Amit Peled with Casals cello Amit Peled with Casals cello Amit Peled with the 1733 Goffriller cello that was owned by Pablo Casals (Photo: Courtesy of Amit Peled)

Cellist finds musical nirvana playing Pablo Casals' 280-year-old cello

Amit Peled plays concerts with instrument given to him by the legend's widow.

Growing up in northern Israel in the 1980s, Amit Peled had two loves: basketball and the cello.

Basketball was the more obvious love, as he was a tall teenager with some ball skills. Cello was less obvious. As most boys do, he took up an instrument because he saw a pretty girl playing one. But at some point, Peled realized he had a special connection to the string instrument.

"I remember I was 15 and my cello teacher back then started to be serious," he told From The Grapevine. "I started to get quite good at it, and I started to win awards and prizes. He (cello teacher) said that I should spend probably three hours a day practicing the cello."

Peled tried to juggle basketball and cello for a year. It was tough. He would awake at 5:30 a.m. to practice the cello for 90 minutes, attend school, and practice for another 90 minutes before running off to basketball practice.

"After one year, I just couldn't keep doing it, so I remember very vividly sitting in my room and just looking at the pluses and minuses," Peled said. "I came up with the solution to stick to the cello because I was not tall enough. I just told myself, 'You know what, you'll never make it to the NBA because you're not tall enough.' Guess what? I ended up being 6'5.'"

Amit Peled with Casals cello 2Amit Peled restored Pablo Casals' 282-year-old cello, with permission from the legend's widow. (Photo: Courtesy of Amit Peled)

In retrospect, he's happy with his choice.

"This was really the very innocent decision of a child," Peled said. "Of course now when I look back, I was much better and much more in love with music and with cello. It sort of chose me in a way. I like to say that it was my decision, and it was. But I was so involved with the cello. I loved it. I was never asked to practice."

Since then, Peled has excelled on the cello, graduating from the Yale University School of Music and studying at the New England Conservatory and the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin. He has toured the U.S. and Europe for close to two decades, and he has been teaching at the Peabody Conservatory Of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore since 2003.

But if you ask Peled what he's most proud of and passionate about, it was the opportunity to play the same cello that was played by his hero, Pablo Casals. Casals is generally regarded as the pre-eminent cellist of the first half of the 20th century, and one of the greatest cellists of all time.

In 2012, Casals' widow, Marta Casals Istomin, lent Peled the Matteo Goffriller cello, an antique from 1733 that Casals acquired in 1913. To obtain the cello, Peled had to visit Istomin's apartment and perform an ad hoc audition "that turned into a lesson," he said. She wanted to see if Peled could achieve the vibrato and other nuances that her husband once did.

"The vibrato is how we decorate the sound with the left hand, the way we move the left hand while we play," Peled said. "So for her to see somebody that is not just vibrating every note at the same speed all the time, I think, was unique to see in our generation, in the young generation. She was attracted to it right away, and I think she was excited to see the continuation to his legacy in a way."

It was a full-circle moment for Peled, who received a cassette of Casals' music from his parents as a gift when he was 10 years old and just starting to play.

"They just bought a tape cassette of the most famous cellist so their son can listen to the instrument he plays," Peled said. "It was very innocent. None of us knew exactly who Casals was. I'm assuming my mother probably went to the music store in the closest city, and just asked, 'Who is the most famous cellist? Can I buy a tape for my son who just started to play?' So the guy probably gave her Pablo Casals."

He would listen to the cassette on a boom box that was in his bedroom at home.

"Literally, every night I would listen to it," Peled said. "I really fell in love with the sound of the cello. It was just amazing. It was sort of a ritual to fall asleep to this tape. I must have heard it hundreds and hundreds of times, so it's just a cool story that I'm playing the cello now. I could never dream of it."

Peled goes back to his basketball days to describe the feeling of being in the presence of Casals' widow and the cello. The legend died a few months before Peled was born in 1973. "It's like if my coach would call me and say, 'Next week you can go to Chicago and play one-on-one with Michael Jordan and spend the afternoon with him,'" he said. "It's the Michael Jordan of cellos."

Since the cello was in storage for so long, it needed work. With permission from Istomin, he performed a restoration.

"Basically the top of it sank down a little bit," Peled said. "To make the story short, it took me a few months of playing it to realize that. It's a famous cello. It's a great cello. It has great qualities, but it didn't have a big enough sound to support me in the big concert halls that I'm playing, so it went through a year and a half of restoration. I just got it back last September. Now it's glorious and open and amazing as we know from the recordings."

This isn't the first antique cello that Peled has played. He's also played an Andrea Guarneri cello from around 1689. Even though he has a modern, handmade cello, Peled keeps returning to antiques because he feels the years of expanding and contracting of the wood, and the sheer number of times it's been played, gives it a unique sound that even a modern instrument made of old wood can't achieve. Even the varnish the old-world craftsmen used affected the sound.

"We don't know exactly what they put in their varnish," he said. "That was a big secret for each cello maker. But still even if you imitate [the formula], it needs time to live in between the pieces of wood."

Since getting the restored Casals cello, he has played it at numerous concerts, as well as during a collaboration with his sister Zemer Peled called "Pablo and Me," where he played recitals in a Cape Cod gallery surrounded by her porcelain-shard sculptures. It's all part of an effort to bring Casals' music back to life through the master's instrument.

"This cello is like a human. It's like an old man talking," said Peled. Antique cellos like the one Casals owned sound like they're telling stories to the artist and his audience. "It's like somebody is talking and reciting poetry to the public. It's not just that you can say [the Casals cello has] a beautiful sound. This cello has personality in a way; you can feel its life."


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Cellist finds musical nirvana playing Pablo Casals' 280-year-old cello
Amit Peled plays concerts with instrument given to him by the legend's widow.