by Peggy Pollard
“I felt I’m disturbing it, in a way, like waking up an old man” said Amit Peled to his audience, as he drew his bow across the strings of the antique cello.
It was a famous cello. His audience was a woman — a very sophisticated, 83-year-old woman.
Amit had grown up on a farm in Israel, a countryside kibbutz “in the middle of nowhere.” At age 10, his dream in life was to play basketball, not music, until his father brought him cassette tapes of this particular cello’s sounds. And not only he, but a generation of musicians have grown up on this one cello’s enchanting voice, had found their heart inspiration from its mesmerizing tones.
So now he found himself in front of this woman. A friend of his had arranged this private audition with the lady in her home because he thought “she should hear you.” First, for two hours, she listened intently to Amit perform on his own cello.
Although he is a music professor at The Johns Hopkins University and world class soloist, the woman turned his audition into a music lesson, giving him helpful critique, punctuated with pauses for conversation and glasses of wine.
She was Marta Casals Istomin, director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The cello had belonged to the woman’s husband, now dead these 40 years. It was a 1733 Goffriller, acquired in 1913 — 100 years ago — by her husband, Pablo Casals, the most famous cellist of the last century and probably of all time. So it was on the cello’s 100th anniversary that Marta listened to this young cellist play it.
Alongside her husband Pablo, and after his death, Marta has herself become a global arts legend, a world-renowned leader for arts, director of many festivals and top-level international performance institutions.
“I was a little nervous at first,” Peled recalls. “She’s such a legend, a very formal and classy lady, both in music and entrepreneurship. She has been everywhere. But she is very honest as a musician. She cares about how you make a phrase convey musicality.”
And after two hours, she was satisfied.
She had found the right heir for her husband’s legacy. That day she bestowed upon Peled her husband’s famous cello, on a long-term loan for him to perform for world audiences.
“I never dreamed it was possible. I couldn’t believe it!” he recalls.
She watched Peled’s hands caressing the antique, gleaming wood, burnished by her husband’s hands for 60 years. She watched as Peled drew his bow across its strings with the delicacy of a brain surgeon, his touch sensing the perfect amount of pressure to make tones that cut into their minds with a razor-sharp blade of sound.
It is a huge historical legacy he has inherited. As a young musician, Pablo Casals played before Johannes Brahms (yes, that lullaby guy!).
And now Casal’s instrument is in Peled’s hands, for him to carry as a musical torch to the next generation of listeners.
“The cello’s special sound is more like a human voice than other cellos,” he explains.”It shapes words with its music; it suggests colors to you that you didn’t know existed. It’s a more sophisticated tool, like a handcrafted Rolls Royce instead of a Toyota.”
He feels the weight of more than 100 years of music on his shoulders. “It’s a lot of responsibility” he says with an incredulous laugh. His new mission in life — to tour internationally with the cello bringing “its link of music history to as many people in the world as possible” until his few years with it are up.
Then it will be put in a glass box in a museum in Madrid, to be admired but no longer played, he explained.
So until then, he’s bringing its sounds back life for global audiences. Since receiving Casal’s Gofriller cello in July, Peled has already played it for thousands of people in concerts from San Francisco to Istanbul.
“This winter I’ll be driving a long way in the Midwest, so I debated bringing it” Peled says. “But for the time I have it, I need to make sure as many people hear it as I can.”
Two weeks ago Peled performed with it in D.C. Casals Istomin was in the audience. She was still smiling at the end. “It couldn’t be in better hands” she told him.
Amit Peled performs on Casal’s Gofriller cello, with Alon Goldstein pianist
March 17, 3 p.m. Aptos Resurrection Church 7600 Soquel Drive, Aptos,CA 95003
• Beethoven’s variations on the theme from the Magic flute, and Brahms sonatas.
• Chopin’s Sonatas.