Meyers, the Molitor and the Maiden City

Nuala McAllister Hart traces the lineage of a precious violin that has finally helped bring classical's leading lady to Derry

'The biggest celebrity in the violin world' will close out the Walled City Music Festival in Derry~Londonderry next week. For Festival Director Cathal Breslin, himself a seasoned concert pianist, world-renowned violinist Anne Akiko Meyers is a remarkable coup.

Breslin, who will accompany the classical chart-topper on piano, is sure she will delight audiences in her wide-ranging programme of music by Mozart, Ravel, Piazzolla, Avro Part and contemporary composer, John Corigliano.

'This is one of the most exciting festivals that we have ever presented and the inclusion of Anne Akiko Meyers in our programme has created an international buzz that elevates its reputation across the world,' he says. It is after all Meyers' only UK appearance, before recording commitments take her to Leipzig, Germany.

An interesting link between Meyers and the city of Derry~Londonderry is that her 'Molitor' Stradivarius violin, which she affectionately calls 'Molly', had previously belonged to Muriel and Willie Anderson of Aberfoyle Terrace in Derry, only a few hundred yards below the Great Hall at Magee College where Meyers will play.

In October 2010 Meyers bought the violin for $3.6 million, then the highest price paid for any musical instrument at auction. A work of the great Italian violin-making Stradivari family, it is said to have belonged once to Napoleon Bonaparte before being passed to one of his generals, Count Gabriel-Jean-Joseph Molitor, from whom it took its name.

History does not record all those who have owned and played the instrument over the centuries, but between 1957 and 1988 it belonged to the Andersons, two keen, but retiring amateur musicians.

Willie Anderson had bought the Molitor from the London firm of violin dealers, E R Voigt, for an unknown price. For safety – and in keeping with his old-fashioned ideas of security – the violin was kept under a bed in their home, only taken out when it was to be played. Luckily the bombings of the Troubles spared their quiet terrace home.

His sister Muriel played the violin during the later 1950s when she led the orchestra at the St Columb’s Cathedral Oratorio Society concerts and in the following decades the Londonderry Amateur Operatic Society, known today as the Londonderry Musical Society.

After Willie's death Muriel gave the Molitor to the Red Cross in accordance with his wishes. It was valued, confirmed as a genuine Stradivarius, and then sold by Christie's of London in 1989 for £195,000. Several owners later it was finally bought by Anne Akiko Meyers who played it publicly for the first time in 16 years on October 23 2010 with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra.

And now Meyers is to play in the Maiden City - the realization of plans first mooted in 2012, to bring her and her Molitor for the City of Culture year. 'We have persisted and finally she is coming,' Breslin says. 'Anne is friends with many of our previous artists, and they always leave loving the visit - it has built up that way

'We may not have large concert halls, but we have something much more special in the festival atmosphere.'

On this occasion however Meyers will not be playing on the Molitor, but the even more highly regarded 1741 ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu violin, of which she now has lifetime use. As well as the classical composers listed, her programme will include popular favourites like 'Over the Rainbow' from The Wizard of Oz.

As a finale Meyers plans to follow tenor John McCormack and virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler, who performed 'Danny Boy' in their Derry concerts in the 1930s. Meyers will play the latter’s own arrangement of 'The Londonderry Air', the melody regarded by many – and warmly described by Breslin - as 'the city’s anthem'.

Kreisler’s performance – The Londonderry Sentinel of the day tells us – was applauded 'with special warmth' by the local audience and given several encores. Given Anne Akiko Meyers' virtuoso skills and apt choice of programme we expect no less from this closing concert of the Walled City Music Festival.

'Audiences will be inspired,' Breslin concludes 'Don’t miss a second of this festival. Now all we need is for the audience numbers to flow in'.