Cellist to re-create Casals' 1915 recital at Peabody

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
A day in Baltimore's musical history will be recreated 100 years later, with help from a valuable cello.

Time machines aren't always confined to science fiction. On Thursday at the Peabody Institute, the clock will be turned back 100 years for the re-creation of a recital given there by famed cellist Pablo Casals — played on the same cello that Casals used for that Feb. 12, 1915, program.

The performer this week will be Amit Peled, the dynamic Israeli-born cellist and Peabody faculty member. A couple of years ago, the Casals Foundation offered Peled the loan of the instrument, purchased by Casals two years before that Peabody appearance.

Peled has been on a high ever since. He practically glows when talking about the cello, crafted in Venice by Matteo Goffriller in 1733. It features a lush, reddish veneer and, on the back, the clear indication of where Casals' left leg rubbed against it for decades as he played.

Musicians are known to anthropomorphize instruments.

"I called it 'Pablo' from day one," Peled says. "A cello has always been a woman to me, but somehow, this one is a man."

This Goffriller cello, insured for $4 million, is owned by the foundation that Casals established a few years before his death in 1973 at the age of 96. Periodically, the instrument has been available on loan to musicians, with the approval of Casals' widow, Marta Casals Istomin (a former student of Casals, she married him in 1957 when she was 20).

Through a mutual friend, a meeting between Istomin and Peled was arranged in 2012.

"I played for Marta at her apartment in Washington," Peled, 40, says. "I was shaking. She criticized everything about my playing. But then she said, 'Well, let's have a glass of wine.' She told me I should visit her in New York and play her husband's cello, which she had there. But she said, 'You're too big; the cello is quite small.' "

The instrument had been a good fit for the 5-foot-4 Casals. Peled is 13 inches taller. But he was not deterred and soon took Casals Istomin up on her offer.

"I like to say I could smell Casals' pipe in the cello," Peled says. "I felt for some reason I should play the second movement of Dvorak's concerto, and immediately the sound of his 1937 recording came to me. I stopped. I couldn't believe I was playing the same cello that was on that famous recording. Marta just said, 'Yeah, but the Maestro would have played it faster.' "

Nonetheless, Casals Istomin, who is expected to attend Thursday's recital, decided Peled should have the loan of the cello. She agreed to his recommendation for a major restoration of the instrument, which was done at the New York shop Reed Yeboah Fine Violins. The process took a year.

A new neck was needed. The bridge, the piece that holds the strings above the cello, had sunk over time. Inside the instrument, the restorers found several wormholes "that had to be refilled and reinforced," Peled says.

A YouTube clip shows Peled trying out the restored Goffriller before a beaming Casals Istomin.

After months of touring with the instrument, Peled's affection for it has only grown. He finds it quite different from his other cello, made by Andrea Guarneri in 1689.

"The Guarneri's sound is like a tenor, like Pavarotti, a golden sound," Peled says. "The Casals cello is more earthy, more human, I would say, more like an old man talking. Since the restoration, the sound has opened up a lot. And as we work more together, I hope it will become also golden."

Any string instrument can reveal distinctive qualities depending on who plays it, and how it is played.

"At the end of the day, if you don't impose your sound on [Casals' cello], it brings out your own voice," Peled says. "I've found a way to be myself on this cello."

The first time that Peled, at an early age, heard the tone Casals drew from that instrument, he was hooked.

"A present from my family in Israel was a cassette of Pablo Casals," he says. "I fell in love with the cello because of that sound. I fell asleep listening to it nightly. But I was mostly interested in basketball then. I never thought I would be a cellist."

Still, when he was 14, Peled decided on the cello over hoops. After studies in Tel Aviv, he made his way to the United States, where he studied with the Bernard Greenhouse. Greenhouse, best known as a founder of the greatly admired Beaux Arts Trio, had been a student of Casals.

Peled, who went on to earn a degree at the New England Conservatory, joined the Peabody faculty when he was in his 20s. He makes his home in Pikesville with his wife and children ("I spend more time with [Casals'] cello than I do with them," he says).

Last year, one of Peled's students happened to stumble upon a collection of Casals material in Peabody's archives, including a copy of the program from 1915.

The Baltimore Sun review of that recital described Casals as "unquestionably the most distinguished player on this instrument now in the public eye." In addition to high praise for the cellist's artistry, critic John Oldmixon Lambdin singled out the cello itself: "It is doubtful if any richer, rounder or more vibrant tone has been heard here."

In addition to an unaccompanied Bach suite, Casals' program included several works for cello and piano, among them Beethoven's Variations on a Theme from Mozart's "The Magic Flute;" a showpiece by Saint-Saens; and three short, elegant works by Faure, the sort that rarely get attention today, deemed by some to be too lightweight.

Peled, who will be joined by pianist Noreen Polera in Thursday's performance, had his work cut out for him preparing for the concert.

"Half of it I had never played," he says. "I had to sit on my butt and learn this music. Faure's 'Papillons' is usually played so horribly by kids you don't want to touch it. But these little pieces are like poetry and they're really hard to play well. Getting ready for this recital has been a great journey."

That journey turned out to have a side effect for Peled.

"It made me change my attitude to teaching," he says. "I now insist that all my students learn some of these short pieces that cellists used to play. I tell them, don't you ever want to watch 'Seinfeld' and eat pizza sometimes? Why not learn pieces of music that just makes you smile? I see it as a mission.

"And this cello gives me more authority," Peled adds with a laugh.

The cellist, who plans to repeat the 1915 program in several places next season, including the Kennedy Center, also tries to get students interested in Casals.

"They will listen to his recordings and all they'll say is, 'It's a little bit out of tune,' " Peled says. "That today's mentality: 'I need to play in tune and get a job.' They totally miss the point of what it means to make a phrase."

On Thursday, Peled will demonstrate his approach to phrasing with the help of a 282-year-old instrument that defined the man he calls "the father of all cellists."

"We're talking about history here," Peled says. "I feel a heavy burden."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Amit Peled performs the 1915 Pablo Casals recital at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Peabody, 17 W. Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $5 to $15. Call 410-234-4800, or go to peabody.jhu.edu. The concert will also be live-streamed at ustream.tv/channel/johnshopkinsu.

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If you go

Amit Peled performs the 1915 Pablo Casals recital at 8 p.m. Feb. 12 at Peabody Institute, 17 W. Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $5 to $15. Call 410-234-4800, or go to peabody.jhu.edu. The concert will also be live-streamed at ustream.tv/channel/johnshopkinsu.

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