Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Maestro's Cello

Talk about a blast from the past ...

We had a rare privilege last week at the summer community arts program of the Coral Gables Congregational Church. Amit Peled was in town with Pablo Casals' very own cello, a 1733 Goffriler that sounds wonderful despite pushing 300 years of age.

I'll get to the music later, but at the end of the evening Peled took questions from the audience in lieu of an encore. We learned that after he came to America from Israel to study, his teacher came to the conclusion that he needed a better instrument. He offered an introduction to Mrs. Casals, Pablo's wife, who he thought might be able to put him in touch with someone. Marta Casals Istomin is still with us thanks to her youthful alliance with the aging musician who passed away in 1973 when she was 36.

Peled auditioned for her, and received a rather thorough critique which "took him to pieces." However, she went on to inquire if he would be able to come to New York and try out the maestro's own instrument. The only answer to such an invitation is yes please, so it came to pass. The cello had been lying dormant in its case for decades. Peled described it as a sleeping old man who did not want to be disturbed. It had actually suffered seriously from neglect, but he was able to coax some sound out of it.

A short time later he was contacted by her again. Would he like to have the maestro's instrument on extended loan? Again, the only answer was yes please! He pointed out, however, that it needed major restoration before it would be up for any concert performances. So this too was arranged. A restorer ended up spending a year and a half, eight hours a day, to bring it back into condition.

Evidently he did a superb job. The cello has a rich and warm finish that glows as if from within, and a tone that sounds exactly the same. Combined with a modern bow, which Peled prefers to use, it proves itself capable of clear and incisive attacks as well as smooth and heart rending low tones. The instrument shone as a strong co-star in what amounts to a comeback tour.

To commemorate the occasion, Peled is performing a program of the same pieces played by Casals on his first American tour back in 1915, one hundred years ago. It consists of one of the Bach unaccompanied suites that Casals made famous, along with works by Handel, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, and Fauré (who was a close friend and carousing companion of the maeI'vstro).

Peled is a big guy at 6'5", making the cello appear about the size of a viola as he cradles it in his arms. He's also very personable, and provided some disarming commentary between the selections intended to get us to loosen up and have FUN. After the Bach, for example, where some portion of the crowd annoyingly clapped between movements (a Miami pet peeve), he assured us that it was perfectly OK, and reminded us that in some times and places in the past it was customary to do so. At times he even launched into the next piece on the program before the applause had died down from the last one, making it feel more like a jazz performance -- quite in contrast to the expectant hush normally required.

Pianist Noreen Polera deftly commanded the resident Bosendorfer behind him and showed the value of being able to specialize in the accompaniment of the cello repertoire.

A good time was had by the sellout crowd. We look forward to our next tickets to this series which is a return engagement of pianist Awadagin Pratt, whom I've reviewed previously.

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