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Resonating with history: Raleigh craftsman works magic with musicians

John Montgomery
Isabel Stellato
UNC Media Hub
John Montgomery

During their regular family strolls through downtown Raleigh, something would always make the Ferranti boys stop and stare: the big glass window displays of Montgomery Violins on Hillsborough Street.

They would peer inside, where string instruments hang in long lines on the walls. Among the shelves of sheet music are folk instruments and violin art on display.

Alexander Ferranti, 9, and Benjamin Ferranti, 7, love bluegrass music. As soon as they were big enough to hold a violin, they started taking lessons with Swedish-born and now local musician and instructor Jan Johansson. They needed instruments of their own.

The Ferranti parents did not know anything about buying violins, but they knew Montgomery Violins had a good reputation.

Inside his shop, John Montgomery and his violins were waiting.

With dozens of violins in his shop, he is a curator of instruments and their owners. A master craftsman and restorer, he preserves the stories and the music of violins that are hundreds of years old. And for the past three decades in his shop, he’s witnessed the magic of matching people with their instruments

“Each violin has a voice just as different as the way each human has a voice."
John Montgomery, Montgomery Violins

To make a match, he lays out a selection of instruments. He can show the same five violins to multiple people, and each will choose differently.

“Each violin has a voice just as different as the way each human has a voice,” Montgomery said.

For Alexander Ferranti, the choice was clear: a 140-year-old Stradivarius model violin, with dark wood. The others he tried just didn’t sound right.

“One of them sounded kind of tinny,” he said. “Every one except the one I tried, I just didn’t like the way it sounded when I played bluegrass on it.”

Crafting the perfect sounds

Behind the cash register in Montgomery Violins, classical music floats out from the workshop.

The violins glow in warm hues around the light-flooded shop. Two employees tinker on instruments at work benches. Tools and even more violins hang in tidy rows on the walls. In another corner, the unstained wood body of a cello lies in pieces, waiting to be assembled.

Montgomery is not just a salesperson. He also builds string instruments — about 100 of them throughout his career, he estimates — and does restorations.

Violins have been around for 450 years, in the same iteration as they’re played today. Montgomery said he stands on the shoulders of predecessors who have worked in the field for hundreds of years and have tried and true techniques, methods and materials.

“You learn to control your tools. You learn to control your hands. You know the results before you start the project,” Montgomery said.

The unassembled cello is one of Montgomery’s current projects, which he works on between client appointments, restoration work, and day-to-day business operations.

His reputation has landed him jobs with the Smithsonian and other national-level positions. He spent 2020 restoring one of Thomas Jefferson’s violins, preparing it for a player to perform contemporary music before putting it on display at Monticello. Soon he’ll travel there to present it.

He’s also worked on the childhood violins of American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa and Fritz Krietzler, an early twentieth-century violinist who was born in Vienna and moved to New York City.

When Montgomery opened the shop in its current location in 1987, it was one of few local shops at the time that offered such specialized and high-quality services.

UNC professor Brent Wissick was one of his first clients in the area. Wissick has taught cello, Baroque cello, viola da gamba and chamber music at UNC since 1982. He specializes in 19th century music, performing on period instruments — thanks to help from Montgomery.

In 1984, Montgomery restored for Wissick a cello from the year 1776 to the way it would have been played during that time.

Around the same time, someone brought an original cello by the Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller to Montgomery’s shop asking him to restore it and sell it. Montgomery made a copy of the instrument for someone else, which caught Wissick’s attention.

“I played that copy,” Wissick said, “and I said, ‘This is what I want.’”

So Wissick commissioned a copy of that copy.

Within its buttery tiger-striped wood, Montgomery carved a rosette. It seems to be hidden behind the fingerboard, but its placement is intentional. Wissick said that the fingerboard on the old Goffriller is shorter than the type needed for today’s developments in how the cello is played. So John included the rosette in the same place as the original.

Wissick described its sound as “full” and “acoustically powerful.”

“If there’s a rainbow of sounds, you want to be able to get the rainbow of sounds — the spectrum of acoustical colors,” Wissick said. “And that’s what an instrument like this allows you to do.”

One day after Wissick is retired, when he can no longer play for personal enjoyment, he plans to offer his custom-built instrument to his son who also plays cello. But he said they might choose to sell the instruments, too. Maybe they would be sold to Montgomery’s shop, or one like it.

A tradition of music

The first violin Montogmery played was one he found in the attic of an old family home, tucked among old trunks, abandoned sports equipment and college pennants. He took it to an expert in New York who repaired it. Montgomery would later work on it some more himself and give it to his younger brother.

Montgomery attended Violin Making School of America, per the advice of New York violin maker and restorer William Monicle, after completing undergrad at Lawrence University and a two-year fellowship to study folk instruments in France. When Montgomery finished violin-making school, Monicle offered him a job and taught him how to restore instruments.

Montgomery doesn’t play much anymore, but he said he performs vicariously through his clients, who play all kinds of music from classical to bluegrass and jazz.

“Whether they’re playing an instrument that I built, or something that I worked on for them,” he said, “Or just help them achieve their goal of playing great music, I get great satisfaction from that.”

When Montgomery got married and had kids, he was looking for a place outside the city to raise a family. Through research he found that this area of North Carolina needed the kind of services he offers.

So this is where he set up shop, and where, three decades later, Alexander and Benjamin Ferranti would find their perfect matches in violin.

Since the boys are not fully grown, they play fractional violins, which start at one-sixteenth the size of a full violin, then 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4.

Fractional instruments are normally played for two years before the musician outgrows them. At Montgomery Violins, customers can trade in their outgrown instrument for the next size up.

The Stradivarius model that Alexander now plays has been chosen over and over — about 10 times, by 10 players, since Montgomery received it in his shop in 1990, he estimates. So its sound just may be more special than other instruments’.

“That makes it a little interesting, that it’s not just one person’s taste,” Montgomery said. “But it’s now several people’s tastes, that they may choose it over some of the other ones that they tried.”

Montgomery said that type of violin comes from an era when violin was a very popular activity for children. Popular wisdom said violin lessons were an important part of properly rearing children.

Parents would order violins from department store catalogs, for example, Sears Roebuck. That’s likely how this violin made it to America from the German workshop where it was produced.

As for how Montgomery got the violin, he can’t exactly remember. It was likely one of several ways he gets instruments in his shop: Wholesale dealers, people who find old violins in their attic or those who just want to sell their instruments.

However he got it, it continuously perks up ears when Alexander Ferranti plays it. People notice its rich sound.

Every other week, Alexander and Benjamin Ferranti play in the bluegrass jam at Bond Brothers Eastside, the music-hall second location of the Cary brewery.

At one session, five men stood on stage with their instruments: banjo, mandolin, guitar, double bass. In the corner, one microphone was lowered for the two fiddlers.

The boys not only kept up with the men. They handled the lively plucking with ease.

At the end of a song, an older gentleman sitting in the front row corner called over to Erica and Tony Ferranti to ask if they are the parents. They said yes.

“What kind of fiddle is that?” he said. “It has a great sound.”

“It’s an old German-made fiddle in the style of an Antonio Stradivari fiddle,” Erica Ferranti said. “And it’s at least 140 years old.”

When the Stradivarius model becomes too small for Alexander Ferranti, his younger brother Benjamin would like to play it. After that, who knows what other hands it will pass through. Whatever happens, the instrument has several more lifetimes within it.

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