Making His Imprint: These Seven Athletes Discovered Happiness in Hiroshi Iizuka’s Violas

ByQuyen Anne

Nov 10, 2023

Caeli Smith met her dream viola in 2013, a few days after Thanksgiving, at the home of Hiroshi Iizuka, its maker. “I picked it up and played a scale,” she wrote the following year in a blog. “‘Nice to meet you,’ the viola purred. I was instantly drawn to its clear tone, quick response, and warm, sweet lower register. And perfect dimensions—15-1/2 inches, exactly my size!

“I knew it was the one.”

These days, the 75-year-old Iizuka is still fulfilling the dreams of violists at his modest workshop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he builds ten to 12 instruments each year (mostly violas, but also some violins and a few cellos). Among his offerings are his own model of a “viola d’amore”–style viola, and a “Rubenesque” viola. He ages each unvarnished viola for eight months, leaving the nascent instruments outdoors to season the wood and to produce a rich, natural patina without using a stain. The price of a viola is about $25,000 and the waiting list is two years or longer.

A few years ago, Strings correspondent Kate Kilpatrick profiled Iizuka, a Japanese national who grew up carving things, especially model airplanes. But it took him years to find his calling in the lutherie trade: After graduating from college in 1968, Iizuka worked odd jobs around Tokyo, unable to pick a direction in life, according to a piece in the Philly Voice. The long-haired Iizuka puttered at playing the guitar, though not drawn in particular to classical music, and eventually tried his hand at making them.

Making His Mark: These 7 Players Have Found Bliss in Hiroshi Iizuka's Violas | Strings Magazine

But, at age 26, Iizuka turned to violins after he heard one played for the first time at a concert. Soon thereafter, he began a two-year apprenticeship with Soroku Murata (the founder and headmaster of the Tokyo Violin Making School). Moving to Mittenwald, Iizuka earned his license from the German Chamber of Handwork and met his future wife, Daniela Stern. In 1977, the couple moved to the States, living in a rent-free carriage house, while Stern worked at the venerable (now closed) William Moennig & Son violin shop. Violist Emanuel Vardi bought an instrument from Iizuka in 1982, and word-of-mouth has fueled a near constant demand for his instruments
ever since.

His renown spread—the late Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet played an Iikuza and often sang its praise. But the enduring proof of Iikuza’s skill is in his work—in the wood. And his instruments continue to find their way into the hands—and hearts—of orchestral and chamber players. Strings invited several of those musicians to share their stories about their own Iizuka violas.

Ori Kam 

Founder of the Israel Chamber Music Society, Ori Kam is violist of the Jerusalem Quartet and former violist of the Naumburg Award–winning Whitman String Quartet. He also founded the Kam-Porat Trio with sister Sharon, and pianist Matan Porat.

Ori Kam, photo: Yanai Yechiel

“I had the great fortune to play an Italian viola from 1710 that was accredited to the ‘School of Cappa.’ It is a wonderful instrument, which served me very well for a long time. My family was living outside Washington, D.C., when I was ten. My mother, a wonderful violist who recently retired from the Israel Philharmonic, decided to make use of her time off from the orchestra and took lessons with Michael Tree. It was Michael who suggested she visit Hiroshi. My mother took me with her up to Philadelphia, where we met Hiroshi for the first time. When I joined the Berlin Philharmonic some 30 years later, I got to know Wilfried Strehle, who was one of the principal violists at the time. I had the opportunity to play his spectacular Iizuka viola and felt an immediate connection to it. I thought it would be a good idea to have a second instrument, so I wrote Hiroshi and asked him to build me an exact replica of the viola he had built for Wilfried. I received a message from him a short few months later that he had the viola I was looking for at the shop. Turned out it had been traded-in for a smaller model, and I was ecstatic that I didn’t have to wait too long for the exact size and model I was looking for. I played a concert on my new viola two days after I had brought it over from the United States and haven’t stopped playing it since.

