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Hiroshi Iizuka Has a Knack for Producing Big-Sounding Violas

WHEN IT COMES TO VIOLINS Hiroshi Iizuka is both a craftsman and a philosopher. "My motto in life is 'What makes the violin sound good—or not good?'" he says. "I like to find the truth." Since starting his business nearly 30 years ago, Iizuka has stayed faithful to his original intent: being a "100 percent maker" who builds his instruments from scratch.

As a little boy in Maebashi, Japan, Iizuka loved carving objects and fixing things—especially model airplanes, which he'd spend hours on, until he reached perfection. "When I was 11, I finished seventh in the nationals for making model airplanes," he reminisces, sitting in the quiet, wood-filled workshop behind his home in Narberth, a small, idyllic suburb outside Philadelphia.

A line of unvarnished instruments dangles from the low roof of the backyard shop. Inside, small planks of dried spruce and maple are stacked on shelves. Iizuka, 61, is working on his 285th instrument. He produces about a dozen instruments a year—several violins and a couple of cellos here and there, but mostly violas. He has one apprentice, his nephew Yosuke Osawa.

While Iizuka has never advertised his product, building his small business purely by word of mouth, he has earned a coveted reputation for creating big-sounding violas ergonomically designed to fit even pintsized musicians.

Iizuka discovered his calling in 1971 during a recital in the very small Japanese town of Ina, where he was working as a young guitar maker. The performers that night were the Curtis-trained violinist (and Tokyo native) Toshiya Eto and his wife Angela, also a violinist. It was the first time Iizuka had ever heard a violin. He was 26 years old.

"This sound and music were totally different from the guitar," Iizuka recalls. "So I went backstage and—physically—I just met my future."

During a two-year violin-making apprenticeship in Tokyo under Soroku Murata, he was required to reproduce several Baroque instruments, including the viola da gamba, viola d'amore, violone, viola pomposa, and lira da braccio. "[Murata] had a philosophy [for me] to learn; also, the history of the violin," Iizuka says of his unusual training. "The violin hasn't been changed in over 300 years, but its predecessors were the Baroque-style instruments. As a craftsman it's interesting to learn the different styles and forms."

Iizuka says the apprenticeship planted ideas in his head of different possible shapes he could use to make stringed instruments.

From Tokyo, Iizuka moved to the European lutherie center of Mittenwald, Germany, for another apprenticeship, this time under Josef Kantuscher. He earned a journeyman's diploma from the German Chamber of Handwork and was given a special award for his exam instrument. Many prizes at international competitions followed. In Mittenwald, Iizuka met his future wife, who's from the Philadelphia area. She was a student at the Bavarian State School of Violin Making, where Kantuscher also taught.

"With someone successful there's always someone in the shadow," Iizuka says of his wife's ongoing support. "Without her help, I cannot do it."

The couple moved to the Philadelphia area and set up shop.

As a foreigner with few contacts to propel his independent venture, Iizuka struggled at first. Fortunately he had some help from Dr. Walter Herman, a cardiologist who lived across from the Barnes Museum in Merion, Pennsylvania, and allowed the Iizukas to live rent-free in his carriage house. "I guess he found me interesting," explains Iizuka.

BAROQUE INSPIRATION

Initially, Iizuka set out to create big-sounding violas. About his preference for making violas over violins, Iizuka admits, "I like the range of sound [of the viola]. I don't like it too high."

But it didn't take him long to discover an important niche he could (literally) carve for himself within the viola market. "The largest viola I made in Germany was 16 1/2 inches. I came here and found that people played [violas that were] 17 inches and larger," he explains. "European players tend to be more conservative. In America, it has to be brash and stick out."

But Iizuka began hearing American musicians complain of tendinitis as well as neck and spinal strains resulting from long hours of practice and performance with these large instruments. He decided to create violas that were not just acoustically impressive, but also shorter, lighter, and more comfortable to play.

And beautiful.

For Iizuka, balancing acoustics and aesthetics is key. "The sound comes first, so you have to compromise somewhere the beauty. But it also has to look right. It shouldn't be ugly," he says, referring to single-cutaway model instruments.

To realize his vision, Iizuka modified the Baroque viola d'amore, an ornate 17th-century violin-shaped instrument with six to seven playing strings plus sympathetic strings for extra resonance. He kept the viola d'amore's round, arched back but modified the neck setting to a more modern style, and he added "humped" shoulders.

The humped shoulders on each side of the neck increase the instrument's playability. "This way, when a player goes into the fourth position, the left hand can 'hit' a reference point," he explains. "However, cutaway or sloped shoulders diminish the air volume. To compensate for this loss, I increased the lower bout size and width. Not having violin-style corners makes this change of form possible."

The result, which he debuted in 1979, is an elegant and highly playable instrument.

Pleased with the functionality of his new design, Iizuka focused on improving its acoustics. He increased the air volume again to create a "darker tone quality" and reshaped and repositioned the f-holes to allow louder sound production.

But customers were still slow in coming.

"In the beginning it was very hard to sell this model," Iizuka admits. "People were a little bit shy—I think they were not sure about the shape. It kind of stands out in the orchestra. Now it's more accepted."

One of Iizuka's first notable customers, concert violist Ernst Wallfisch, gave a recital at Carnegie Hall using the modified viola d'amore model. Word of Iizuka's violin-making skills then began to spread.

AN EYE FOR DETAIL

In the early '90s, Iizuka branched slightly away from his viola d'amore-style model to design a "Rubenesque" viola with an indented bottom and shorter corner lengths, but slightly wider lower bouts. To further increase playability he made asymmetrical adjustments to the right shoulder and left lower bout.

These days there's a one- to two-year waiting list to obtain one of Iizuka's instruments. Each piece takes from eight months to a year to complete, although Iizuka says he wishes he "could use two years."

Iizuka's violas range in length from 15 to 17 inches, with dimensions and string lengths adjusted to fit the musician's height and finger length.

Recent minor adjustments include more ornate f-hole designs and a hole carved through the center of the scroll's windings to reduce its weight. Iizuka has also been experimenting with various scroll designs.

Standing up, Iizuka reaches for the delicate iridescent nautical shell hanging on his wall. "The perfect scroll," he says, smiling. But his search for truth is widespread, with the St. Louis Rams' football helmets inspiring his newest scroll design. "I was watching a game and I thought, 'That's interesting.'"

*This article appeared in Strings October 2007
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