What It Means To Play Pablo Casals' Cello

Feb 11, 2015
Originally published on February 12, 2015 1:47 pm

When Amit Peled was 10, his parents gave him a gift: a cassette of music by cello master Pablo Casals. Peled had no classical background; his parents were not musicians. He says his own budding interest in the cello was a scam, a way of getting close to a girl in his town who happened to play the instrument. And yet, every night, he would fall asleep with the tape playing from a boombox beside his bed. The music made an impression.

"I would call him the grandfather of classical music of the 20th century — not just for cellists," Peled says. "He really shaped what we know today of how to make a phrase, and was a bridge from the old times, from romantic music, to our day. He played the Brahms Sonata for Brahms. I mean, that link is something that you can't stop thinking about."

Peled's obsession became devotion; today he's an acclaimed cellist himself. Now, he's found another way to follow in his idol's footsteps.

On Thursday, Feb. 12, Peled will appear at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where Casals gave a recital 100 years ago this week, to perform the exact same program in a live webcast. More than that, he'll do it with the same instrument: Casals' 1733 Goffriller cello, presented to him by the late master's widow.

He joined David Greene in NPR's Washington, D.C., studios to play the instrument and talk about its significance and his own journey to this moment. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


We're going to hear some music now from a giant of classical music. Pablo Casals was a Spanish-Catalan cellist. He's considered one of the greatest to ever play the instrument.


GREENE: A hundred years ago, Casals performed this song at a recital at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. The school is marking the occasion tomorrow with the music Casals played that night, and the performer will be playing it on the late maestro's cello. We got a preview yesterday in our Washington station.


GREENE: It's cellist Amit Peled. He's an instructor at Peabody and also the caretaker of this instrument. Amit, can you tell me the piece you were just playing there for us?

AMIT PELED: I just played "The Song Of The Birds," which is a Catalan folksong. And it's a song the Pablo Casals grew up hearing people sing. And at one point in his early life, he just wrote down and started playing it.

GREENE: He's your idol?

PELED: He's my idol, yeah. He's every cellist's idol. He's - I would call him the grandfather of classical music of 20th century, not just for cellists. He really shaped what we know today of how to make a phrase. And maybe he was a bridge from the old time, from romantic music to our day. He played the Brahms Sonata for Brahms. I mean, that link is something that you can't stop thinking about. And touching this instrument, of course, makes that connection physical.

GREENE: And Peled traveled a long road to make that connection. For starters, he grew up in rural Israel, far from the classical music scene.

PELED: But I started to play there, and I started to play because of love for a girl, not love for music.

GREENE: Yeah? Tell me about that, what...

PELED: Well, it doesn't matter where you are in the world when the hormones kicks in. So I was 10, and I was in love with a girl who was 14. And she played cello. And the music room in our small community was under my classroom. So every afternoon before I would go to play basketball, I would hear her and see her practice cello. And when was my time to decide what instrument - because part of our education was in fourth grade, everybody had to pick up an instrument. So the music teacher asked me, Amit, what do you like to play? And immediately, I said cello. And my plan or my scam was, you know, I'll play the cello. And probably, I'll have cello lessons with her. I'll go on the school bus with her. I had everything planned out.

GREENE: Play the cello and get the girl.

PELED: Up to the wedding. I'm not kidding. I had everything planned out to get married with her, and I never talked to her one word.

GREENE: You never actually had any contact with her after that?

PELED: No, because she was four years older. I didn't dare. That was the beginning. It was entirely because of her. I did not have any classical background. My parents are not musicians. But they bought me little present when I was 10. And the present was a tape cassette of Pablo Casals. And on my bed I had the boombox, and every single night, I would press play and fall asleep by the time it got to the end. And I fell in love, literally, with the sound. I mean, if an angel would come down and tell me, you know, one day, you'll play that exact cello. I mean, it would be, really, a joke.

GREENE: Then, 12 years ago, Peled got his job at the Peabody Institute. And that is where he met an influential friend - a friend who knew Pablo Casals' wife.

PELED: And one day he said, Amit, I really think you need a better instrument. Would you consider coming to Marta Casals Istomin's house and play for her? Not knowing that she has the cello of Casals, but since she's such a legend in the music world and ran the Kennedy Center herself in the Manhattan School, maybe she will have an advice after you play for her.

GREENE: Just some advice on, like, a small upgrade in the instrument or something.

PELED: And maybe a foundation that could help you. I mean, you're a professor in a major conservatory. It's Peabody. And you play on this crappy instrument. And of course, I said, sure, it would be an honor. So we came. I was shaking when I came in because here I meet this legend, truly not thinking about the cello - just about her association with the god of all cellists. And she was very nice, very polite. We enter the house, and then she said, well, you can start playing.

GREENE: Did you know you were going to be playing for her?

PELED: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I came with a cello, and I knew that this is sort of, like, not official audition for something specific but sort of an introduction. And I prepared like crazy. I sat on my butt and practice all kind of variety. And I thought probably it would be better to start with Bach, and that's what I did. I started with Bach. And the moment I stopped, she said, you know, Amit, usually when I listen to young artists, I shut my ears off right away. But I didn't do that when you played. And I was in heaven.

GREENE: She basically said you don't stink (laughter).

PELED: You don't stink, basically. But then, she said, would you mind if I give you some comments? And I said, oh, no, Mrs. Casals, this would be an honor. And then she practically killed me for the next probably an hour-and-a-half. She just tore me apart. Why do you do that? And why do you play like this? And why so loud? And why so soft? And why so fast? And why so slow?

GREENE: Goodness. Are you sitting there just sweating and...

PELED: Oh, no. I was actually so excited because she reminded me of the lessons I used to have with Bernard Greenhouse, who was one of Casals' few private students. And that linkage - all of a sudden it made sense. Because I heard exactly the same thing. Why are you using this kind of vibrato? Why so fast? No, I was shining. I was in heaven. And I didn't realize that she's doing it because she likes me. And then, she said, let's have a glass of wine.

GREENE: And long story short, Peled received another invitation from Mrs. Casals, this time to play her husband's historic instrument. And a year-and-a-half later, another.

PELED: She brought me to Puerto Rico, which was their home, to play in the Casals festival. And I played a whole recital. And it was only then at dinner - sort of like showing to her people and to the Casals Foundation that her choice was sort of the right choice. It was only then that she relaxed completely and warmed up, I felt, more than before. I still have to call her Mrs. Casals, of course, but...

GREENE: Respect.

PELED: It was the first time is not only that - and I am thankful, tremendously, for her and the foundation giving me the cello. It was also a little bit her and the foundation thanking me continuing his legacy.


GREENE: That's cellist Amit Peled of Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. He'll a perform a tribute to Casals there tomorrow night on the late maestro's cello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.