''

Inside, Dahl slumps as he works at his bench, and you're sure you've run into a real-life Geppetto who's sanding violins instead of marionettes. As the late-day shadows creep into the workshop, the whole place takes on a fairy-tale air with small brass tools, no bigger than Thumbelina, catching the last shafts of sunlight.

On the shelves, rows of violins and violas stand like wooden dolls with cinched waists. And on the wall, the calendar shows not today but nine months back. Dahl's shoes shuffle in wood shavings that curl on the floor while an aging Irish setter snores. If Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were writing now, surely they'd set a story here.

There's so much shyness in Dahl's nature that he says little to customers. But then, they come for his craftsmanship, not conversation, and he doesn't need to trumpet his abilities because he's had a corner on the market for years. He's even teaching his future competition. In his courses on stringed instrument restoration at Indiana University, Dahl shares his know-how with students.

He also offers admonitions: Never artificially season wood for stringed instruments in a kiln; the wood should be dried in the air over time.... instruments' bridges should never be dipped in vinegar to make them look seasoned, a practice popular in France....steer away from varnish with spirit (alcohol) base because it fosters a brittle sound; oil-based varnish gives a softer sound. And he always instructs them, ``to use the best possible maple, spruce, and poplar'' when making and restoring. ``But that's something I can't tell you how to arrive at because it takes years of experience.''

As a rule, Dahl works on more violins than cellos and violas. Nobody knows who first created this instrument, although Northern Italy is considered the cradle of violinmaking. Andrea Amati (born around 1505) has long been heralded as the first to achieve fame for his violin craftsmanship, an expertise carried on by his sons and grandson. The Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families all figured in the golden age of Italian violinmaking from mid-17th to mid-18th century.

``There's no way you can duplicate these fine early Italian instruments. You can copy the outline, the model, but you can't duplicate the sound, the resonance. Some people think they can, but I don't believe it,'' says Dahl, whose views stand strong behind a pianissimo voice.

``Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari had a special talent for making wonderful instruments. And these instruments have developed a sound that is, to me at least, impossible to duplicate because of chemical changes that have taken place in the wood over 200 to 300 years. You can't compensate for this aging.''

Dahl bows out for a time to give total attention to a Bulgarian cellist who arrives in the reception area.

``An exacting performer,'' Dahl says as the door to his workshop shuts behind them. For 15 minutes the same notes sound over and over from within. Then silence. Perfection attained. The door opens. The Bulgarian exits.

Next arrives a mother with small daughter in tow.

``We got a new D string, and now the G sounds awful,'' says the mini-violinist, who's been taking lessons less than two years. She, too, gets 15 minutes inside the workshop.

Dahl fosters musicianship among the young by renting them scaled-down instruments to suit their size. That way, parents don't have to buy a new violin every time their youngster grows a few inches. They simply rent a bigger violin. Outgrowing Reeboks at $35 a throw is one thing, but outgrowing violins at $325 is another.

Dahl grew up in Cophenhagen, where he apprenticed for five years in the making and restoring of stringed instruments. Watching him, one learns that the clean lines of violin, viola, and cello conceal a complexity of parts. Each has more than 70 components. And bringing back the beauty of a damaged instrument demands a dimension beyond the restoring of fine furniture. Dahl must deal not only with appearance but also sound.

Clearly, craftsmanship and patience aren't enough - the final key to expertise is a fine-tuned ear. And Dahl developed that early in life, having been born into a musical family. His father, a doctor, played the violin; his mother and two sisters, the piano. As for the young Dahl, he studied violin with his uncle, a concert violinist. (But today the craftsman rarely has time to play.)

Dahl's vocation came to a temporary halt during World War II when he served on a mine sweeper in the Danish navy, and was interned by the Germans. At war's end, he volunteered for occupation duty, taking training in England.

This is where he met British-born Diana Parry, who also was serving with the occupational forces. Their courtship hopped about the continent as each was stationed hither and thither. They finally reunited in Germany ``and went up to Denmark to be married,'' says Mrs. Dahl.

Because work was scarce after the war, the couple set their sights on the United States. They weren't permitted to take money out of Denmark, so they invested their funds in a 1770 violin made by Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi, whose instruments are elegant in design with a definite personal character. With this treasure, and limited belongings, the couple sailed to the US, where Dahl restored instruments for both Lyon & Healy and Kenneth Warren & Son, Ltd., in Chicago before setting up his own business in Bloomington.

Times in Chicago weren't always the best.

``And I wept when he sold the Landolfi,'' says Mrs. Dahl. ``But he said the children needed this and that, and he sold it.''

The Dahls' children are now grown, and the couple has a new prize in a black case. In 1986, they bought a violin by Francesco Ruggieri (1620-1695), an Italian violinmaker who apprenticed with Nicolo Amati, the last and reputedly the greatest of the Amati violin makers.

Does Dahl play his Ruggieri? Now and then. But sometimes, he just takes it from the case to look at it.

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