There comes a time in each of our lives when we take stock of our past, present, and future and this is exactly how I’ve spent the past year with one vitally important aspect of my life and career. It is with these thoughts that I have recently decided to part ways with my best friend and companion for the last 50 years: my Montagnana cello.
Monty began his life in Venice in 1720 but my path first crossed his in 1962 at Jacques Francais Luthier shop in New York on West 57th Street. I was completely smitten with it but they let me try it out in different acoustical environments and to try it under concert conditions because at that time, I was playing in the Cleveland Orchestra and a great deal of chamber and solo work.
It remember it as if it happened yesterday, I admired its tonal properties and appreciated its response more and more during this trial phase. At that time, it hadn’t been played for awhile so it needed time to find its voice again, not to mention requiring quite a bit of adjustment to my approach. What I learned early on is an instrument of great character needs a strong personality in its player to bring out the best of its voice and resonance.
Through the clarity of hindsight, this instrument is very different than the one I fell in love with over 50 years ago. With age came the ability to learn how to get so much more color and variety from it. Having regular performance time has helped it mature somewhat (50 years is 50 years!), but with a lifespan measured in centuries instead of decades, it’s impossible to know exactly how much.
But it has been my companion for many things in my career; too many to put together any sort of comprehensive list but a few items that stand out for me are…
- my first job in the Cleveland Orchestra as sixth cellist, then to principal after two years, and six more years of self study and learning from the great musicians around me in that orchestra.
- my early friendship with James Levine as conductor of the student orchestra at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
- my first performances of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Strauss’s Don Quixote.
- my first Cleveland recital in which Victor Babin of Vronsky and Babin fame, joined me in the Cleveland premiere of his Variations on a theme by Henry Purcell.
- a striking and virtuosic piece written for Nikolai Grauden, with whom I studied as a boy in Aspen during the summers 1955-59.
And then there’s the world premiers with the Montagnana; the Sonatas for solo cello by Klaus Roy, Donald Erb, Marcel Dick, Tobias Picker, Marc Neikrug, and David Crumb; concertos by Erb, Benjamin Lees, and Stephen Paulus plus the first LA performance of Lutoslawski’s concerto with the composer conducting.
For longer than I can recall, this March in Boston will be the first time I’ll use an instrument other than the Montagnana for the premier of Augusta Reed Thomas’s Phoenix Rising.
This was a great find in 1962 and I can say with a level of absolute confidence built on having unusual access to playing dozens of world class cellos, Montagnanas, Strads, Gofrillers, Tecchlers, Gaglianos, Serafin, and a wonderful Tononi, I feel blessed that I came across this great cello. After all, in 1962 I was still a teenager and having just lost my parents, just starting my professional career and I couldn’t quite afford the steep price of $25,000! To this day, I’m grateful that the Cleveland Orchestra loaned me $2,000 in order to not miss the extraordinary opportunity.
Thank God because this instrument helped me find my voice and sound.
Over time, musicians become one with our instrument partner and so it happened with this cello and me. I changed it and it unquestionably changed me. Now, I want to have a hand in seeing it go to another musician so to that end, I have decided to sell it directly so as to help another musician find his/her voice and true soul in music. Fare thee well dear friend!
Encore: I thought it would be nice to share more than a just a few photos of the cello over the years from my personal colelction.