By Martin Steinberg
Luis Leguia was always a late starter. He was almost 15 when he began playing the cello but was good enough to study with Pablo Casals within three years. He went on to play with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and spent 44 years with the Boston Symphony.
He also toured the world as a solo performer, giving recitals and playing concertos from the Andes to Africa to Aleppo, Syria, not to mention Europe and North America.
In his mid-50s, he embarked on a second career—making cellos, first out of wood, then fiberglass, and finally carbon fiber.
He became the founder of Luis and Clark carbon-fiber string instruments (disclaimer: whose customers include this writer). They have been sold in 54 countries.
During his BSO career, Leguia says, he “got bitten by sailing.” One summer day in 1990, he was on a fiberglass catamaran sailing on Quincy Bay when he was stuck by inspiration. “They have a trapeze—you’re hanging out,” he recalls in an interview. “The only thing on the boat is your feet. So you’re hanging perpendicular to the end of the boat. You get up to a speed of 23–24 miles per hour and you start hearing a hum. I’m hearing this hum. So I thought if it made this tone, I wonder what a cello would sound like made of fiberglass.”
He eventually retreated to his basement, where he had already made one conventional wooden cello. “He started experimenting in the cellar on a broken card table with a single light bulb overhead,” wife Stephanie says. “I thought he was crazy, and I hated the smell
and mess. But when he produced the first model, I couldn’t believe how great it sounded. He continued experimenting because the first cello sounded good, but he wanted one that was great.”
Someone suggested he try carbon fiber, a lightweight, durable composite woven together by carbon strands. Over the next 4½ years, he built two carbon-fiber cello prototypes. For the last one, he eliminated the wooden cornices and scroll and narrowed the ribs, giving his cello rounded edges. It’s made in three pieces: back and sides; top; and fingerboard.
That’s when he decided to go into business.
To get help on the fabrication, he turned back to sailing and to carbon-fiber boat maker Steve Clark, whose catamaran “Cogito” later won the Little America’s Cup in 2004. “We started in business in 2000 and things moved dreadfully slowly,” Leguia says. “I think I got one sale the first year.” Clark helped through the first four cellos but then decided to move on, according to Leguia.
The fourth cello went to Yo-Yo Ma.
The instruments are now made in Rhode Island by another fabricator with marine roots, Matt Dunham of Clear Carbon and Components, Inc. The business focused on cellos in the first years, then expanded to violas because Leguia didn’t want to risk selling an inferior product in the larger violin market. His company has now made 1,614 instruments, including 400 violins, 250 violas, and four basses.
Leguia’s story began in Los Angeles. He was the son of a Peruvian diplomat, who had to return home around 1938 after a change in government. Leguia’s mother, Margaret, was left to raise the three-year-old boy on her own. He and his mother lived near poverty level, moving from boarding house to boarding house as his mom struggled to provide for them as a secretary during the Great Depression. A poor student in school, Luis excelled in tennis and played the bass. Outside school, he shined shoes and delivered newspapers for the Los Angeles Examiner, saving up $100. He told his mom he wanted to buy a bass with the money so he could join the LA Philharmonic in a few years. “I couldn’t play a C major scale but that was my plan,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Well, wouldn’t you rather play a solo instrument, maybe a violin or cello?’”
He agreed to a cello, and was referred to Arthur van den Bogaerde, who accepted Luis as a student. For four lessons a week, he charged Luis $2.50 total. Less than a year later, Bogaerde was killed in a car accident. Luis eventually studied with Gabor Rejto and Kurt Reher, who had been a student of Emanuel Feuermann.
During high school, Luis had to work, so he dropped out before 11th grade rather than flunk out because of truancy. Despite a job at the RKO Pantages Theatre, he managed to practice cello as much as six hours a day. Rejto later wrote a letter to Casals recommending Leguia to the master as a student.
Lessons with the Master
At 17, Leguia made his way to Prades, France, to audition for Casals, playing a Boccherini concerto and the first and third cello suites by Bach. Casals accepted him as one of six students, the only one who received a scholarship, according to Leguia. He studied with Casals for a year.
