Voices, squeaking of chairs, even the sounds of breathing seemed to go silent as Julia Haney lifted the 116-year-old violin, tucked it under her chin, and began to play.
The selection, "Meditation," a symphonic intermezzo from the opera "Thais," by French composer Jules Massenet, seemed to pull warm tears from the fine Maucotel violin, which was crafted in Paris in 1903.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the room," Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Holly Arnold later recalled.
Those gathered in Arnold's office included Maestro Stilian Kirov, the orchestra's music director, a member or two of the symphony foundation board and Arnold.
Also present were Joel and Rose Ament, the son and daughter-in-law of the late Lewis Ament, a former violinist in the orchestra — and for years, the owner of the beautiful red violin.
Lewis Ament died in 2013 at age 89. He bequeathed the French-made instrument to his son, who last year donated it to the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra Endowment Foundation. Haney, the orchestra's concertmaster, has been playing it in BSO performances ever since.
"A special instrument gives an orchestra a special confidence," Haney said. "It brings out the best in the musicians."
But the legacy of Lewis Ament didn't stop there. His family's gratitude for the rich, musical life he led here, and their generosity to the community he left behind, led to something even more extraordinary.
The BSO and its foundation have announced that Joel and Rose Ament are providing yet another major gift, enough funding to undertake a search for and the purchase of three more extraordinary quality instruments, not only to enhance the sound of the full orchestra, but to complete the formation of the Lewis R. Ament Memorial String Quartet.
"Every great orchestra needs great instruments, and for us to be able to start establishing a collection of extraordinary instruments, which our musicians can play, is inspiring and life-changing for the organization as a whole," Kirov said of the gift.
"I feel the new instruments and the establishment of the string quartet will be a great step forward as we all continue our work on improving the artistic quality of the orchestra," he said. "The gift will help enormously our musicians as they will have the best conditions to make music as the new instruments will be perfect vessels for their artistry."
A violinist and music teacher in local schools, Lewis Ament played the violin in the orchestra and taught generations of local musicians. No one was sure of the exact years of his tenure, but it is believed he performed in what was then the Kern Philharmonic Orchestra from the 1960s into the 1980s.
Music was his lifelong passion. His training began at age 11.
Following his retirement in 1983, Ament developed his own string group, "Quartet Ament." There were numerous other musical activities along the way: Messiah Orchestra, Boar's Head at St. John's, and regularly sharing his music at nursing homes and retirement communities. He even performed with a mariachi band for several years. And he taught all six of his sons to play musical instruments.
Haney said it has taken some time to get to know the Maucotel. The width of the neck is different from her own violin. Other differences are not so easily quantifiable. And yet, the first time she played it in rehearsal, members in her string section remarked afterward that the voice of the violin projected farther and deeper.
"It's been a wonderful gift to get to know this instrument," Haney said. "And leading the (string) section with it has been a real pleasure."
The Ament gift will fund the purchase of another violin, a viola, and a cello in addition to quality bows in order to complete the string quartet. While the BSO Endowment Foundation will own all four instruments, they will be on permanent loan to the symphony. In turn, the symphony will provide them to carefully selected members of the orchestra who will play them in concerts, quartet performances and on other occasions.
But searching for and choosing string instruments at this level isn't just a matter of ordering off the Net or shopping at a music store.
That's why Kirov is working with Martin Chalifour, the renowned concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to help locate and examine suitable instruments. In addition, Haney and former concertmaster Rebecca Brooks have both been asked to be involved in the selection process.
"Our goal is to obtain the instruments in time to debut the quartet at the opening concert of the 2020-21 season," Arnold said. She added they are making plans to bring Chalifour back to Bakersfield as a guest artist early in the 2020-2021 season.
It's not a Stradivarius, but the Maucotel has a warmth and sweetness and projection that may or may not be enhanced by its age.
For Joel Ament, the chance to see and hear his father's violin in the the hands of a member of the orchestra the elder Ament spent so many years with is almost poetic in its beauty.
"It was such a pleasure to be able to give something so tangible to this orchestra," he said. "You can see it, play it, hear the fruits of it."
"To me, that was very meaningful. The tangible nature, the lasting nature of it."
Ament declined to reveal the value of the financial support that will allow for the formation of a new string quartet, named in memory of his dad.
"To me, dollar figures take the spotlight away from the instruments," he said.
And maybe from his father, too, whose legacy will live on through the music that is made on these extraordinary instruments.