The Romance of Strings:
Karl Stobbe
By Jen Holstein

Juno-nominated Musician, Karl Stobbe speaks about violins as if they were living, breathing creatures—each with their own unique personality and character. From his home in Winnipeg, where he is a violinist and Associate Concertmaster with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Karl’s love and respect for his instrument and his life’s work is very apparent. “They have their own life. In the right hands they speak to people—they have things to say.”

His current violin, acquired just this year, has had more than a hundred years to develop its personal voice. It was made in 1806 in Paris by a luthier named Nicolas Lupot. “In his day,” explains Karl, “he was probably the greatest violin maker in the world. He made violins for the court of the king of France.” Nanaimo audiences will have an opportunity to hear Karl bring the instrument to life when he joins the Vancouver Island Symphony for a guest performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 on November 19th as part of the symphony’s Romantic Spirit program.


From a musical family  Although he lives in Winnipeg with his wife and two children, Stobbe grew up in Prince George, surrounded by a musical family who nurtured and supported his burgeoning talents from a very young age. Violin was the first and only instrument he learned to play. Karl’s mother, a professional pianist, was going to begin teaching piano to her two boys, Karl (then 4 years old) and Joel (who was until recently the principal cellist at VI Symphony). “About this time,” recalls Karl “the Suzuki string program was starting in the music schools.” The program provided a unique learning environment developed specifically for children. And Suzuki’s philosophy of using musical education to develop a child’s character must have appealed to Mrs. Stobbe’s own work as a piano teacher; she registered both boys in the program and set them on the track towards their careers as professional musicians.

He realized quickly that playing the violin was a lot harder than it looked, as his little fingers struggled to screech out the notes of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” “When people go and hear the greatest violinist in the world play, I can promise you that every one of them picked up the violin for the first time and played Twinkle Twinkle… and it was horrible,” laughs Karl. “My own kids play now—my daughter plays violin and my son plays cello—and it gives me a new respect for my parents and what they went through.” And, Karl is quick to point out, his kids have significant advantages, including access to good instruments.

A passion for instruments Good instruments are a passion of Karl’s. He is an avid student in the art of violin-making, and he even operates a website devoted to the instrument called Karl has given presentations on violin history, building and repair, and lectures on rare instruments at concert halls, art galleries, universities, and conservatories. So what is the allure for this particular instrument?

By all accounts, he loves a challenge and he says there is “difficulty in the violin; it’s hard to get a good sound, and hard to get your fingers to make the same good sound over and over again.” He is intrigued by the variations in sound that different violins can produce depending not only on their construction, but on the style, approach and talents of the musician wielding the bow. “By and large, a lot of violinists struggle to find a good instrument—but you learn from that instrument, and it learns from you”.

It’s no wonder that a good fiddle is hard to find, given the astronomical price of older instruments. Karl’s first “real violin” was made in France in the late 1800s and purchased at age 15 for around $6000 (“If only I could buy a great violin now for that kind of money”, he laments). But, Karl points out that the rising cost of vintage instruments has contributed to a renaissance of modern violin-making, with some Canadian luthiers leading the charge. “I would say that currently, we are seeing the best period of violin-making since the early 1700s.”

Romantic Music With his aforementioned Lupot violin tucked under his chin, Karl is very much looking forward to his performance with Vancouver Island’s Symphony. Not only is he playing a great concerto, he says, but he will be playing with a group of musicians who have an excellent reputation for talent and professionalism.

Romantic Spirit will feature three offerings from the Romantic period. For those new to classical music, “romantic” doesn’t refer to love songs but rather to a period that was devoted to a new way of composing and performing; one that is focussed on emotion, feeling and intuition. And Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is a wonderful representation of the Romantic Spirit.

“It’s a famous piece,” says Karl “not because Bruch had some great technique that the world tried to copy, but because it’s so full of emotion. It wasn’t written for academics or aristocrats; it was written for popular audiences of the day.” He describes the concerto as “deeply lyrical. If there is an image, it’s a warm blanket of sound that you get to absorb, listen to and have it flow through you.” He compares the rich sound of the concerto as beginning like the opening scene of a B-movie, “all thick fog and swampy darkness”, and by the end, the tune has journeyed to a more “joyful, optimistic place”.

A vast repertoire Karl performs in more than 130 concerts in a given year and his repertoire is vast—from contemporary composers like Jocelyn Morlock’s Cobalt suite to Eugene Ysaÿe’s six Solo Violin Sonatas, a recording of which netted him a Juno nomination and won him the 2015 Western Canadian Music Award for best classical album. But he insists that his favourite piece to play is “whatever I’m playing next. I fall in love with whatever I am working on at the moment. Right now, that’s Ravel. In November, my favourite will be Bruch.”

Come catch the Romantic Spirit at the Port Theatre on November 19th, featuring award-winning violinist Karl Stobbe, and the Vancouver Island Symphony.