November 29, 1982 12:00 PM

A violinist lovingly refers to a Strad the way a car lover might speak of a Caddy or Rolls. Yet for Ani Kavafian, 34, buying one of the instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari more than two centuries ago proved a good deal tougher than signing up for luxury wheels. The price: $250,000. “I wouldn’t have had any problems if I had wanted a Mercedes-Benz,” Ani observes. “The bankers said they knew what to do with cars, but not violins. I cried my eyes out.”

A highly praised performer with New York’s Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Ani vaulted into the top ranks of concert soloists after winning the Avery Fisher Prize in 1976. Then two years later, during a performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, she noticed something amiss: Her violin’s tones could not project over the orchestra well enough to reach the back rows of the audience. “I knew I was in trouble,” says Kavafian of her violin, “when one critic said I had a small but lovely voice. I hate it when they associate a woman with a small sound.”

For nearly three years Kavafian performed on a Guarnerius del Gesù, a $400,000 violin loaned to her by a board member of the Chamber Music Society. When that instrument was recalled last year, she says, “I realized I was going to have to beg, borrow and steal to get the money for my own violin.” Despite her modest $20,000 savings account, Kavafian set her sights on one of the estimated 600 Stradivarii still extant. Kavafian’s choice: a 1736 model crafted by the then 92-year-old Italian master a year before his death.

“Decisions like this test your devotion to your art,” she concedes. “I knew the financing was impossible, but it just had a gorgeous, gorgeous sound, very mellow yet macho in its projection.” She sold the Landolfi she had played for a decade, parted with her savings and an $8,000 bow and engineered $70,000 in loans from friends and family, including sister Ida, 30, herself an accomplished violinist. Then, prized Strad in hand, Ani made the rounds of New York banks. “I brought the violin to play for them,” she explains. “I wanted the bankers to know I was a serious artist.” Finally in March, after four failed loan attempts, Kavafian signed a $100,000 note with Citibank and proudly took possession of her Stradivarius.

With $80,000 in principal still outstanding, Kavafian was faced with an 18 percent interest rate and monthly payments of almost $3,000. “I began counting loose change instead of sheep at night,” she admits. Help came quickly when word of Ani’s gamble reached the music community. Opera star Anna Moffo and her husband, former RCA board chairman Robert Sarnoff, opened their Manhattan apartment to $125-a-ticket recitals starring the financially pressed musician and pianist André-Michel Schub, the winner of the 1981 Van Cliburn Competition, who played sonatas with her, gratis. Kavafian’s bankbook was bolstered by $10,000. Notes Moffo: “It was the least I could do for a fellow artist of such calibre.”

For Kavafian, of course, such panegyrics are by now an old song. Born in Istanbul of Armenian parents, she attended her first concerts in Turkey where her father, Yenovk, was first violist with the Istanbul State Symphony and her mother, Peruz, was a member of the first violin section. Ani began piano lessons at 3 and took up the violin at 9 soon after the family came to the U.S. At 16, the budding star captured first prize in both the piano and violin concerto competitions at the famed National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., north of her Detroit home. Two years later she packed off to New York with a scholarship to Juilliard where she spent eight years studying with master violin teacher Ivan Galamian.

Despite a thriving concert schedule that now includes some 65 solo performances and earns her $85,000 a year, Kavafian still frets over her unpaid debt. “Instead of lamb chops, I buy ground chuck,” she notes. “I’m not destitute, but my life-style sure has changed. I am one of the downwardly mobile.” Perhaps, but a few bills are little cause for the blues. “It’s the dream of every musician to own a Stradivarius someday,” says mother Peruz. “Even double-digit inflation couldn’t stop her.”

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