THE CELLO, born in the 16th century, formally known as the violoncello, once called the bass violin, made famous by the likes of J.S. Bach, Luigi Boccherini, Pablo Casals and Janos Starker, has a lovelier tone today than when George Bernard Shaw felt "I would rather listen to a bumblebee in a bottle."
Cellos used to be more scratchy, but the 20th century brought steel-covered strings, other high-tech parts and more refined techniques. It also brought more fine women players such as Jacqueline du Pre and Zara Nelsova; for much of its history the instrument held between the knees was considered unladylike to play.
Many music-lovers today are drawn to its beautiful deep baritone or bass voice, slower scores and soothing music such as the canon of Bach's six solo suites.
"A lot of people just don't like the violin," said James W. Cox Jr., "because they are susceptible to its higher partials and even higher pitches up where dog whistles work. They often can't explain it." Partials are complex vibrations in the extremes of sound.
"I like the cello's register," added Cox, who plays some in his Remington home. "Essentially it overlaps the bass, baritone and tenor and is the masculine string voice of the symphony."
Cox's main tie to the instrument these days is more practical than musical. In a shop in Hampden, he is one of only 15 to 20 Americans who make originals by hand. Most cellos are pressed plywood instruments turned out in quantity.
Mihaly Virizlay, principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, asked Cox to make him a cello. It's done and "Misi," (pronounced Mishi, as he is known), called it "terrific, a beautiful orange gold Italian cello. It compares favorably with the Stradivarius and Montagnana cellos I've played."
Virizlay invited some fellow string players to try it out in an empty Meyerhoff Hall the other day with Cox present. "They loved it," the cellist said. The cello's public premiere is at 3 p.m. Sunday in Turner Auditorium in the first of three free Sunday concerts featuring quartets for piano and strings. Other series performers are violinist Adrian Semo, violist Richard Field and pianist Robin Kissinger, the cellist's wife.
The Cox cello, aided by Virizlay, will play a world premiere Feb. 18 when David Zinman leads the Peabody Symphony Orchestra in Jean Eichelberger Ivey's "Cello Concerto" composed for the Hungarian-born cellist.
Kenneth Willaman, another BSO cellist, has played his Cox cello since 1983. Stephen Kates, chairman of the cello department at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, has one and Yo Yo Ma, the famous recitalist, will have a Cox cello made next year.
Cox turns out a cello in allegro tempo. He takes only 200 man-hours with hand-crafted and commercial tools. With a four-foot steel chain saw, he cut down two red maples in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s and the aged wood is still going into cellos. He uses tiny finger planes as small as a thumbnail for closer work.
"I use mainly American wood, Sitka spruce from Washington state, for instance, for the cello tops. In the future, it'll be Engelmann spruce. Twelve-and 14-year-old maple is for the sides, back and neck. Two mills in Vermont send me maple for fiddle backs. Cellos take a lot of wood. The lumber you put into a cello could make four violas or six violins."
Trained as a trim carpenter, Cox has been making instruments off and on since 1970 when he made a guitar, "not a very good one." He has also produced violins, violas and violas da gamba. He charges $7,500 for cellos made for the public.
Historic restoration was his temporary field for five years in the 1980s. For a year and a half now, he's back making cellos exclusively in the shop of Joe Farrell in the 3600 block of Roland Avenue.
"Violins became a virtuoso instrument before cellos," Cox said. "They were always a faster speaking instrument than cellos, more efficient. Composers wrote more pieces for them. And cellists were not such self-promoters as violinists as Corelli and Paganini."
Many cello pieces in the 19th century were considered exercise pieces. Then came the 20th century changes. Casals was credited with rediscovering the Bach cello solo suites as recital material. Numerous pieces were and are being composed for cello. For Starker alone, writers inspired to compose include David Baker, Antal Dorati, Bernard Heiden, Jean Martinon, Miklos Rozsa and Robert Starer.
Starker and Virizlay, his former student, made a bit of history once in the 1970s at Indiana University when they played their cellos -- not violins -- in the Bach double concerto in D minor for violins. This was a difficult trick requiring much quick shifting of fingers because cello finger positions are in such a larger area.
"Some people said it sounded better with cellos than violins," Virizlay said with a mischievous chuckle, "but violinists won't like that."