‘Negaraku’ and ‘Jalur Gemilang’: Malaysian violin maker wins two gold medals at international competition in Italy

Melanie Chalil
Tan Chin Seng bagged two top prizes for his handcrafted violin and viola. — Picture courtesy of Tan Chin Seng

PETALING JAYA, Sept 12 — Kuala Lumpur native Tan Chin Seng took home two gold medals at the recent 10th International Violin Making Competition held in Sesto Fiorentino, Italy.

The 39-year-old was awarded gold for his handcrafted violin and viola under the non-professional category.

He named the violin "Negaraku" and the viola "Jalur Gemilang," paying tribute to Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day.

Tan told Malay Mail he was “euphoric” upon learning of his double victory, an impressive feat for someone who only took up the trade while in his 30s and had no experience prior.

“But it’s an affirmation that if you put your mind to any endeavour, you will reap what you sow. So, don’t give up,” he said.

Tan was shortlisted to compete with violinmakers from 16 countries including Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, South Korea and China.

A good violin, Tan explained, must excel in both craftsmanship and artistic expression in order to be regarded as a masterpiece.

The award-winning instruments were named 'Negaraku' and 'Jalur Gemilang' as a tribute to Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day. — Picture courtesy of Tan Chin Seng

“A luthier often takes it personally if his (or her) violin doesn’t sound right and will take the necessary steps to rectify this.

“In contrast, a musician will favour a good-sounding violin over an aesthetically pleasing one because to them, acoustic versatility and accuracy is everything,” he said.

Tan learned the craft under two renowned luthiers, Beijing’s Han Zhao Sheng and Cremona’s Bertrand Yves Delisle.

It took him two months to complete the violin and a further two months for the viola.

The former music school owner said he always fiddled with violins, although he isn’t professionally trained.

“I was at a crossroad in my life where I wanted to achieve something that wasn’t driven by fame and financial status,” he said when asked what made him pursue violinmaking.

“This musical instrument’s construction always fascinated me – its sensual curves and ability to produce such a unique sound.”

The idea of reverse engineering a violin from scratch popped into his head one day and he took the plunge.

“In hindsight, it might have seemed like an irrational thing to do but I’m glad I did it. It took a lot of discipline and I have no regrets,” he said.

Tan with National Association of Artistic Italian Lutherie (ANLAI) president Gualtiero Nicolini in Sesto Fiorentino, Italy. — Picture courtesy of Tan Chin Seng

The award-winning instruments are currently exhibited at the School of Violin Making of Tuscany until September 15 before they are returned to their owners.

The prize-winning violin belongs to the National Symphony Orchestra of Malaysia’s conductor Datuk Mustafa Nawi while the viola was commissioned by violinist Megan Loo.

Organised by the National Association of Artistic Italian Lutherie (ANLAI), the competition caters to both established and aspiring luthiers in four categories: violin, viola, cello and classical guitar.

The evaluation period was held from September 2 to September 7 and entries are initially judged by an international jury of maestro luthiers for their craftsmanship before they are tested by a panel jury of musicians for their acoustic qualities.

“As a Malaysian, I’m also proud to say that we are capable of much, much more if we are passionate about what we’re doing.

“Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise,” he said.