West Cork Chamber Music festival will be treated to demonstrations by instrument makers

A group of top instrument makers will show off their age-old crafts at West Cork Chamber Music festival, writes Cathy Desmond

West Cork Chamber Music festival will be treated to demonstrations by instrument makers

WEST Cork Chamber Music Festival will celebrate its 21st anniversary when doors open to the first concert in Bantry House tomorrow. The spotlight naturally falls on the 85 performers who will breathe life into the contemporary and established masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire over the nine day festival.

However, a very important aspect of proceedings is the exhibition of work by the luthiers and archetiers on whom the players depend — that select group of craftsmen who make and maintain stringed instruments.

Although most people could namecheck “Stradivarious” an instrument made by 17th century Italian, Antonio Stradivari, chances are that few will have heard of any of his successors. A dozen, top ranking violin and bow makers from Ireland and abroad will be in Bantry to exhibit their wares, swap tips and generally enjoy the camaraderie of fellow luthiers and high calibre string players.

Bertrand Galen has been making and repairing in the heart of Cork city since 1999. He learned to play cello as a child in Metz in France. Taken along on a visit to a repair shop, he recalls being enthralled by the calm, dimly lit space with its plethora of tools and exotic aromas of varnish and wood oils.

“I became aware at quite a young age that it might be possible for me to make a living at this craft, dictating my own terms, working at my own pace. I loved making music — I was good with my hands and this sat right in the middle of all that.”

After graduating from Mirecourt Violinmaking School he went to work for a luthier in Paris.

“After five years, I was looking around for a new experience and was considering moving to Sweden, when Jeremie Legrand invited me to come and work with him in Cork. It was during the boom and there was plenty of work and I thought I would stay for a year or two. That was more than a decade ago now.”

He became involved in the festival through his association with Van Brugh cellist, Chris Marwood. “There was an occasion when a distinguished Russian cellist arrived without an instrument. I happened to have a new cello finished and ready to go in my workshop. I hadn’t made very many cellos at that point, so it was thrilling to hear the sound of this instrument played live when the concert was broadcast on radio. The idea of making something that will go on to have a life of its own is very exciting to me.”


To get the best sound out of any fiddle, you need a good bow. France is to the art of bow craft what Italy is to the violin. The very best historic French bows can fetch six figures at auction. With a dwindling supply of old bows there is a growing demand for modern quality bows.

One of the most distinguished archetiers with a string of gold medals to his credit is Noel Burke who makes bespoke bows from the Brazilian hardwood, pernambuco, in the traditional French style for international clients in his workshop in Carlow.

Burke came to the craft almost by accident. He played traditional flute as a child growing up in SE London and graduated from the School of Woodwind Technology in Newark. “I knew I didn’t want to spend a lifetime making flutes because the process was so machine driven. I was only a week out of college when I happened to meet a bow maker at a pal’s wedding and off I went to Seattle to work as an apprentice.”

After stints in Paris and Cremona, Burke came back to Ireland eventually setting up in Carlow. “Making bows by hand involves using pre-industrial revolution techniques. The tools are relatively simple. The craft relies on hand skills.”

A baby bottle warmer to heat glue in place of a charcoal burner is one of the few concessions to modernity in his well-ordered workshop. Celebrity clients include Alina Ibragimova, shortlisted for this year’s Gramophone Artist of the Year who will perform at the festival, and Noel’s own brother, Kevin of legendary Bothy Band fame.

Noel Burke at work in Carlow.
Noel Burke at work in Carlow.


Although there are plenty of violin schools for aspiring instrument makers, there are no establishments specializing in bow making. The route into the craft is the time honoured master and apprentice model. Noel’s current apprentice is a young man, Niall Flemming who will be exhibiting in Bantry for the first time this year.

Both Galen and Burke agree that the standard of modern instrument and bow making is higher than it has been in decades. “Access to specialist knowledge via the internet has made the whole process of violin making very democratic” says Galen. “The knowledge and materials that are available now make it a very exciting time for modern bow makers. With the profile of maker involved here, this exhibition would not be out of place in Paris.” says Burke.

Although the sold out signs have gone up on several events, the good news is that there are still some tickets left for other concerts in St Brendan’s Church and Bantry House.

As well as the exhibition of work by Galen, Burke and other craftsmen, world renowned makers will discuss their craft in two afternoon talks at the Old Cinema in Bantry: Violin-making as it was and is by Francis Kuttner onTuesday, July 5; and Pernambuco, a 16th century trade between the Normans and the natives of South America, by Stephane Thomachot on Thursday 7th.

Highlights of West Cork Chamber Music: July 1-9

Song Cycles: A rich selection of song cycles featuring top international singers. Tenor Mark Padmore joins pianist Paul Lewis in the great 19th century masterpiece, Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’. Padmore sings Janacek’s rarely performed ‘Diary of One who Disappeared’ with pianist Julius Drake and mezzo Anna Reinhold. Reinhold will sing two French song-cycles — Ravel’s ‘Chansons Madécasses’ and Fauré’s ‘Chanson d’Eve’.

Contemporary Corners: German soprano, Caroline Melzer will sing György Kurtág’s ‘Kafka Fragments’, accompanied by Israeli violinist Nurit Stark. The song cycle is crafted from 40 fragmentary texts taken from the Czech author’s diaries and letters. Stark is the soloist in the opening work , a premiere of Deirdre Gribbons’ ‘Devil’s Dwelling Place’.

Ladies Choice: Anna Reinhold performs an unusual programme of early 18th century love song by Italian women composers.

Beethoven Quest: A wide selection of works by Beethoven from his early string quintet to his final string quartet. The opening concert features festival founders, The Van Brugh Quartet with festival newcomers , the Borusan Quartet from Turkey.

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