At first following in the footsteps of his father, a member of the Shanghai Philharmonic, Chunyee Lu seemed destined for a career as a violinist. But the budding musician ultimately realized that he was more interested in maintaining and repairing stringed instruments than playing them.
He came to the United States to study at the Chicago School of Violin Making, graduating in 1993. After working as head of restoration at William Harris Lee & Co. for seven years, he and his wife, Grace, opened the Guadagnini Violin Shop in 2001.
The shop on the seventh floor of the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan, specializes in high-quality and often rare instruments, including those by celebrated makers Antonio Stradivari, Nicolò Amati and Matteo Gofriller. Among its regular customers are many string players in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, such as Li-Kuo Chang, assistant principal viola; Stephanie Jeong, associate concertmaster; violinists Gina DiBello, Blair Milton and Paul Phillips Jr.; violists Catherine Brubaker and Sunghee Choi, and cellist Katinka Kleijn. In addition, Lu also serves musicians from the Lyric Opera Orchestra and faculty and students at area music schools such as Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, as well as musicians from states like New York and Florida, and countries like Singapore.
Regular kinds of maintenance that Lu undertakes includes regluing seams and purfling (decorative and protective edges inlaid in the back or front of the instrument), cleaning, polishing and touching-up the wood surfaces. He also adjusts or builds new sound posts: wooden dowels inside the violin that run between the front and back of the instrument under the bridge. “The position, tightness, thickness and material of the sound post all have impact on the sound,” Lu said. “The wrong sound post can cause ‘wolf’ tone, open E string squeaking, etc. The right sound post can create sweetness, color and projection.”
In addition, he does more major repairs, such as a recent restoration of a circa 1830 violin by the respected Italian maker Raffaele Gagliano (1790-1857), great-grandson of the famed family patriarch, Alessandro Gagliano. Lu also performed a neck grafts: the replacement of the long, narrow wooden shaft that connects a violin’s scroll with the instrument’s main body. The previous graft, probably undertaken some 100 years earlier by an amateur craftsman, had been done incorrectly. “The player complained that neck was awkward and too short,” Lu said.
Many of the tools that Lu uses are little different than those that craftsmen employed hundreds of years ago. But he also uses certain modern, and in some cases, high-tech techniques as well, such as tiny cameras that can peer inside a violin without having to take off the instrument’s back or top, or a magnetic gauge that can measure the thickness of an instrument’s wood.
Lu entered the world of music at age 6, when he began lessons with his father, and later, he studied at the Shanghai Conservatory. But during his music studies, he became equally curious about how the instrument was constructed. He liked to sneak into the repair shop where stringed instruments for the orchestra were serviced. “I was so interested in what they are doing,” he said.
His brother, a member of the Phoenix Symphony, sent him brochures on several violin-making schools in the United States, and he chose the one in Chicago. Lu left China in 1989 and began his studies that year. After working at William Harris Lee & Co., Lu and his wife opened their own shop in what was formerly known as the Old Colony Building, 37 W. Van Buren, and later moved it to the Fine Arts Building.
The Lus named their business after the maker of Chang’s 1768-70 viola: Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, who is often considered one of the greatest makers of stringed instruments. When the violist bought the instrument in 1994, it was not in top playing condition, so Chang made the rounds of many luthiers but none could fully unlock its sound. He had heard of Lu, a fellow Shanghai émigré, and took a chance on then largely unknown craftsman, allowing him to construct a new sound post and bridge for the instrument. Those upgrades created what the Chang called a “quantum leap” in the sound.
Because Lu was trained as a violinist, the craftsman was able to play the instrument himself and sense the problem. Afterward, Chang quickly spread the word about the luthier, earning Lu’s continuing appreciation.
Many of the great string instruments by Stradivari and other top makers have already survived as many as 400 years, and Lu believes that they can continue for at least six more centuries. “I think 1,000 years, no problem,” he said. The secret of course, is a good luthier and proper maintenance.