I think Hiroshi has found the perfect balance between comfort and volume using the unorthodox shapes he has been experimenting with for many years

“What I found extraordinary about Wilfried’s viola—and enjoy the same characteristics with my instrument—is the very rare combination of projection and dark timbre or sound. Usually violas are either more mezzo-soprano and project, or more alto and diffused. A darker sound has more overtones, but that usually makes the sound broader and less penetrating. My viola has the ability to penetrate even in the lower register. I often equate it to a Maserati: just a light touch of the gas pedal and it is a mile ahead. I also have come to understand that there is no substitute for the volume of the body on a viola. Relative to the register of the cello and violin, a viola should be much larger—16-1/2 inches is already a big compromise. I think Hiroshi has found the perfect balance between comfort and volume using the unorthodox shapes he has been experimenting with for many years.

“In my opinion a violist’s job in a quartet is first and foremost a question of sound. First, the viola must bridge the big space in timbre between the cello and the violins. The difference between the cello and the second violin is infinitely bigger than the space between the two violins, making it necessary for a violist to master a much wider range of voices. In a quartet, the viola jumps between bass, tenor, alto, mezzo, and even soprano.

“The more challenging issue is the question of focus. I think what makes the melodies we love great is the context that the other voices provide for them. For me, the great challenge of a quartet is to bring to light as many details from the score in the most clear and transparent way. In so many of my favorite recordings, one hears the melody clearly, the bass line is present, and everything else is relegated to a fuzzy background. I think a good violist has the ability to shine a focus on small details without overtaking more ‘important’ voices. This is done with articulation, and with changing the focus of the sound. This is a particular challenge for the viola since in the vast majority of the time, we are surrounded by both lower and higher notes. In this respect, the viola I play allows me to make many different sounds and change between them with little effort. When I want to blend, I can, and when I want to expose a few notes, I can do that as well. While my three colleagues play fine old Italian instruments, I never have difficulty matching and mixing with the others.”

Eve Tang 

A graduate of the Yale School of Music and the McGill University, Eve Tang is one of the artists of the Wintergreen Music Festival and Academy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She has held title chair positions in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and the Aldeburgh Festival in England.

Eve Tang, photo: courtesy of wintergreen music

Eve Tang, photo: courtesy of wintergreen music

“I’ve been visiting Hiroshi almost every year since 2008, and occasionally more frequently, depending on my needs and travel schedule. Meeting him at his home is no longer just about the adjustments and maintenance my viola needs—it’s a journey back to its home for renewed inspiration. No matter where my life has taken me in the past 12 years, from Montreal to Taipei and now Dallas, I always look forward to seeing his family and cats. I not only admire his unmatched professionalism and care for his instruments, but am fascinated to hear about his recreational activities, including beekeeping and bird-watching.

The darker tone is rich and strong, while the higher register soars without becoming nasal or shrill

“My first Iizuka was finished in 2008. I had it for ten years before I moved on to other Iizukas, settling with my current Iizuka, made in 2015—a 16-inch, which is actually the third I’ve played on since August 2019. The first and third were both viola d’amore style. I exchanged my previous Iizuka because I needed to downsize to reduce left-arm fatigue. In 2007, a mentor had recommended Hiroshi’s viola d’amore style, however, at that time I was more interested in the traditional shape. Somewhat reluctantly I contacted Hiroshi to inquire about commissioning an instrument. After our conversation, it wasn’t clear how long I would need to wait due to a recent surge in popularity. The next summer, I met a fellow violist at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. She had just purchased an older model viola from Iizuka and I was immediately astonished by the sound. I hurriedly contacted him again from Germany and he insisted I visit him as soon as possible. I changed my ticket to fly from Frankfurt directly to Philadelphia and the rest is history.

“My current viola has a very confident sound that penetrates through any large space. The darker tone is rich and strong, while the higher register soars without becoming nasal or shrill. I have never experienced any trouble or inconvenience during a performance. It is very stable and stays in tune and pitch relatively well. I am still learning about it, as it seems to be more shy than my first one. It is also a newer instrument, so it will take some time before I can reach the same familiarity allowing me to explore more colors and tones.

“In terms of strings, I’ve been a fan of Pirastro’s Evah Pirazzi Gold since their release—they have a quality unmatched by other Pirazzi strings and I especially like the A, where it is slightly softer and rounder in texture without losing its confidence.”

