So, this week, I’m in New England for concerts with Ensemble Epomeo– our first show is at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival on Friday. This concert has an extra challenge for me- I have had to switch cellos. It wasn’t practical to travel this time with my Mariani, so I’ve brought my backup instrument. So, I’ve been very immersed with the Schumann on one cello, only now to switch to this very tricky trio program (Bach, Beethoven and a new work by Kile Smith) since the LCO rehearsal on Sunday. Monday wasn’t much help- I had a meeting with the record company about my upcoming Mahler CD with Orchestra of the Swan on Monday morning in London, then had a short meeting in Cardiff Monday afternoon and a rehearsal in Hereford Monday night. That left Tuesday to recalibrate my fingers before flying here yesterday.
Lynn Harrell has a great piece on his blog about instruments and the insanity of letting families be bullied into trying to buy insanely expensive fine Italian instruments for student players.
What I take issue with is the implied necessity of one of these priceless masterpieces in making a career. So a young player before he/she is near full potential musically or technically or earning power is led to believe that without that Stradivari or Guarneri they will not be able to compete and their very career will be in jeopardy. Throughout the entirety of my more than 50 year playing career I have yet to encounter a string player under the age of 20 with enough knowledge, musicality, and technique to bring everything out of a master instrument…
The best new instruments are in many playing points superior to all but the most exceptional old instruments. Moreover, the cost is often laughably less expensive. The price range of $5,000- $50,000 will yield superb instruments. The renaissance of great new makers in the last 20 years proves this. It is therefore folly to assume at the onset of a career that one must have an old instrument to succeed. What succeeds is musical and technical brilliance.
There really is no snobbery like instrument snobbery (even wine snobs can’t compare)- of course the best Cremonese instruments have very special properties, but I think only the best players can really make the most of those. On the other hand, a great player can still do great things on a more modest axe, and where budget is an issue, there are ways of maximizing what a more modest instrument can do.
There is a new generation of budget instruments out there that are a far cry from the unplayable student monstrosities of the past. On one hand, dealers are happy to sell those (in volume), but they are not so happy to help you get the best out of them. I bought my second cello (Cello 2.0) when I was working in Oregon- I needed something that could live in the orchestra’s office when I was away, but that was good enough for concerts.
I bought a simple Strad copy Chinese-made instrument (I shouldn’t be telling you this!), but had it set up but a first rate luthier who made some simple modifications which improved the sound enormously- he also replaced the factory bridge and soundpost. I replaced the cheap strings with top-of-the line ones. Most importantly, I use my good bow with it, which is worth more than the cello. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes!
This is something a dealer doesn’t want you to know- that a $2k-$6k cello with a bow of similar value might sound far better than a $28k cello with a $1k bow. More tellingly, buying a $50k or $500K instrument isn’t going to make you sound like Lynn Harrell. Young cellists and their parents should be well advised about how to get the most from their budget when shopping.
Sadly, many, but by no means all, teachers are not to be trusted in this task. For years, many top dealers offered kick-backs to teachers who persuaded their students to buy an instrument from them. They say it is a “thank you” for the time involved in helping the student choose an axe- it sounds more like a bribe, to me. If everyone in your studio is playing a Berlusconi from El Pomposo Violins, chances are, someone is getting a commission you don’t know about. The fact that so many people don’t know about this practice is pretty indicative about how well some of these teachers can separate out their financial interests from the needs of their students.
Anyway, I’ve used Cello 2.0 for high powered chamber concerts, several solo recitals and the Elgar, Herbert, Shostakovich and Chen Yi concertos with orchestra, and it’s held up quite well. There is a sweet comment about my sound on the website from Chen Yi– she’s talking about Cello 2.0, not the Italian one.
However, some people can’t trust their ears and others just won’t take such an instrument seriously. When I did the Elgar, I wanted some work done on it- a new bridge, in particular. I took it to the “top place” in Portland, and they mistook me for an amateur/beginner based on the instrument. They then did a completely half-assed job, left the instrument sounding and playing like crap and told me it was un-realistic to expect any more from that instrument. When they saw a piece about me in the paper, they got a little more helpful, but the cello left their shop sounding like a student instrument. I had to find another luthier to fix what they’d screwed up.
When people used to compliment me on my sound with that instrument I’d gleefully tell them what it was, until I saw that most reacted with horror, as if I’d hoodwinked them into thinking they were listening to something they weren’t. How sad that they couldn’t trust their ears.
My teacher at IU, Fritz Magg, had a beautiful Strad which he had to give up at the end of his career. He had a fine copy made by a good but not famous luthier, and went on playing. Everywhere he went, people talked about the unmistakable glory of that legendary Strad, and Fritz just nodded and smiled. What they were hearing was the unmistakable glory of Fritz Magg, but if they knew he was playing on an in-expensive modern instrument their ears would have instantly closed. Fritz was wise enough to just nod and smile as folks talked on and on about the miracle of the Strad they handn’t just listened to.
Post script- In aiming for brevity, I don’t want to leave readers with the mistaken impression that all instruments are the same. Far from it! However
1- There are decent instruments to be found in every price range
2- Many things affect price besides sound, such as pedigree, previous owners and the shop you are in
3- If the person selling the violin tells you it is Berlusoni from the Ambrosian period, take the instrument for a second opinion from a dealer who has no financial interest in the transaction and who, preferably, isn’t trying to sell you something from their own stock.
4- If someone tells you that you have to up your budget by 10k to get anything decent, they would say the same thing no matter what you told them your budget was.
5- If someone tells you a good bow is wasted on a good but not great instrument, they are lying.
6- Keep looking- the best place to shop for an instrument is on your friend’s instruments. If somebody has something you like, try it and find out what it is.