In late March 2022, my friend Dan Krajcman invited me to play the cello in four semipro performances of 15-year-old Mozart’s pastoral opera Ascanio in Alba in appropriately pastoral villages in France’s Loire Valley that June. When I protested that I hadn’t played in 30 years, he said, “The cello part is not hard. I’ll send it to you by email.”
My old friend Terry King encouraged me: “I am thrilled to hear this! You were a natural player if ever there was one!”
So I told Dan OK and made plans to take off on a critic’s holiday. “Rehearsals start May 25,” he wrote. “The train station is Nevers. Stay here all June.”
At home in Los Angeles, I rented a student’s cello and asked some cellist friends about the best way of starting to play again after 30 years. Terry said, “First, don’t look down to see if you’re doing OK. Use a mirror if you need to, but let the sound tell you as much as possible. Bow open strings to rhythm, all sorts of dynamics, gestures, lifts, upbeats… as if you were playing the Dvořák Concerto.”
It worked. And after the first nervousness subsided, it was exhilarating, like having the wind in your face driving a fast convertible. By the end of the first week, the C and G strings were beginning to sound like a cello, and I was gaining confidence that the A and D strings would also come around. I was on the way and ready to follow Terry’s next set of advice: “All four fingers down, lift up and down for fourths and octaves across, then first fingers making fourths above, sixths below, then the others in similar fashion. Then try the C scale and arpeggio, then D. Then something easy like the simple double-stop exercises in Dotzauer Books 1 and 2 to get your frame back in shape. Then try vibrato on first finger from zero increasing the dynamic to lush.”
Another old cello friend, Roger Lebow, was not concerned about technical difficulty. He agreed with Terry that my former cello knowledge might well be ingrained in my muscle memory. What he envisioned as a key challenge was “ramping back up without overdoing it! Listen to your body,” he prescribed. “Take a lot of breaks, especially at first. Don’t wait until you feel actual pain. As a corollary,” he added, “keep the notion of relaxation at the forefront of your thoughts.” Roger cautioned players coming back from a break—and beginning students as well—“to not hold tension in the right thumb (make sure it’s not locked), the neck, or the shoulders, or in pressing with the fingers and thumb of the left hand.”
Zachary Carrettin took a similarly holistic tack, recommending “slow, easy, relaxed scales, sliding lightly from note to note, to a slow metronome. Come back to playing with ease, release, and joy, letting everything come from a place of comfort.”
Janet Horvath, author of Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians,advised, “Increase your practice load gradually. Start with ten minutes, increasing the number of ten-minute sessions before advancing to longer sessions. Release every finger. Only the playing finger should be pressing. Don’t squeeze or press with either thumb. Play with the least amount of tension and use weight, not force. Warm up. Take breaks. Take time to wiggle and move during practice.”
Every day that I practiced, I noticeably improved. Gradually, but relentlessly, my intonation and shifting came back, and even finger dexterity did as well to some extent, although playing slurred notes remained frustrating. When I stopped in New York on my way to France, Terry’s friend Kate Dillingham, accompanied by Laura Jean Goldberg, brought me a cello to play so I wouldn’t lose my momentum. It was gorgeous in every way, as she demonstrated with Bach. It was a Strad Forma B model made by Zoran Stilin in Tucson in 2011, dedicated to Kate, with a beautiful red-brown over gold varnish.
Much to my great pleasure, Laura Jean invited me to play in an ensemble at her ArtsAhimsa Chamber Music Festival in the Berkshires near Tanglewood, after my return from France. “It just so happens,” she said, “that I am right this minute organizing all the ensembles, and I have space for another cellist!” I accepted and, for my three public performances, was assigned an early Florence Price string quartet, one of Mozart’s flute quartets, and Dvořák’s fearsomely gorgeous Piano Quartet, Op. 87.
When my wife and I arrived in Paris, Dan whisked us 300 kilometers south in a fast diesel to the town of Nevers (population 33,000), where we picked up a fine-sounding 7/8 cello from the luthier Cyrille Hémery. It was made in China except that Cyrille had replaced the bridge and the soundpost for better sound. It turned out to be a perfect opera cello in terms of blend and, as I had been assured they would by my panel of advisers, my fingers adjusted instinctively to the smaller size.
France was an intoxicating mixture of food, wine, and Mozart. We were like the troupe of traveling players in Kiss Me, Kate. But instead of opening in Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, and Padua, we opened in Luzy, St.-Pierre-le-Moûtier, Decize, and Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire. The four cities plus Prémery (population 2,000)—where I was bivouacked at Dan’s spacious farmhouse—supplied the chorus. The surrounding region also supplied most of the 25 players in the orchestra, except for the exceptional concertmaster Jens Rossbach, a Mozart stylist and an expert on the analysis and optimization of stringed instruments. I was the only American.
The wonderful conductor was Laurent Noguès, formerly a world-class bassoonist, who with his wife also ran one of those country restaurants you dream about, which serve only fresh, local delicacies, like three different types of wild boar pâté. The performances of Ascanio were so enthusiastically received that a fifth was scheduled for January, and there was talk of taking it on the road to Portugal in the summer.
When I returned to Los Angeles from France, I had to first set out finding a cello. John Walz suggested I contact Todd French at StringWorks. He personally helped me select a “master Chinese workshop instrument, which had been treated as a blank canvas in the set-up process and left our luthier’s hands a new, different cello.” I had a choice between the default French bridge or a “punchier, more powerful” Belgian model. Once it arrived, I was ready to prepare for camp, especially the Dvorak, with its difficult slow movement in six flats. After sending me suggested fingerings for some of the more treacherous spots, Walz acknowledged that “even though [Dvořák] played viola and piano, his string and piano writing is not very idiomatic. It works best when you approach his music from the rhythmic basis.”
Once I arrived in camp and met my fellow campers, the faculty, and the coaches, and became familiar with yet another perfectly serviceable student cello, I grew increasingly confident about the Price and totally seduced by the Mozart, but the Dvořák was causing me nightmares, not least because it would be the last concert of the summer. We switched from playing the slow movement with its painfully exposed cello solos to the rapid-fire finale, which would cover most of my weaknesses but would pose tremendous challenges even for the three professional players—Goldberg, violist Heather Faust, and pianist Markus Kaitila. Against all odds, it was a triumph.
Rekindling my love affair with the cello has improved my mind and toned my body. And for a critic who focuses on articulating musical events, the shift to experiencing them was tremendously liberating both musically and socially. I met so many new friends, like my patient standmate in France, Martine Gaurier, matriarch of a family of professional cellists, who, when language failed, always smiled. Like Laura and Kate, who created an atmosphere where I could pursue my potential without reality getting too much in the way.
Perfect for a critic returning to the cello.