Richard Fleischman

Grammy Award–winning soloist, chamber musician, recording artist, educator, and orchestral musician Richard Fleischman has played with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Delray String Quartet, among many others. He plays a 16-1/2-inch viola d’amore model commissioned in 2008 and finished in 2010. Originally Iizuka recommended using Pirastro Evah Pirazzi strings, but after a few years Fleischman switched to Evah Pirazzi Golds.

Richard Fleischmann, photo courtesy of Richard Fleischman
Richard Fleischman, photo courtesy of Richard Fleischman

“I saw Michael Tree [of the Guarneri Quartet] do a performance playing his Iizuka. I went backstage and asked him what instrument it was. He asked, ‘Do you like it?’ I responded, ‘That’s my voice.’ It took me a few years before I finally contacted Hiroshi to add my name to the list. In the time between hearing my first Iizuka and commissioning my own, I did hear two or three others and loved them. My viola is baritonal in the low registers with a wide contralto in the upper registers. It is extremely vocal. I find that the less work you do on an Iizuka, the better. I think of pulling the sound out rather than [applying] any pressure.”

Carolyn Mooz

A violist in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Carolyn Mooz is a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University and was a student of Karen Tuttle. Mooz owns an ergonomic, slope-shouldered “Rubenesque” model, dated 2016. Iizuka named it “Archie” after the first-born son of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (their son was born the same day Iizuka first strung the instrument).

Carolyn Mooz, photo: Courtesy of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Carolyn Mooz, photo: Courtesy of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

“When I was searching for a new instrument, I had tried lots of older violas that were incredibly expensive, and I remembered the Iizuka I heard years earlier. I sat next to someone who had one while at the Aspen Music Festival. I was completely intrigued and impressed with its sound. Hiroshi happened to live nearby and just so happened to have a viola available. Lucky me! I fell in love with it immediately as did my teacher at the time. I purchased it directly from Hiroshi.

I have owned several violas—all made by Hiroshi—and each one is an individual character, so my relationship with each one has been different

“The orchestra I play in has four Iizuka violas in the section. Without even seeing who is playing or tuning up, you can tell if it’s one of the Iizuka violas. They all have this big, rich, and warm bottom-end sound. I love the warmth and also how easily the instrument speaks. The viola is reliable in its responsiveness and is trustworthy. It’s a very comfortable instrument to play. The lower bouts shape inward in the middle, so the instrument feels closer than a traditional-shaped viola.

“I have owned several violas—all made by Hiroshi—and each one is an individual character, so my relationship with each one has been different. Archie’s sound is perfect for me and for how I want to be heard. I would describe my relationship with my viola as deeply respectful and filled with gratitude.

“Hiroshi and his family are very special. They have people in their home from all over the world coming and going all the time. They have always been incredibly hospitable whenever I have come for adjustments and repairs. Hiroshi is focused and considered in all things he does. This quality definitely comes through in his instruments as they are all beautifully crafted.”

Paul Laraia 

Concert soloist and Grammy-winning chamber player Paul Laraia of the Catalyst Quartet won first prizes at the 13th Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition and the 14th annual Sphinx Competition.

Paul Laraia, photo: Courtesy of catalyst quartet
Paul Laraia, photo: Courtesy of Catalyst Quartet

“I bought my viola from Hiroshi Iizuka himself in 2016, a 16-3/8-inch instrument he made in 2009 in his viola d’amore style that had been resold to him after its previous owner had passed away. I originally wanted a huge viola in his newer, more regular-looking style, as I had for five years previously played a 17-1/4-inch Douglas Cox instrument. I had always been a proud member of the bigger is better club, until I logged in a few years of professional string-quartet playing. I was hitting a certain wall with my large viola that I couldn’t overcome through playing techniques. I required much more clarity and pitch stability in the lower registers in order to have artful control of the many muddy double-stop and fast passages in the repertoire that need to be clear, but not out of balance with the group.

“So, for this reason, I chose my Iizuka viola, which stood out among many other modern instruments of the same pedigree. The smaller-sized d’amore style, of which I was not a fan in principle, won the contest of clarity, supported sound, and widest range of tonal possibilities based on dynamics and pitch stability. I also found that it projected much better than ‘boomy’ large instruments and, yet, was warmer sounding than the most extremely ‘bright’ violas I tried.

