In Memory

Arthur Toman

Arthur Toman

By Tom Long, Globe Staff  |  June 16, 2004

Arthur R. Toman was a violin-, viola- and cello-maker and restorer who practiced his old world art in a ranch house in suburbia. Decked out in jeans and a flannel shirt, and with an Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan tune on the stereo, Mr. Toman fashioned instruments prized for their beauty and sound in a workshop redolent of varnish and freshly sawed wood.

‘‘He was truly a renaissance man,’’ his wife, Donna Soodalter-Toman, said yesterday of her husband, who was 57, when he died of leukemia in his Newton home June 9.

Mr. Toman made his instruments the old-fashioned way — by hand and without power tools — a process that took about three months each. The former Tufts University premed student sold his violins for about $15,000, his cellos for $35,000. In addition to making instruments, Mr. Toman helped restore and freshen them.

‘‘He made it possible for me to perform,’’ said Ronald Lowry, a cellist who often brought his 19th century cello in for Mr. Toman to tweak.

‘‘He was classically trained by some of the best masters in the field, and had a wonderful ear,’’ said Lowry, who has performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and the Boston Ballet Orchestra.

‘‘He could always explain to you scientifically what he was doing, and he didn’t impose his own agenda,’’ said Lowry, who explained that string instruments are affected by dampness and dryness, and the changing of the seasons. ‘‘He never did anything more than was needed and never did anything less.’’

Mr. Toman’s workshop is filled with pots of varnish, violin patterns, gouges, blades, and saws. Drying wood hangs from the ceiling. There is a hole in floor to make it easier to stand a cello.

‘‘Everything is perfectly organized, and everything has its place,’’ said his wife, who admitted she was only allowed in the workshops under supervision.

His quest for just the right varnish was never quite fulfilled. ‘‘He had varnish parties for his students at the North Bennett Street Industrial School,’’ said his wife.

After he finished making an instrument, he fussed with it for hours, until he was satisfied with the sound.

‘‘He’d change the sound post, recheck the ribs, make the back less thick, anything he could think of to make it sound better,’’ said his wife.

Mr. Toman was fussy about music and craftsmanship, but he wasn’t fussy about his clothes. ‘‘He wouldn’t have worn clothes, if I hadn’t bought them for him,’’ said his wife, who once bought him a blue apron with Arthur Toman Violinmaker embroidered on it.

He always wore the apron, with one modification. ‘‘He spent hours pulling the threads out of the embroidery,’’ she said. ‘‘He though it was ostentatious.’’ Wendy Putnam, a violinist with the Boston Symphony, brought her 1781 Gagliano violin in to be tweaked by Mr. Toman about six times a year. ‘‘He was just great, and even-Steven honest,’’ she said yesterday. ‘‘I think he loved that instrument as much as I did.’’

Mr. Toman was born in Meriden, Conn. He began playing the violin at an early age and traveled throughout New England performing and teaching music as a member of the Red Barn Fiddlers.

After graduating from Tufts University in 1969, he worked in settlement houses in Columbus, Ohio, as a VISTA volunteer.

For several years he taught violin, viola, and cello as a member of the Vermont State String Project.

He met his wife when they lived in a group housing arrangement in Cambridge, during the heyday of the counterculture.

The couple was married in December 1975 and set off for Salt Lake City, where Mr. Toman attended the Violin Making School of America, after spending their honeymoon, ‘‘driving through the Rockies in a blizzard the likes of which you’ve never seen,’’ said his wife.

After an apprenticeship in New York City with violinmaker Rene Morel, he opened his own workshop in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., in 1982.

He moved the operation to Newton in 1986.

Throughout his career, Mr. Toman continued to play the violin. He performed with many small ensembles and the MIT Summer Orchestra.

‘‘He was both a musician and a craftsman,’’ said his wife, ‘‘very few people do both, I think it was the secret of his success.’’

Besides his wife, he leaves a son, Shane of Newton; his father, Walter of Southington, Conn.; three brothers, Mike and Matt, both of Connecticut, and Joseph of Greensboro, N.C.

A celebration of his life, with performances by several of his clients and friends, will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday in Founders Hall at Pine Manor College in Brookline, where friends threw him a surprise 50th birthday party.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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09/01/16 07:40 AM #1    

Philip Luber

He could play one hell of a mean air violin. A terrific guy.

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