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Interview: David Rohde Interviews Cellist Amit Peled

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Amit Peled is a story-teller. He happens to do it with a cello. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a genius audience member to find the entire story for yourself in the music. The charismatic musician and popular instructor at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory feels out an audience to determine how much to say, how much to play, and what to joke about – although I guarantee there’ll be something funny within a minute or two of his taking the stage.

Behind Amit’s appeal is a kind of preparation that’s amazingly similar to what actors and directors call “table work” or “field work.” If the music he’s playing is from his native Israel or elsewhere in the Jewish tradition – or pretty much anywhere in Eastern European or Mediterranean lands – Amit knows he’s likely to feel it in his bones. But if it’s German or French or English, he does a lot of research to find out exactly what the composer’s culture and daily life was like at that time, and how he can present that life on his cello. And the cello he plays these days happens to be one of the world’s most famous musical instruments. Made in Venice in 1733 by Matteo Goffriller, it was previously owned by legendary cellist Pablo Casals, and has a notable “narrative” quality rather than just musical beauty.

Next week Amit is bringing the Goffriller cello to the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia for a program called Journey With My Jewishness, followed on the weekend by a performance of the emotional Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Prior to these two engagements, Amit and I chatted in his northwest Baltimore home about his life, his art, and his teaching. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

David Rohde: You were born and raised on a kibbutz in Israel. Where exactly?

Amit Peled: In the Jezreel Valley, the valley next to the Gilboa Mountains. It’s the north of the country, 15 minutes from Nazareth. You could see Jordan from our house. Basically, you give your heart and soul, you worked like a maniac – that’s my parents, ideologically, the idea that brought them there. When my parents got married, they wanted to live on a kibbutz where they could work in the fields and build the country.

Luckily for me, it was a very small community, about 500 people, six or seven kids in each classroom. The education is still unbelievable, because you have attention to every child. So for kids, we ran outside barefoot, it’s like heaven for kids. Part of it had to do with sports, and part of it with music. In fourth grade everyone had to start music. I started in fourth grade with cello because of a girl. She was older, she was 14, I was 10. And the music room was under our classroom, where she practiced every day. And as I put my shoes to go to my basketball training, I would hear her and see her practice. I wanted to get close to her, but I didn’t dare talk to her. I thought, if I take cello, we’ll probably get married!

Sure, that was your world.

Once I started, I guess the teacher saw talent and he immediately invested in me. And my parents bought this tape cassette for me, in Afula, which is a city nearby. A tiny place, there was one music store. I started in September, and for Hanukkah in December, they bought these tape cassettes which had the Pablo Casals pieces, cello and piano. And that’s how I got hooked on that music. I never dreamed I would actually play that very cello one day!

But like you said, you were really a basketball player?

Yes.

Basketball is big in Israel, right?

Of course. And I love soccer, and now I love American football because of the Ravens. But basketball is really where I follow the statistics. I have the NBA channel, I watch it every day when I come back from [teaching at Peabody]. Or I watch it in my hotel, or on my iPhone.

Cellist Amit Peled. Photograph by Melissa Gerr.

Who do you root for?

My son roots for the Wizards. I like the Cleveland Cavaliers. But because of my son, I started liking the Wizards and want them to do well. But Cleveland – I actually flew with my son to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. It was the best two days of our life.

How old is your son?

He’s 10. He’s a good player. He was just at basketball camp this summer. Myself, until I was 15 I was on a team. When I was growing up in Israel I was inspired by Tamir Goodman – he was what we called the Jewish Michael Jordan. He grew up here in Pikesville, in this area. He was the best player in Maryland, I’m not kidding, he would score 60 points a game. All the big colleges – UCLA, Duke – they all wanted him with full scholarship. But he was Orthodox and he couldn’t play on Saturdays.

Israeli TV made a whole feature on it, I remember it as a child. They really thought he would make it to the NBA. But then Maccabi Tel Aviv, which is our biggest team, they bought him. And he, being Zionist and religious, he went there. Eventually he got injured and he didn’t do well in European basketball. Then he got married, I mean now he’s doing kids’ basketball camps in Cleveland or something. But I love the sport in this country, and I also love to include it in my conversation with the public at concerts.

You don’t know how valuable that is to pique a lot of people’s interest.

Of course it’s valuable. The punch line is we musicians are like the public. We are not different, you know. We are people like you, and our passion is music. Why is that? Let me show you in one hour. See, the way I construct concerts now, for me it’s really a conversation with the cello. My concerts are now 60 minutes if it’s up to me. It’s an hour without intermission. It’s an experience. I start by playing around with the words and whatever happens, I have to see how the public reacts to me. Like if I play in New York, I’ll say, “Good evening!” And there’ll be no reply.