I can do things on my instrument that simply aren’t possible on most others, and this makes it feel like an extension of myself, musically.

“The cut-out lower bouts are a nice little plus in terms of ergonomics. However, the benefits I find are mostly in the sound. Overall, I find my instrument to be the most well-rounded viola I’ve ever tried, (including fine old instruments). I will be the first person to admit that it doesn’t have the most magical or expensive-sounding tone one could dream up, however, my musical philosophy is that the instrument should serve the music, and fussy instruments with limited possibilities for tonal fluctuations won’t accomplish this, no matter how gorgeous a tone they have.

“I feel a bond with my instrument, especially because I almost feel like it’s my racing car. It’s not the fanciest luxury racing car, but its overall stats give it the best mix of speed, handling, torque, and so on. I can do things on my instrument that simply aren’t possible on most others, and this makes it feel like an extension of myself, musically.

“I use Pirastro Evah Pirazzi stark-gauge strings, as I find them the most responsive, full sounding, and high-resistance strings that give me the widest range of options for speed, weight, and contact points. I got a new bow last year, a Pierre Guillaume, and it has been a great marriage. It’s a really heavy bow, and the combination has made articulating and producing extreme overtones much less work.

“I find Hiroshi to be a man of great skill, dedication, pride, and honor. His work is humble, yet of the highest caliber. His instruments are incredible tools with which to serve the music, and they are versatile for solo, chamber, and ensemble settings. I plan on keeping my viola as long as I live, as a high-caliber consistent tool, even if I dabble in ‘fine’ instruments like Amatis or da Salòs.”

John Peskey

Principal violist of the South Dakota Symphony, John Peskey has been principal violist of Ars Musica, New Philharmonic of New Jersey, Arts Alive International Orchestra in Spain, Sinfonia da Camera, and the Enesco Ensemble. He is the orchestra director at Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming.

John Pesky and Hiroshi Iizuka, photo: Daniela Iizuka
John Pesky and Hiroshi Iizuka, photo: Daniela Iizuka

“I was a violinist studying with the legendary violist Emanuel ‘Manny’ Vardi, who suggested I switch to the viola. I was 16 years old. I played on a [John C.] Pikula viola for about a year or so. It was at this time that Vardi had acquired his Iizuka and suggested that I do the same. Manny made the initial call to Hiroshi and asked him to make one for me just like his. I received it about a year and a half later. It was the Baroque-style pattern and was 16-3/8 inches. I had this viola for many years.

I feel humble and blessed to be this viola’s violist during my 15 minutes in the arena

“I later swapped it out for a larger 17-inch Iizuka that had belonged to Jeffery Irvine—this one was a standard shape. I used this during my time as violist of the Dakota String Quartet. It was a great viola, but I felt as I was getting older that a step down in size would be good—I had some shoulder pain and found it hard to negotiate the upper register. Hiroshi suggested a swap with a smaller viola in the style of Ori Kam’s, a slight ergonomic change from the norm. This viola was 16 inches and I found it was even harder to play. As fortune had it, one of his 16-1/2-inch Baroque violas became available—I fell in love with the sound, the aesthetics, and the drop of the left hand was just perfect. I have had this one ever since.

“I have always been drawn to Hiroshi’s violas by their fantastic, even sound and the great ease of playability. So, as you can see, I not only had the opportunity to commission one, but traded for several others. A really great characteristic I have found is that I do not need to come up with an eclectic string set. I used either Thomastik-Infeld Dominants and a Jargar on top, or a set of Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infelds.

“The viola is very, very stable and reliable. And gorgeous—it never fails to draw attention. It is very easy to play, does not bottom out, and doesn’t induce fatigue. I have had the opportunity to play many expensive, and some famous, violas and I would put Hiroshi’s up against all of them. I did order a custom Musafia case and gave [case maker] Dimitri [Musafia] his artistic say in the matter. It is, to quote him, ‘quite a show.’ I feel humble and blessed to be this viola’s violist during my 15 minutes in the arena.”

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