Years ago, a famous Stradivarius cello was stolen in Los Angeles — while restoring it, Rafael Carrabba’s Queen Anne instrument shop became a laboratory for one of the most exciting repair jobs in recent memory.

Share story

Lately, Rafael Carrabba has been able to breathe just a little bit easier.

A few weeks ago, the Seattle-based master luthier — who finds and fixes valuable string instruments — completed the most complicated, high-pressure, exhausting assignment of his career.

Carrabba and his four-person crew restored a famous Stradivarius cello worth around $10 million, which had been damaged by careless repairs over the centuries. It was also stolen from a musician’s porch in 2004, then found near a Los Angeles dumpster by a nurse who asked her boyfriend, a cabinetmaker, to turn it into a CD rack. (She returned the missing instrument to its owner after seeing a news story about it.)

The restoration, Carrabba said during a visit to his shop on the top of Queen Anne Hill, “affected me physically, but it also took an emotional toll on us … With this kind of work, you have to dig so deep, it almost became spiritual. We started thinking of the instrument as a living personality, like a cantankerous old grandpa or general in bed, recovering from an illness and warning us: ‘Don’t touch me!’ ”

Carrabba’s shop and showroom also double as his residence — as in the era of the old craft guilds from centuries ago.

The instant you enter, a heady aroma of varnish and essential oils works its intoxicating effect. A row of beautifully shaped string instruments, their bodies of burnished wood, suggests the props for a Dutch-master still life.

Carrabba, 63, has felt at home with that Old World vibe since he turned 12. That was in the mid-’60s, when he began a series of apprenticeships that would make him among the most renowned and trusted luthiers at work today.

Rafael Carrabba Violins is the name of his business — but “violins,” in this context, is shorthand for the entire family of bowed string instruments. Carrabba is particularly celebrated for his expertise with cellos.

He is the son of parents who played jazz gigs together at the old clubs on First Avenue, and Carrabba’s family members were fixtures in the Seattle music scene. Aunt Lucy played piano at the legendary King Oscar’s on Aurora, and Uncle Sal served as president of the local musicians union.

Carrabba was just 12 when he was hired to help around a violin shop run by David Saunders.

He learned how to repair, restore and identify string instruments by working for Saunders and then a series of mentors in Chicago, Philadelphia and London — a Who’s Who of the very top violin experts from a vanished era. After several years, Carrabba returned to Seattle in 1985, when Saunders sold the shop to his former protégé, who established an international reputation for completing complicated restorations of delicate instruments.

Carrabba’s shop also became well-known for training other experts in the restoration field.

In September 2014, he got the assignment of a lifetime — a commission to repair a fabled cello made by none other than Antonio Stradivari himself, in 1684, during a relatively early period in the legendary luthier’s career.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind instrument,” Carrabba said. “There are only a few dozen Stradivarius cellos in the world.”

It’s believed that the nobleman for whom Stradivari originally created the instrument left it in storage in a cotton-filled chest, where it stayed for a century.

Eventually, the cello was put into circulation. It became the instrument English virtuoso Leo Stern used to perform the world premiere of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto in 1896.

“The top had become quite twisted,” Carrabba said. “Most of the damage was the result of people working on it in the past during previous restorations. It had become like a bird trying to fly with one injured wing.”

The main problem involved the archings of the body, whose distortion profoundly affected the sound. By analyzing the evidence embodied in the instrument’s original wood, Carrabba and his team worked to re-create the archings to be as close to what Stradivari had intended them to be.

Science, experience and intuition all played a role. “Wood typically wants to go back to its place of origin,” Carrabba explained. “So we had to deal with different layers of wood memory.”

Along with this enormous structural challenge, the restoration called for treating cracks using a process akin to skin grafts, with new pieces of wood that matched the grain of the original.

What probably took Stradivari a few months to make turned into an 18-month project for Carrabba and company. That was on top of his regular business, which is to find fine instruments (mostly, he said, through the international network he’s established over the years), improve their condition and sell them to dealers.

But the results of their work are staggering. Along with the cello’s stunning visual quality, the penetrating, far-reaching glow of its sound has been restored.

“The restoration has brought out a kind of ineffable power from the cello,” said Miriam Shames — a Seattle-based cellist, teacher and director of the Carlsen Cello Foundation — as well as “a sense of endless possibility for a player.”

(The owner, concerned about becoming a target for future thefts, requested that The Seattle Times not include any identifying details in this article.)

Some classical musicians and restorers say the best Stradivari instruments have a robust, imposing personality — or, as Carrabba put it, even individual “souls.”

They test the limits of their players’ abilities and enable them to reach new heights in terms of technique. They also open up rare tone colors, stimulating some musicians to explore new soundscapes of nuance and drama.

Though there are world-famous luthiers in Chicago and London, Carrabba was selected for this task because of his reputation for intricate work among a variety of loyal customers.

“Rafael has a real talent for finding the right sound for an instrument,” said Richard Aaron, a renowned cellist and music professor at Juilliard and the University of Michigan, who regularly recommends Carrabba to students looking to repair their current instruments or upgrade to better ones.

“Many shops around the country have changeover, so you don’t know who is working on your instrument,” Aaron said. “They might be people who do repairs, but they’re not really restorers. Rafael has developed expertise over time, and he has people who work with him for many years. The standard of restoration is high.”

Kurt R. Jones, a senior restorer who began working with Carrabba in 1988, was part of the team involved in the cello restoration.

“When you start with an instrument in a condition as deformed as this was, there’s no guarantee that all your effort will even work,” Jones said from Honolulu, where his family recently moved. “One part of our process was to have everybody share their ideas on the work. Rafael insists on that. It makes for cohesiveness in the shop.”

It’s no surprise that Carrabba is a practicing Buddhist. The focus and concentration of his profession require a mindfulness that’s hard to imagine in our era of mass-produced commodities. The work has an intensely physical dimension as well.

“This cello is a big instrument,” Carrabba said. “I’d have to wrap myself around its waist while working on it, like I was embracing it — or almost like a wrestling match.”