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Sunday, November 8, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

Little Seattle Shop Puts Zing Back In A Stradivarius

In the rarefied, even exotic, world of string-instrument repair, restoration and creation, you count such meccas as Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and London. That's about it - or was.

But now Seattle.

Good gawd - Seattle?

Well, why not? It is a city that produced the late Emmett Day, whose woodcrafting of custom furniture was the work of near-genius. There is Bill Gates, whizzeroo of the computer galaxy.

There have been celebrated aeronautical technocrats and scientists, Nobel winners, artists, medical pioneers, ad infinitum.

So it is that this once-backwater, log-skidding, tin pants, rained-on fishing village is now the place where they come to buy a restored Stradivarius cello for $400,000.

From all over the world, musicians and collectors come to a modest little shop at 405 W. Galer St., on top of Queen Anne Hill.

Do I sound too breathless about this? Well, I was just up there, visiting Rafael Carrabba, who is celebrated the world over for his work on priceless, often ancient, violins, cellos and violas.

You walk into a room up there - a steel-doored, fireproof cubicle full of instruments which, if auctioned off, would pay to fill in every frame-jarring pothole on every street in Seattle.

Rafael handed me a bow. "This bow," he said, "will sell for $60,000." He held up the front plate of a cello.

"This," he said, "is a Roman cello, made in about 1680. When we finish restoring it, the piece should sell for - well, at least $200,000."

Rafael is not boasting. It takes a while to get used to an environment where restored violins sell for $40,000 or $50,000, where a genuine Stradivarius brings $500,000, even $1 million, a world where ancient (and rebuilt) Panormos and Gobettis are prized beyond money by their owners.

In a few short years, Rafael Carrabba, at the age of 40, has become renowned in some of the world's most famous shops. A friend of his, Henry Siegl, violinist and former concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony, told a music critic, "Carrabba is more important to me than my heart doctor."

Entering his shop, filled with clamps, vices, fine saws, custom-mixed glue, horsetails from Mongolia for bow strings, the smell of wood and varnish, you don't know what to expect.

What you find is not some European-born master. Instead, you find - Rafael Carrabba, from Franklin High School!

His parents, Peter and Dorothy Carrabba, raised him in Rainier Valley - in Garlic Gulch, where many of today's Italian community grew up, no less.

Yet he has studied and worked for the leading masters in stringed instrument building and restoration - David Saunders here in Seattle, Kenneth Warren and Carl Becker of Chicago, William Moennig in Philadelphia and J & A Beare, the world-renowned instrument firm in London.

Now he is their peer. Carrabba makes frequent buying trips to Europe. He gets his maple from Bosnia, his other woods from southern Germany. On his most recent trip, he spent $20,000 on wood alone.

Two piles of precious slabs are piled like cordwood in one room. "This wood needs to go on drying," he said. "It should be ready in six to eight years."

Working in the shop for Rafael are Gregory Oxreider from Spokane; Thomas Immel, a classmate at Franklin High, and Duncan McDonald, a younger member of the crew whose hobby is making violins at home.

A knowledgeable person could write to infinity about the making and restoring of world-class instruments. Rafael, a straight-spoken but somehow poetic man, is moved to say:

"Restoring an instrument, you take it totally apart. It becomes like a patient who has had major surgery. For a long while, you can't expect his body to do normal things.

"So when the instrument is finished, it is like a patient. It might take six months before the violin or viola comes into its own. There are the vibrations, the tensions when first played.

"Then," he adds, "the instrument becomes more mellow, rich and compact - once again, in true balance."

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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