Celebrated Portuguese luthiers face end of the line

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Espinho (Portugal) (AFP)

Surrounded by planers and other woodworking tools, Joaquim Capela carefully sculpts a new bridge for a violin at a tiny workshop in northern Portugal as it drizzles outside.

Capela, 51, is a third-generation luthier, whose family's prize-winning instruments have been sought after for nearly a century by top musicians around the world, such as the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

But he is set to be the last since his 22-year-old son Tiago has no desire to continue the family business, preferring instead to become a surgeon.

The musical instruments "mean a lot to us but it's nothing compared to a son doing what he loves," says Capela, as he holds up the finished bridge, which supports the strings and transmits their vibrations to the body of a violin.

"If he is happy, that is what counts for me. If I am like my father, I still have at least another 30 years to make instruments."

Seated nearby, his father Antonio Capela, 85, quietly goes about changing the strings and turning the pegs of a cello at the workshop in Anta, a picturesque town that is home to around 10,000 people near Porto, Portugal's second-largest city.

"Aside from the two or three days of the year when I have my usual cold, I never stop working, even on weekends," he says in a soft voice.

- 'Many orders' -

It takes on average about two and a half months for the Capelas to make a new string instrument, which sells for at least 3,000 euros ($3,700).

"We have so many orders that it takes us generally two years to honour them," says Joaquim, who started learning the craft as a child.

Their story as luthiers began in 1924, when Joaquim's carpenter grandfather, Domingos Capela, agreed to repair the violin of an Italian-Brazilian musician, who belonged to the orchestra of the neighbouring town of Espinho.

The musician was thrilled with the results and recommended Domingos to other members of the orchestra.

As time went by the Capelas started to count top musicians as their clients, among them Rostropovich, considered to be among the world?s greatest cellists.

Photos of the Russian musician, who died in 2007, are proudly displayed on a wall of the Capelas' workshop, alongside violins, violas and cellos.

The Capelas in 1972 won the top four prizes in the prestigious Henryk Wieniawski international violin making competition, which is held every five years in Poland, as well as the top prize in a highly respected Japanese competition in 1989.

- Balkan maple, Italian spruce -

"To make a quality violin, you have to choose the wood well," says Antonio, who studied his craft in Paris and the northern Italian city of Cremona, considered to be the cradle of violin making.

The Capelas use only Balkan maple for the back of their violins and Italian spruce for the sounding board.

"They have great acoustic qualities," says Antonio, taking the first violin made by his father out of its storage case to show AFP.

The other secret of their success is the varnish they use to coat their instruments whose smell fills the workshop in Anta. The Capelas credit the varnish with giving their violins a distinctive timbre.

"In Cremona in Italy, the village of the violin, the other luthiers often ask me for the formula of my varnish, I simply answer that it is the same as theirs," says Antonio, before breaking out into a mischievous smile.

- 'Name will last' -

Ana Mula, a Spanish professional cellist, drove 550 kilometres (340 miles) from Madrid with her father to get her two cellos repaired by the Capelas.

"I saw a luthier in Madrid but his work disappointed me. The Capelas have a great reputation in Spain, so I am ready to stay in Portugal as long as it takes and pay the necessary price for my cellos," she said.

Antonio says he is still very moved whenever he hears a musician play one of his "children of wood" as he likes to call the instruments he makes.

"The problem is that after my son and I, there will be nobody to make violins," he says.

While the Capelas could pass on their craft to someone outside the family, they prefer not to.

"As the proverb says, 'It is better to die honourably than to live dishonourably'," Antonio adds, suggesting the family would rather stop with their reputation for top-notch quality intact than have someone else continue, with the quality possibly suffering.

"Everything has a beginning and an end," says Joaquim. "Our violins will still be there after several generations as evidence of our craft.

"The instruments can be destroyed, but not the name, it will last."