Israeli-born classical cellist Amit Peled got started playing cello late, at the age of 10, because a 14-year-old girl he loved was a cello player. He never spoke to the girl, he told the AJP, but kept on with the instrument and, at the age of 22, after a stint playing music for soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, Peled moved to the United States to study music at one of the most prestigious universities in the nation.
He walked away from a full scholarship at Yale a year later, though, to study in an unofficial capacity with one of his idols, Bernard Greenhouse, who was himself a former student of Spanish cello superstar Pablo Casals. Under Greenhouse’s guidance, Peled finished his undergraduate degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston before moving to Germany to complete his graduate studies in Berlin.
Today, Peled is in his 13th year as a professor of music at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and it was through that appointment that he became linked to his ultimate childhood hero, Pablo Casals, in an extraordinarily tangible way. A mutual friend and colleague at Peabody connected him with Casals’ widow, Marta Casals Istomin, who invited him to play for her at her Washington, D.C. apartment.
Peled was shaking on the way to her apartment. After all, he says, this was a “legend of the international music world,” the co-founder of the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music and former artistic director of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., though he had no idea what the meeting might mean for his career. He played, Peled says, and Casals Istomin gave him notes for more than an hour before inviting him to have a glass of wine. “I don’t know if it was because of the wine or because she liked me,” says Peled, but she invited him to her home in New York to try out the cello that her late husband — Peled’s hero — famously played for the bulk of his career; a piece crafted in 1733 by the great Venetian luthier Matteo Goffriller, who is especially known for his cellos.
At first touch of the instrument, Peled says the thing seemed to have an attitude all its own and acted as if it didn’t want to be played at all. But, after a professional “tune-up,” he now compares playing the centuries-old masterpiece to driving an old Rolls Royce. Casals’ cello, he explains, “has a lot of color that you can really appreciate if you’re attuned to music.” Regardless of the instrument, Peled says, “At the end of the day, the sound that you produce, the voice that you produce is your voice … but this cello just brings you inside yourself even deeper than a normal cello.” Peled says he’s seen Yo-Yo Ma demonstrate this principal by switching cellos with a random orchestra member during rehearsal and still managing to create his trademark sound.
Though the grand size of the cello is visually lost against Peled’s 6-foot-5-inch frame, his stature does nothing to compromise the delicateness with which he is able to extract even the most subtle of sounds from the ancient instrument. That subtlety of touch will come into play when Peled comes to Tucson on Thursday, Oct. 29 for a single performance of British composer Edward Elgar’s 1919 Cello Concerto — a piece Peled says has “such a human voice” because it was Elgar’s reaction to the devastation caused by World War I. His performance with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra will be Peled’s first time playing what he calls “one of the most monumental pieces (ever written) for cello” on Casals’ Goffriller; an experience he says that will be “like a dream,” and one that likely will be a must-attend for classical music aficionados across Tucson.
For tickets, visit TucsonSymphony.org.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.