By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Cellist Joshua Gindele began his cello studies at the age of three, playing a viola his teacher had fitted with an endpin. Turn the page a few years and he is now celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Miró Quartet, of which he is a founding member. The ensemble, which serves as faculty quartet-in-residence at the University of Texas at Austin, was also in the course of celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, having recently completed their recorded cycle for Pentatone, when the pandemic struck.
The quartet did come together in-person for a dozen concerts during July and August, performing the Beethoven cycle with the Grosse Fuge live for online audiences. Presented by the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival via streaming platform OurConcerts.live, the video feed, featuring audiophile sound, was professionally produced at a private performance space in Austin.
While the future remains in the planning stage, and the Miró’s next big project “remains to be settled,” the quartet continues to record pre-taped events and perform some livestreams. They also have a number of important commissions from composers in the offing. I talked to Gindele in mid-December about his cello.
Please tell me about your instrument.
I play on a cello by the modern American maker, Lawrence Wilke. He lives in Clinton, Connecticut, and I’ve had the cello now for six years. It’s basically a copy of Janos Starker’s Goffriller cello, and has been antiqued to look like an old instrument, with a sort of golden brown, red finish. Goffriller used to make a lot of cellos with poplar and Larry wanted to do something similar but he wasn’t happy with his stock of poplar, so he bought a stock of a wood called quaking aspen, resembling poplar—soft and light—and used it for the back and sides. Because of the wood’s density, it’s actually thicker on this cello than it would be even if he had used poplar like Goffriller did.
How did you acquire your cello?
I got the cello from one of my best friends, Nicholas Tzavaras, who happens to be the cellist of the Shanghai String Quartet. We were playing together and I loved the way it sounded. I told him that if he ever wanted to sell it, I would buy it from him. And he immediately said, “Sure. Why don’t we just have Larry make another cello? You can have this one and I can play the new one.” Larry was up for it and Nick now owns basically this instrument’s twin, its sister. Everything I loved about it when I heard Nick play it, I still love about it.
And what do you love about it?
I always strive to find a cello that sounds like my personal voice, and this cello was the closest thing I had found to it with one exception; that was the 1713 “Bass of Spain” Stradivari, on which I recorded a couple of albums a few years ago. But I obviously can’t afford a Stradivari. My cello is a little more difficult to play than others that I’ve had but it’s got a richness to it that reminds me of an old Italian cello.
What did you play before this?
I had a wonderful cello built for me by Phillip Injeian in Pittsburgh; it was a copy of the 1739 “Hancock” Montagnana. I played it for quite a long time. It was a very big cello physically, but it was exceedingly easy to play, very responsive—a very big-sounding, projecting cello. One of my students is currently playing that cello. Prior to that I had an old Parisian cello that was quite small and petite; it was great for playing recitals, concertos, and piano trios, but it didn’t have the supportive bass I wanted for our quartet.
What do you need for your quartet?
We focus everything from the bottom up, so having a really strong, supportive bass in an instrument and in the player is really important. We also play with a lot of articulation in our sound, so I have to be able to keep up with our violinists in terms of both speed and articulation even at the bottom end. Think the beginning the last movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet.
How many cellos did you use over the course of your recorded Beethoven cycle, which began in 2004 and concluded in 2019?
The early quartets were recorded on the French cello, and the Opus 59 quartets were recorded on a Carlos Tononi cello that once belonged to Pablo Casals. I played the “Bass of Spain” Stradivari for Opus 74 and Opus 95. I played a mixture of the Injeian cello and my new Wilkie cello for the late quartets. I would say that each of the other players changed instruments at least three different times.
What about bows?
I have a bow problem. I love them. They all have their own sounds. They’re balanced differently in the hand. The density of the wood is different. They all do something different on the instrument. I have four or five favorite bows that I rotate between, depending on how I’m feeling or what I want from the sound of the cello or what feels comfortable in my hand at the time. Most of my bows are modern.
I have two modern French bows in my case right now, one by Christophe Collinet, which I bought in 1996 and is my oldest. The other one is by Eric Grandchamp, who makes spectacularly beautiful bows. His style has become sort of ubiquitous among French bow makers in the last 30 years or so. I like the subtlety of nuance I can get out of bows like these that are a little lighter and more flexible. I don’t like really heavy bows, which surprises most people because I am a pretty big guy.
Do you have any advice for a player ready to choose a cello?
Play as many as you can; dozens if you can do it. Play cellos that are in and out of your price range that are really special, including old Italian or old French instruments, to get an idea of what’s possible, what you like, and what you don’t like. There’s not necessarily any correlation between expense and quality. There are lots of fine instruments you can get at reasonable prices. After settling on a few—as many as four if you can transport them—play them in a concert hall and in your own space. Practice with them. Give yourself a good week or more so you can really feel what it’s like to play the instrument on a regular basis. The more instruments that you can play, the better off you are. Rushing to buy a cello is never a good idea.
What do you play to try them out?
I pick something singing up on the A string, something low on the C string, both loud and soft, to see how well it speaks. Quick passages, like Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3, show how quickly the instrument speaks. Then try out a good bit of the cello concerto literature—and the string-quartet literature, too.
JOSHUA GINDELE’S OTHER GEAR
I use Rondo by Thomastik-Infeld and would be remiss not letting people know that the whole quartet is sponsored by Thomastik-Infeld. I’m not averse to other brands of strings but on my particular cello these are the best that I’ve been able to find, even experimenting beyond Thomastik’s lineup. The most famous low strings on the cello for the last 30 years were Thomastik Spirocore, and I played and loved them for years, but [I’ve found] these new Rondo strings have more depth and warmth. One other thing, these strings don’t have a break-in period. I can put them on my cello and play them immediately.
I’ve had the same Accord case since maybe 2004: their most robust version because I’m on an airplane so much. I wanted something light, but I definitely needed something that could withstand all the travel. And it’s been rock solid. Twice a year, I clean and lube all the hinges and let the case air out.
There is a cellist who lives in the New York metropolitan area who has a new company called Bella Rosin. He sent me his first prototype rosin, a fabulous, bespoke, handmade rosin that he’s doing fun things with. It’s smooth, it’s got a good kind of stickiness that works all year, and it doesn’t have a lot of rosin dust, so there’s not white dust all over my cello when I’m done playing concerts.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Cellos series gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.