“The lessons were one hour and 15 minutes,” he recalls. “I went through a lot of repertoire, several cello concertos—the Dvorak, Haydn D major, Saint-Saens, and I went through the second and fourth suites of Bach. He talked about the inflection of the voice, you know, how you say a word, die out. You start the word strong, you end up diminished, with a pause. And phrasing with music was quite a bit the same,” Leguia says.
“Some people would be hard-pressed to believe that he [also] spoke a lot about technique,” Leguia continues. “He had some very unusual fingerings. The way he shifted in the lower positions is also unique. He explained it extremely clearly to me.
“You prepare it by having the thumb close to the position you are going to shift over to. Say you’re playing an E-major scale, [fingers] 1, 2, 4 [on the C string]. When you shift from G sharp on the C string, you go to 1, 2, 4 on the G string. That shift is not easy. He showed me how to put my thumb closer to my first finger. You rotate on your thumb. It was quite wonderful.
“He called it a civilized way of shifting.”
Now nearing his 81st birthday in July, Leguia can no longer play cello because of multiple operations on his left hand for a condition known as Dupuytren’s contracture. He still plays tennis several times a week. “I’m 80 and my fingers have gone south,” he says. But he still has his company. “All I want to do is [provide] an excellent product. I don’t want to sell any bad instruments.”
Playing Carbon Fiber: The Experience
Cellist Steven Sharp Nelson and partner Jon Schmidt of the Piano Guys hope to play at all of the Seven Wonders of the World. So far, they have performed at the Great Wall of China and at the Christ the Redeemer statute overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Along the way, the pop duo has attracted millions of viewers on YouTube.
Nelson has 24 cellos, including wood, electric, steel, and a Luis & Clark that he calls Carmen Fibre (pronounced FEE-bray). It’s one of three cellos he takes on tour.
How often do you use Carmen?
When I’m in the studio, typically everyday I’m using her, at least once, many times often, to layer the kinds of cello sounds we get in our music. The nice thing about her is she has a fairly distinct sound from that of the acoustic cello—the one people are used to hearing. I like that she has more bite. There’s a brightness in sound, and there’s also a tiny bit of a metallic sound that gives it an edge.
What about your use of it for percussion effects?
I don’t know of any other cellist who has pushed carbon fiber to the limit that I have. I know for a fact that 2Cellos dived into water with it, and that certainly was a pretty spectacular feat, but for actual performance techniques, I have beaten that thing to a pulp. And I tell you it’s virtually indestructible.
I’ve played in direct sunlight. I’ve played in below freezing temperatures, too.
It’s not just the weather. It psychologically affects you when you’re a cellist and you’re playing in inclement weather, because you’re worried about your instrument.
Not only are you worried about its fidelity in terms of intonation, you’re worried about long-term effects. But with the carbon fiber I think there’s a peace of mind that comes with it.
On the Beach
I was pumped. Finally, I could play on a beach for a wedding ceremony without fear of sun, sand or salt water. I had my indestructible Luis & Clark carbon-fiber cello.
I had purchased it ten days earlier, and this was the second time I would use it for an outdoor gig.
I left extra early on a Saturday afternoon in August to beat the Jersey Shore traffic for the wedding in Long Branch. My violinist, Francine Bloom, and I got on the beach an hour and 20 minutes before the start time.
The wind was fierce. The deejay who hired us was really happy to see us so early. He offered to bring down sandbags to secure our music stands, but I spotted a better solution—some nearby folding chairs about 100 yards from the ceremony site.
We flattened the legs of our stands and placed the chairs over them. Fran had a brilliant idea to deal with the esthetics—use some nearby tablecloths to cover the chairs. The maître d’ assisted us.
During the setup, I found out that my carbon-fiber cello may be indestructible but wasn’t undamageable. A fierce gust blew the music off my stand, and my book flew into my cello, leaving a half-inch-long scratch.
The ceremony music was perfect. The guests complimented us, and the bride and groom were very thankful and said they loved the music. (On the way home, I got a flat tire, but that’s another story.)
After I got home, I called up Luis & Clark and asked what I should do. Luis told me to take car wax and buff it up. It worked! The white gash all but disappeared!