This is my cello.
Or rather, it is the cello that will be following me to my first lesson this evening at 6 PM. It is brand new and has never been played, or so I was told by the fellow at the music store who rented it to me. It gives off a new cello smell; if it were a scented candle, it would fill the room with the woozy stink of freshly varnished maple wood.
My temporary cello is an Eastman. It was built in China by an American-Chinese manufacturer, the clerk further explained in response to my question. I wanted to know. I think China turns out extraordinarly proficient musicians, but I would never go to bat for their exports or trade policies. But it should do for now.
I haven’t played any kind of instrument in over 35 years. To be honest, I’m a little afraid of the thing: its glossy, too-perfect patina, its untapped potential. The sheer vastness of what there is to know about it. I’m not quite sure what to do with my cello. When I took it out of the case the other night to show to Matthias, it didn’t respond in a friendly way to the bow. Nothing recognizably cello-like came out when I scraped it across the strings, just a sickly, plastic screech very similar to the one made by a cheap mandolin I bought years ago in Riga. When she heard it, Cannobio (the African gray parrot in residence) skittered down her branch looking discernibly anxious.
Our friend Craig, who played the cello for two years in another lifetime, thinks the bow is too fresh and needs a good going over with rosin. Until a week ago, I had never heard of rosin. Think how one’s world can change on a dime.
Still, I love my new temporary cello. I love locking it between my knees and imagining that one day, possibly before I am 70, I will be able to finesse my own, down-and-dirty cello arrangement of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. I loved coming out of Rayburn’s with it, on Columbus Avenue just across from Lincoln Center. Had I known what a thrill it would be to walk down Broadway near 64th street carrying a cello, I would have bought an empty cello case years ago and paraded it up and down the Upper West Side.
I don’t have any illusions about myself or my cello. I don’t expect to be playing for Dudamel or Gergiev before I depart this world. I know I’m setting myself for years of doubts and insecuritiers But then one can never have enough of either.
The other night, Matthias and I attended a chamber concert at Zankel featuring the pianist Lars Vogt, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his sister Tanja on the cello. The program was a Schubert trio, followed by a Shostakovich. We sat in the front row, where I hung onto Tanja Tetlaff’s every move. She sat impassively as she played, her eyes turned inward, impenetrable; it was as if all her emotion was being sucked out by the score and funneled into the instrument, leaving nothing readable in her face or body. She was brilliant, and she made me antsy. At the intermission, I leaned over to Matthias and said, “I wish I could say she makes it look easy, but it looks very, very hard.”
Tanja Tetzlaff’s cello is Italian and was built in 1776. The insurance payments alone exceed the sum total of my lifetime assets, I have no doubt.
I couldn’t have imagined how difficult it would be to simply find a cello in the Massachusetts Pioneer Valley, where The Big House is. All these institutions of higher learning and only one stringed instrument store? After going to Stamell, tucked behind the post office in Amherst, I determined that the cello I had inquired about two weeks earlier was gone and that they couldn’t say when another one would come in. After scouring Craig’s List for an inexpensive used instrument, I returned to New York City and researched the neighborhood rental shops.
The first place I visited was called Universal, on Broadway a block south of 8th street. You go up a flight of stairs; at the end of a short hall there is an open door, which leads you into a large, junk-filled loft: the “American Buffalo” set of David Mamet’s wildest dreams. The instrument cases were barely visible for all the piles of newspapers, boxes, dead furniture, flotsam and jetsam. It made Francis Bacon’s painting studio look like a minimalist installation.
A commensurately dissheveled gentleman emerged from behind a leaning tower of McDonald’s take-out bags. When I explained to him my needs, he reached over to a curvaceous case that was camouflaged by the surrounding debris. He opened it and produced a frail instrument that looked like it had been air-lifted out of Dresden during the firebombings and dropped over the East Village without a parachute. He plucked a couple of the strings, which returned the favor with two tinny thumping sounds, and said blandly, “Here’s a cello.” After eyeing it dubiously, I asked if he had any others. He said, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got lots in the back.” This wasn’t the back? I said I would pick one up at the end of the week.
Well, so I lied.
The next day, a fierce and foul snowstorm fell over Lincoln Center, where I was doing a little marathon of French movies. I made a bee-line to Rayburn’s Music Store in between two films, and walked out with a rental contract for three months. It was was written up by an officious but courteous young man who seemd very surprised when I told him about the burgeoning market for stolen instruments. He responded with a visible shudder, saying that he played the saxophone and that it cost him a lot of money. He offered to tune my cello, then immediately retracted the offer, explaining that the minute I walked out the store with it, it would need tuning again. I told him I would pick it up at the end of the week.
I returned the next day.
I am now back up in New England, throwing logs on the fire at The Big House. My cello sits a few feet away, patiently waiting to be brought to life.Tags: Cello lessons