In New York? Really?

Yeah because they come, they say, “Shut up, just play for us!” But I recently played in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, and I said, “Good evening,” and they all called out, “Good evening! Hello, how are you? How do you find our town?” It’s such a different mentality. I have to see who I’m dealing with, and then the energy, it bounces back and forth.

[Legendary cellist] Janos Starker, who’s one of my idols – a lot of my exercises are based on his – well, I saw a video of him when I was a student. He did that sort of a show where he went into clubs. He started it in Chicago where he was principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He had a little desk, a little table right next to him. He had scotch and cigarettes – in those days you could smoke – and he would talk and then he would play the prelude from a Bach suite, he would talk about Holocaust times and how it was difficult, he’d show some exercises, how he came back to playing by inventing these exercises, I mean it was really about his life. And through that he played the music that he loves the most. And then every once in a while he sips the whiskey. I mean that, for me, is the dream.

That’s your dream, to drink whiskey during your concerts?

[Laughs] Well part of it is just you, the audience. You don’t necessarily come to listen to Brahms. It’s to listen to this performer playing music that they like, and hopefully it will be good music, but it will be them. You get the whole package. That’s what I do with the Journey With My Jewishness.

I also talk about the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, and how they helped me. And then how, going in the [Israeli] army and giving something back. But you don’t have to fight in the army, it doesn’t even have to be army, and I put it back to being an American now. I hope my kids, before going to college at age 18, will do something for this country, like go work in a hospital, go work in a community and just help with homework, you know, kids that need help. Or maybe go far from home, go work in the mountains in Montana, I don’t know.

In Israel we had that time to go away from schooling and to get responsibility, and to give back to our country. And then, when you do go to [college], you’re older, you’re more mature, you know how to organize your time. I mean, I teach that age [in America], all they want is to party. Parents are paying a lot of money for kids to party.

 

Amit Peled. Photograph by Melissa Golden.

But the connection you’re making is that people who do music should be part of the culture, not separate from it.

Music is just a form of expression, like theater. I have an exercise I do with my students, because I do love theater. I usually do it with Beethoven, where the dynamics and articulations are crucial and you have to respect them. I mean, Beethoven is like Shakespeare, it’s very important that you do understand the words. You cannot “just play” – Beethoven is very detailed. So sometimes I don’t understand [the students’ playing of] a subito forte [a sudden loud note]. Subito forte, I always say, if you’re not surprised by it – shocked by it, scared! – how do you expect that to have an impact? Beethoven could easily be background music for a wedding reception, but [he meant it to be] the most dramatic thing.

For them to get it, sometimes if they’re open enough with me, I will ask them to take the music and “gibberish” it. All you do is you use the dynamics and articulation. But instead of using notes, you invent words. I don’t care what the words are! I tell them to convey this to me through any words they want. And they’re shocked, like what? And then, instead of the gibberish, you know, take the cello, play whatever you want within those dynamics and articulation. It’s amazing, because then the emotion will get through.

Or in a group class every two weeks, we might be working on the Elgar concerto, which I’m playing in Fairfax. It says in the beginning, Nobilemente. “To be noble.” This was written in 1919, which you need to know. What does it mean to be a noble gentleman from Victorian times, and to realize that everything just collapsed before you after the war? Many of those, even with a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, don’t even know the year it was written. They’re not curious enough. So after we pass that stage, can you show me a noble expression on your face? Have you seen Downton Abbey? What kinds of clothes do you wear? Do you smoke a cigar? Do you have a watch? They have no idea, they have no curiosity to even go there.

Why not?

Because they just want to play in tune and get a job! And it just doesn’t work like that.

So I started telling them, “Whenever you bring a new piece to me, you need to bring 10 points about it.” The Elgar, I guide them through it, the year, the city he was in when he wrote it, who was the greatest cellist in that year, stuff like this. After you have the 10 points, you have the English nobleman. Can you show me a noble expression? Right in front of the class, I count, one, two, AND – you have to show me nobility. They’re shocked! They’re thinking, “I came all this way to study cello with you, not to have a noble expression on my face!” So it takes a while.

But they have to understand, if you will not have that noble expression or wish to convey nobility, you are not really reading the text, the Shakespeare – the Elgar! So what are you doing here? They’re “playing in tune”! And I always tell them, “You want to hear somebody playing in tune? Go to China! You’ll find many more cellists playing in tune, and much younger than you!”

Someday they’re going to run into those musicians.

But that’s why I love teaching, when you can make that change, a) to create curiosity, and b) to make somebody who never even thought about facial expression think about it. I always ask them, “Do you sing in the shower?” They say no. I say, “Well, why not? It’s the best place to practice cello! To sing in the shower!”

