Between Tuesday, May 21, and Monday, May 27, 2019, a viola inscribed with the initials “IA” made its way from a quaint 1880s carriage house in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter to the hands of Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, a gift from President Trump on the occasion of Naruhito’s ascent to the Imperial Chrysanthemum Throne. Joe Joyner, who operates the full-service Little Rock Violin Shop from within that carriage house, described the instrument’s diplomatic voyage as follows, in a post on his Facebook page:
“On April 30, I heard a news story that Japan’s Emperor Akihito was stepping down and that his son, Naruhito, would be taking his place. Twenty-four hours later I received a call from the U.S. State Department seeking an American-made viola to give as a diplomatic gift. Shortly after this call, I began seeing news stories about Japan’s new Emperor Naruhito being a violist. … Nearly a month later, I can now say that last week I sold the Emperor’s new viola, an instrument made in 1938 by Ivan W. Allison of Charleston, West Virginia. The instrument was presented to Emperor Naruhito by President Donald Trump today. God I love my job.”
We talked with Joyner about the viola and his shop’s work to prepare it for the imperial violist.
How did you hear about the new emperor? Do you keep up with international politics?
I was out running errands, and I heard this story and it kinda just went in one ear and out the other. And then the following day, I went in to work at 9 a.m. and my employee Wesley [Rule] said, “Hey, we got a call from the U.S. State Department saying they wanna buy a viola. Seems kinda weird, but here’s the number.” So I called, and sure enough, somebody answered and said, “U.S. State Department,” and I asked for the woman who’d left her name, and she said, “Hey, we’re looking for a viola to purchase as a diplomatic gift for a head of state.” And I happened to have a viola I thought met their requirements — that it was an American-made instrument and that it was within their budget. … Two weeks later, I got another call back saying, “Hey, we wanna get the viola,” and so we got to work trying to set the viola up — it had cheap student-level strings on it and needed a new bridge.
Do you know how the State Department found you?
I don’t. I never asked; I should have. I assume they found us through the website. We have a section on American violins and American violin-making. So I think if you Google “American violin-making,” we probably show up somewhere in there.
Is it fair to say you all specialize in American violins?
I’d say it’s one of our areas of specialty. In this area, a lot of what you find are American-made instruments. You find a lot of German, French, commercial instruments that were originally sold out of Sears Roebuck catalogs, Wurlitzer catalogs. So that just happens to be a lot of what comes in through the doors here. And it is definitely something that I’m interested in. … There was recently this American violin book that was published [points to a thick red volume on the bookshelf behind him] that’s like the first major reference that gives a historical overview of violin-making in America.
Tell me a little about the viola. What’s its provenance, and how did you come to know about it? What do you know about Ivan W. Allison?
It was brought to us by a man named Rick Carver, and he owned an Ivan Allison violin for many years. … It sat in the case for, I would assume, all its life, which is why it was in excellent condition — and why it made a nice gift. I think it literally sat in the case since 1938.
Is it preferable for it to have sat in the case? Is that the kind of instrument you want to see and work on?
As a violin dealer and collector, the instruments that sit in cases for their whole lives are usually the ones you want. They usually have fewer condition issues, the varnish is usually in much better condition. You don’t have scratches and dings, or places where people’s hands have touched the instrument over and over. The downside with those instruments is that, oftentimes, they’re a little sleepy at first. It takes some playing to kind of wake up. Instruments have to be played regularly to sound their best, and if an instrument’s been dormant for years, you can hear that in the sound.
— Stephanie Smittle
Name: Joe Joyner
Birthplace: Austin, Texas
Jobs: Owner/bow repair, Little Rock Violin Shop; viola player with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
Hobbies: Cooking and hiking with his two longhaired dachshunds, Truffles and Omobono.