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Member Profile: David Burgess

By Helen M. Hayes

The phrase "a legend in his own time" is fittingly applied to David Burgess. By the age of thirty David had reached the pinnacle of his profession, had achieved international recognition and had set a historic record of awards in major international competitions.

While still in his twenties he won nine gold medals in four different VSA competitions, for both workmanship and tone and in four categories (violin, viola, cello and quartet). He also won 5 awards, including three gold medals in the 1983 competition in Kassel, Germany. In 1984 David was given the First Prize overall in the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers Competition. He has been declared Hors Concours by both the Violin Society of America and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers.

In 1979, a Burgess viola won the Cacciaguerra-Foschi prize for best workimanship in the Second Triennale of Stringed Instruments in Cremona. In the 1982 Triennale he not only won a gold medal but his viola was awarded First Prize as the best instrument of the more than 300 in the competition. He retired from competition in 1984 at the age of 31 and has since served as a judge in the VSA competitions and for the Triennale.

The Smithsonian Museum and the Stradivari Museum in Cremona have Burgess instruments in their permanent collections.

David was born in 1953 in Princeton, New Jersey where his father, a Presbyterian minister, was studying theology. Afterwards the family settled in the Seattle area where David grew up. His mother was an accomplished musician, a pianist and organist, who held a Masters Degree in performance. She grew up on a small farm in Western Washington and contrary to local custom at that time, her father saw to it that she had early instruction in music and a college education. David has two sisters, the younger one adopted by the Burgess family from Korea just after the war with that country.

In his teen years David studied violin with Vilem Sokol and had been accepted to study at Curtis. During this time he also worked part-time doing repair work for David Saunders and had applied to the violin making school in Mittenwald. David Saunders mentioned this to Hans Weisshaar who convinced David to come and work for him instead. David saw this as a great opportunity and spent the next five years doing instrument repair, setup and sound adjustment at the Weisshaar shop.

In 1976 David moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he has been ever since. It was during the early part of this period that he garnered a record number of international honors for his instrument making. Since 1983 he has devoted himself exclusively to making new instruments and in 1991 established his own business.

Lest anyone form a mental picture of a Stradivari (to whom David has been famously compared) working endlessly at his workbench, there is quite another side to him. His hobbies, many of which have elements of speed and power, have included motorcycle drag racing, performance cars, sailboat racing and speedboat racing.

David has been a gracious contributor to Violins Society of America endeavors. He has served as a judge, speaker, as a competitor in a man vs. machine contest that many will remember, and will this summer be the Director of the first VSA-Oberlin Setup Workshop.

Violin Society of America Newsletter, June 2003 (reprinted with permission)