For professional musicians, quality is a must, and a good instrument can cost more than the family car and is very personal

Warwick Adeney’s violin cost more than the family car. As concertmaster for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO), it is the family’s bread and butter, his livelihood and his passion. Not many of us have a job that requires us to invest in a major asset in order to do the role but to see the former carpark of the QSO, you can see where priorities lie.

“The orchestra helped me with a loan to pay for it,” Adeney says of his Venetian violin made in 1750. “We think it is dated around that time,” he says telling the story of how he found a dealer in Melbourne in the 90s. “He had about 30 instruments for me to try. I sat with him and played them all night. One was in excess of $100,000 but I couldn’t do that, but I found one I liked.

“You have to get to know an instrument, it is a personal thing,” he says. “A conductor turned up with a Guadagnini (an Italian violin), it was so powerful and bright. For me it was untameable; it would have taken me a while to get to know it and like it. I’m very happy with mine.”

But does older mean better? “That’s a controversial area,” says Adeney. “Some say a Stradivari is better because of age, others say you are snobby and a good modern instrument can sound as good. I know I like mine and I rarely like modern instruments so I may be a snob,” he jokes.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) might agree; they recently secured an extremely rare double bass donated by anonymous benefactors. Tree-ring analysis established some of the wood dated back to 1266, meaning parts of this instrument are almost 750 years old. Given Lieutenant James Cook first put foot on Australia’s shores 243 years ago, that should put it in perspective.

The ACO’s principal double bass, Maxime Bibeau, says “it is an impressive instrument with immense power, wonderful depth and richness of sound. You can really hear and feel the maturity of the instrument.”

For some musicians, instruments do not age well and the cost is in constantly updating them. QSO principal tuba, Thomas Allely began playing the tuba at 13 when a teacher told him the orchestra needed a tuba player and pushed one into his hands.

“For tuba, it is not the older the better. But one of the tubas I play in the orchestra is 70 years old. The sound quality is very different from a modern tuba; darker, richer, more velvety, but the trade off is it is less user-friendly and I have to work harder on it,” he says.

“The first tuba I bought was from a second hand shop in Germany; it was 13,000 Deutschmark, about $10,000 dollars and that lasted ten years.”

The challenge for Allely is that he often needs a number of tubas to accomplish different repertoires. Asked if he would pick a new tuba over a car or a holiday, Allely thinks carefully before answering. “I can get by without a car, my wife owns one. So I would invest in a nice holiday for my wife and I, make sure you put that in,” he laughs, clearly looking for extra brownie points at home.

QSO principal harpist, Jill Atkinson has a beloved hand-me-down first harp which cost her father an airfare.

“I was 10 and had been learning piano for three years when my grandmothers’ 100-year-old harp became available. Dad hopped on a plan to New Zealand, and arranged for it to come back,” she says.

It is impossible to say how much a harp costs as size and quality varies and as Atkinson notes, “the harp has over 2000 different parts and 1800 of them move, so they don’t get better with age. They need to be replaced every 10 to 20 years.

“They are all so individual; they all have their own voice,” she says.

“Every harpist has a station wagon.”

And if Atkinson came into some money, surprisingly she wouldn’t buy a harp.

“I would buy a car! I’ve got about seven harps. The last one I bought was an extravagance and I bought it to feed my soul. It is supposed to see me out.”