Music prodigies vie for prized instruments

Saanich brothers compete in Toronto for million-dollar violins

Two Saanich brothers are competing for a musical multi-million dollar opportunity.

Classical musicians Timothy and Nikki Chooi bring a decidedly Island flavour to the Canada Council’s 2012 Musical Instrument Bank competition in Toronto, an audition for the right to borrow from a collection of 18 instruments worth a combined $28 million.

“They are prized around the world,” said 18-year-old Timothy. “It would mean the whole world to me, I would love to use their instruments.”

Timothy, who attended St. Andrews high school, has played violin since he was three years old. Both brothers now attend Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and both dream of landing the chance to use one of 13 centuries-old violins from the MIB, which also boasts five cellos and a violin bow. Instruments range in value from $150,000 to $7.5 million.

“It is not only their value, it is like a fine wine, the older the wood has become and the more it has been played it has a unique sound it gives off,” Timothy said. “It is very noticeable, you hear it right away.”

The brothers have practiced diligently for the opportunity afforded to the 30 musicians vying for the 18 instruments, doled out once every three years since 1985. The Choois, however, have experience that others may not have – older brother Nikki has won before.

“It was a dream come true … (the violin was) built before Mozart was born. It is astounding,” 23-year-old Nikki said of winning time with the 1729 Guarnari Del Gesu violin. “There are many violinists who dream of playing one all their lives, I am fortunate to get to play on it when I was 20.”

Hoisting the hand-made Italian violin valued at more than $4 million to his chin was an inspiring experience, he says.

The combination of age and the wood maturing make the sound unique and responsive in a way that can’t be compared with a younger bow. As such he dreads returning the instrument, despite having mentally prepared himself since becoming the first Victorian to win the competition in 2009.

“It will be a difficult parting” said Nikki, who started violin studies at age 4, and who will attend the Juilliard School of Music in the fall. “I have prepared for it for a few months now, but nevertheless it will be hard.”

For now, the Victoria Symphony veteran still practises and plays one of the most expensive violins in the world as he endeavours to reclaim the instrument that changed his life.

“It doesn’t make me a better player per se, but the (violin) I use makes me able to explore techniques even further,” Nikki said. “It would mean so much. Nobody is entitled to play on (such) great works of art. To have the opportunity is a true blessing.”

The Chooi brothers will be competing at the MIB on Sept. 18 in Toronto. For more on the instrument bank and the competition, see



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