Acclaimed Australian violinist Emily Sun has become the new custodian of a rare 250-year-old Italian violin known as “The Adelaide”. The violin is currently valued at $US1 million ($1.55 million).

The historic violin was crafted by famed luthier Giovanni Battista Guadagnini in Milan between 1753-1757. It was named the Adelaide because it was purchased by the people of South Australia in 1955.

Sun formally received the violin in November 2023.

“I feel very privileged to play on this beautiful instrument during this fleeting period of its already long life and history,” Sun says. “[This violin] has a very rich sound with a lot of depth.”

What makes the Adelaide special?

The Adelaide is part of a rare and valuable set of instruments known as the “golden age” instruments. The most famous makers came from 17th and 18th century Italy: Amati, Stradivari, Guadagnini and Guarneri.

Musicians rarely own these instruments outright because of their incredible price tags, which reflect their history, rarity and fine craftsmanship.

The Adelaide was purchased in 1955 to support Adelaide-based violinist Carmel Hakendorf’s London debut.

Many South Australians chipped in to make up the original purchase price of 1,750 pounds through a public subscription.

Soon after its purchase, a trust was established to preserve the violin for future generations.

Hakendorf played the violin for many years with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Since her retirement, the violin has passed through the hands of numerous performers, including Melbourne-based violinist Sophie Rowell and Adelaide-born Paul Wright. Both performers are respected leaders and educators in the Australian music world.

By 2013 the trust didn’t have enough funds for ongoing maintenance and the irreplaceable violin was at risk of falling into disrepair. Adelaide’s UKARIA Cultural Centre, which also owns a set of Guadagnini instruments, was entrusted with its care, ensuring the Adelaide will be filling concert venues with music for years to come.

Under the current arrangement, the Adelaide is loaned to a different Australian musician for a period of three years, but can be extended on a case by case basis.

Discovering the voice of the Adelaide

Emily Sun says her relationship with her new violin is “like a marriage.”(Ukaria: Nik Babic)

Many first came to know Sun as one of the young protagonists in the 2011 documentary Mrs. Carey’s Concert.

She has won some of Australia’s biggest musical prizes, including the ABC’s Young Performers Award in 2018.

Sun now divides her time between Australia and the UK, bringing music to audiences from the world’s most beautiful stages.

Playing a golden age instrument is the dream of most string players. But “The Adelaide” is not Sun’s first vintage instrument. She formerly played a 1760 violin made by Nicolò Gagliano, another Italian maker.

Violinists often believe that each violin has a character of its own, and Sun says she can definitely tell the difference between the Gagliano and the Adelaide.

“The lower notes are so deep sometimes it sounds almost like a cello,” she says about the Adelaide. “You can hear the different voices like soprano, alto, tenor and bass across the four strings when you play this violin.”

Previous custodian Natsuko Yoshimoto, who performed on the Adelaide from 2018 to 2023, explains how a player’s relationship with the violin is so intimate.

“You’re basically connecting with something that’s going to expose your innermost thoughts and feelings,” she says.

Yoshimoto was Concertmaster of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for 12 years, before taking up the position with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in 2021.

Similarly, Sun says her relationship with the violin is “like a marriage” which evolves over time.

“We’re still getting to know each other,” Sun reveals. “With these great old instruments, there’s always something more to figure out through pushing each other’s limits every day.”

Continuing the Australian story of the Adelaide

For the duration of the loan, Sun will play the Adelaide across Australian and international stages.

UKARIA CEO Alison Beare formally presented Sun with “The Adelaide” in November 2023.(UKARIA: Nik Babic)

She says it’s a privilege to carry “a piece of Australian story with me wherever I perform in the world.”

As an Artist in Association with Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Sun makes a regular appearance in the town that bears her violin’s name.

Sun recently played the Adelaide alongside the orchestra in March, and will be back in June and July performing audience favourite, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto.