News Column

14-year-old becomes a fourth-generation violin craftsman at Studio City Music

August 11, 2014

By Dana Bartholomew, Daily News, Los Angeles



Aug. 11--STUDIO CITY -- Fourteen-year-old Nathan Benning cradled a violin 14 months in the making, fitted it to a freckly chin, then launched into a deep and resonant minor violin concerto.

Its rich vibrato filled the showroom at Studio City Music, otherwise known as Benning Violins. With his new fiddle fresh from the family workbench, Nathan was the fourth generation of the Benning family to craft a premium concert violin.

"I got it," declared Nathan, lowering his violin toward a green luthier's apron worn just like his father, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather and great uncle before him. "I'm happy with it. It's a Stradivarius model. It sounds like a Strad.

"I feel good about it."

As the morning sun cascaded across the 61-year-old Benning showroom this week, his father Eric Benning, a master instrument maker, beamed.

Grandfather Hans Benning, the German-born patriarch of one of the nation's top violin, viola and cello makers and restorers, nodded from his window workbench.

And 16-year-old brother Garrett, an accomplished cellist, grinned from across the room alongside family shopkeepers Laura Phillips and her daughter Danielle.

For in the center of the plate-glass showroom lined with strings dating back to the 17th century were two young hands clutching a spruce and maple instrument good enough to carry on the family's 113-year violin tradition.

"I'm intensely proud," said father Eric Benning, 42, of Sylmar, whose brother Brian is also a violinist and Benning master restorer. "I hope he carries on the Benning tradition. Nathan has a good hand for woodworking.

"He's a future master craftsman."

It was in 1901 that Nathan's great uncle Carl Becker Sr. began crafting fine violins in Chicago. He taught his brother-in-law, Paul Toenniges, the art.

Toenniges then moved to Los Angeles, where in 1950 he with his wife Ruth opened their own store, Studio City Music. Three years later they opened the shop now at 11340 Ventura Blvd.

Their daughter Nancy, a master finisher, became the first woman ever to attend the prestigious school for violin making in Mittenwald, Germany. It was there she met her future husband, Hans Benning, a fellow student with a penchant for American Westerns written by German author Karl May, pearl-snap duds and Navajo bolo ties.

For decades, the Benning family has unlocked their shop before dawn each day to sit down at two benches covered with clamps, scrapers, planers, bending irons and an arsenal of small cutting tools.

Along a back wall hang bundles of horsehair for making bows. Nearby stand decades of the world's best aged wood -- Bosnian tiger maple for the backs, Bavarian soft spruce for the tops, mountain mahogany for the fittings and pegs. Cutting, bending, joining, gluing, scraping, finishing and varnishing each instrument can take three months.

The Bennings now restore the world's finest instruments and build up to five Benning violins and cellos a year, each commanding roughly $30,000 to $42,000 each, respectively. They ship instruments -- theirs and consignment -- all over the world.

It was there at the family shop that Eric Benning made his first violin at age 11. And it was there during the past two summers that Nathan -- a member of the Kadima Conservatory of Music orchestra and a capable striker for his Village Christian School soccer team -- hunkered down while other kids played.

He wanted his violin to sound deep, like the one his grandfather Hans made for his beloved Nancy. And he wanted it to be true in the template of a Stradivarius, in the Benning family for 70 years.

He carved the f-holes and top scroll by hand, applied the "secret" family varnish, fitted it with four obligato strings.

"I wanted a deeper sound -- thicker, rich, like Bill Gates," Nathan said.

"Like dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate," Hans Becker interjected as he sanded a new neck on an 1889 Romeo Antoniazzi.

Finally, the day came to play it. On Aug. 1, just before lunch, he walked toward his grandfather, plucking it with a pizzicato. Then he strolled into the family showroom and made music, nervously at first, he said, then with rising confidence.

A fourth-generation Benning sang true. And it's not for sale.

"He did it," said Hans Benning. "That's the beautiful part of this business. Nothing has changed in 400 years. We still make (violins) the same way -- same tools, same materials.

"He's got a good eye. He's got good hands. It looks like it's gonna keep going.

___

(c)2014 the Daily News (Los Angeles)

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Source: Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


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