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How does a 12-year-old get a multi-million-dollar violin?

By Sam Weller

JULY 3, 2000:  Wednesday evening on a secluded, forested estate in west suburban Barrington. It is calm and still and dusk-shade green. Before long, as night envelopes this property--black ink spilling upon emerald canvas--a symphony of crickets and tree frogs will begin their nocturne.

Inside the estate's spacious private home, an audience gathers. Here amidst the antique furniture and the Renoirs hanging on the walls, 12-year-old Korean-born Hanbin Yoo passionately glides a bow over violin strings. He stands in the middle of the room, leaning into an instrument not only older than he is, but older than the whole damn country. Yoo's 300-year-old violin even has a name: "Sennhauser." These instruments are usually named for their most prominent owners. Built in Cremona, Italy, in 1735 by the great violin craftsman Joseph Guarneri del Gesu, the instrument is worth $3.5 million dollars.

Nearly a dozen people sit in the living room, prim, proper, knees crossed. When Yoo starts to play, they are silent and still. Emotionless. This is the etiquette of the classical music set. Occasionally, as the young musician ends a piece, there is the requisite "Bravo!" or the polite pattering of applause.

The music that the young boy coaxes from the violin is a tour de force. For twenty minutes, the velvet sound wallpapers the room, swelling ever more intense with each ensuing measure. Eyes closed, Hanbin Yoo is calling spirits.

So just how does a 12-year-old, just a few years beyond his Crayola-clutching years, get his hands on a multi-million-dollar violin? First, he needs talent. Loads of it. Then, he needs the philanthropic know-how of the Chicago-based Stradivari Society. Founded in 1985, this organization has been quietly convincing the owners of the world's finest violins, violas and cellos to loan their instruments for three-year increments to the world's master musicians. In most cases, these artists could never afford these instruments. Now they don't have to. The catch? The musicians must perform annual private house parties for their generous donors (the donors for this story asked to remain anonymous).

Tonight, two musicians are receiving violins. As Yoo's emotional concerto ascends to a climactic close, 20-year-old Kristof Barati, another of the world's premiere musicians, picks up a violin, also crafted by Guarneri del Gesu in 1742. As Barati sends his first pristine notes out into the night, the chorus of crickets and tree frogs outside seem to silence all at once, apparently attune to the sounds not only of music, but of music played on a really expensive violin.

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