I have a secret…
I’m a two cello guy.
I bought a second cello a few years back when it became clear to me that it was never going to be safe or economical for me to travel regularly with my main cello, which is a nice, old Italian instrument. My goal was to get something playable that could live in the orchestra office in Pendleton for me to use when I’m there, and that I could check on a plane in the knowledge that if it get damaged it would not be a tragedy.
I bought a standard, Chinese-made student instrument that my good friend and luthier, Ralph Rabin fixed up and customized a bit for me. Since I got it, I’ve played four Bach Suites, two big recital programs, four concertos and a ton of chamber music, as well as using it for teaching. In fact, the sweet letter from Chen-Yi which is quoted on my website where she talks about my sound is in response to a performance on that cello. In other words, it may be a modest cello, but it does the job.
Over this time, however, the bridge had settled a bit too much, which meant that the strings tended to buzz on the fingerboard if I dug in too much. With Elgar Concerto coming up this week, I desperately wanted it in tip-top shape.
Of course, getting fine work done on a cello in Pendleton is a non-starter, so I arranged to bring my cello to Portland when I was conducting Rose City Chamber Orchestra last month. I dropped off the cello on the day of my concert and made arrangements to pick it up when I returned today.
I left my cello with some trepidation. Since I haven’t used this shop since I moved to Britain several years back, nobody now there knows me. When I presented my little cello, the chap I met just saw a guy in his thirties presenting a Chinese-made student cello and immediately assumed I was an amateur. You know the scene….
“Hi, how can I help you?”
“I need a new bridge for my cello.”
“What makes you think you need a new bridge?”
“The strings are too low, so the buzz on the fingerboard when I dig in.” “Well sir, I can measure the strings and see if you need a new bridge.”
I was, stupidly, too shy or whatever to explain that I’m a professional cellist, although I tried to drop a hint. So, as I said, I left the country feeling a bit nervous about how much care they were going to take with my instrument, even though I felt they were totally overcharging me, especially for the second part of the job, scooping the fingerboard.
Badly jet-lagged, and still suffering a bad back made worse by a long flight, I rolled up this morning to pick up the cello before driving off to Pendleton.
The shop only opens in the afternoon, but they graciously made and appointment for me, so I rang the doorbell and was greeted by another kind and friendly employee. She brought me the cello and I asked if I might play a few notes just to see if there’s anything we need to do to tweak the set up before I head out.
She led me to a room full of cellos with a chair in it, and I was instantly reminded of one of my long-standing pet-peeves with violin shops- whenever you want to try an instrument they put you in a room that is so flattering that anything would sound good. I’m serious, you could play a 3 stringed plywood instrument that had been set on fire in this room and it would sound good.
Sure enough, I tune up and play a few notes and the cello sounds enormous, but my worst fears are realized- the bridge is indeed higher, but the set up is now way too tight. I ask the woman if she could send in the technician, and he and I set about moving the sound post around a bit. Because the room sounds so good, it’s tough going, as there is no audible evidence of the problems I’m feeling. Maybe it will sound good anywhere even if it feels odd? Maybe I’ve just gotten too used the Italian cello back home? Certainly the guy I worked with was really nice, but, like the guy I dealt with last month, he didn’t seem to have high expectations of this cello….
Anyway, after 10 minutes, it was clear he was done, so I surrendered while hoping it will sound good in Pendleton, even if it feels good.
Well, I finally got to town and had 2 hours to practice before having to go and be social. The cello is worse than I feared- it’s always had a nice ringing, open sound and now it’s constricted and stuck and reedy. All I can say after the day, is that I am not impressed. The concert is only 72 hours away, which is not much time to figure out how to work this thing, and I’m now 210 miles from the violin shop. It’s hard enough learning a piece on one cello and performing it on another with just a few days to adapt, but adapting to a failed setup……