Why did both Chopin and Rachmaninoff, two of the greatest composers for the piano, only write sonatas for one other instrument – the cello?

That’s my first line when I play those sonatas and when I teach them! The greatest pianists wrote only for cello because it’s the one thing they couldn’t do on the piano. They were the greatest. They could play fast, they could play emotionally, they could do anything they wanted but to sustain sound. One of the strongest things about cello is the warmth and the fact that it gets into your guts, the sound of the cello. So if a composer can capitalize on it, it will do it to you. Where a piano, with all due respect, is a percussive instrument. I mean I love to hear warmth in a pianist’s sound, but it’s more about can I hear the voicings, can I hear all the notes, is it loud enough against the orchestra, and many other things. But if cello doesn’t have warmth, what does it have?

Your recording with [pianist] Noreen Polera of the Rachmaninoff sonata is really phenomenal, all four movements.

It’s such a magnificent work, but there’s another aspect there. In our recording we had to make a lot of changes of tempos, because Rachmaninoff, sorry to use this word, but he likes to have too many orgasms. There are so many climaxes in the music!

Some of Rachmaninoff’s music is troublesome that way. It’s so overwrought sometimes.

If you do what he wrote, it’s just too much. It’s like if you eat ice cream all day, by lunchtime you have a stomach ache. And that’s the problem in this sonata. So what we had to do was to let go some of them – you simply get through some of them. So we “accel” [speed up] the tempo simply to get through them in order to make one of the later moments even bigger. And we played the Rachmaninoff many, many times before we recorded it, so we knew exactly what to do. It’s like what my teacher Bernard Greenhouse [legendary cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio] said, the Beaux Arts Trio never recorded a piece before they had played it 50 times.

And you know, composers, they’re human. I played the Penderecki concerto [the cello concerto of living Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki] with him conducting. And he himself told me to change something, on the spot. I couldn’t believe it.

Was he contradicting his own text?

Yes, yes.

So naturally you asked him why.

Of course I did. I said, “Maestro, it says mezzo-forte, you asked me to play fortissimo.” He said, “All I ask you is to express more.” Then he said, “Please erase it and play louder.” And this is a composer that literally on every note writes some direction! So what the composer is basically expressing on the page, they’re trying to be really clear with you, but then if it takes its own shape, which is your shape, that’s fine.

Amit Peled. Photograph by Marshall Clarke

The fact that you’re Israeli, does that enhance your performance of music from nationalities like the Czechs, the Hungarians and so on? Is there a connection there or am I just making that up?

No, I don’t think you’re making it up. I don’t like to say it, because if I will make a point that this is true, then somebody German will say, “How can you play Brahms?” But I don’t, because I’m also an “actor.” Even if I don’t have a British accent, I think that if I’m a great actor, I can imitate it. So Brahms was German – so go and find what it means to be German. Go and understand the language, and learn it so you can sound like Germany. It doesn’t mean that I cannot do it, it just means that I need more preparation in order to play Brahms, more than somebody that speaks the German language or knows what the Schwarzwald [the Black Forest] is and went for walks in it like Brahms did. It’s like an actor that has a movie to do and needs to sound French will need to live in Paris for six months.

Well, the Tempest Trio [Amit Peled plus violinist Ilya Kaler and pianist Alon Goldstein] has a great recording of Antonin Dvorak’s Dumky Trio, which is quintessential Czech music.

I think when you talk about Jewish music, it’s very much Eastern European music. It’s Jewish music, klezmer music, Czech music, Polish music – it’s all originated from the same place, and you know, sort of the same time. The modes are the same, the parties are the same, the culture is the same. Hungary with the gypsies, I mean, gypsy music is Jewish music, it’s so similar.

You know, Jewish music is not all biblical, “David the King on the harp.” Jewish music is Eastern European, you know, the Jews who went to Eastern Europe. There’s other kinds of Jewish Arab music, Middle Eastern music – that’s different. But the music that I grew up in, the music where I come from, where Alon comes from, where Ilya comes from, is very similar to “Dumky.” You know, it’s folk Eastern European music.

But when we play, you feel the pride of being Israeli. You know, we are a small country and we went against the odds, and we are surviving. It’s like Kol Nidrei [“All Vows,” a prayer for Yom Kippur or the Jewish Day of Atonement]. I don’t know if I do it better, but I do have a special connection to it and I can share it with the public and I do.

But the composer of the now-traditional tune for Kol Nidrei, Max Bruch, wasn’t even Jewish.

No, but he went to an old, traditional synagogue in Switzerland. And he heard that melody in his head. But he also saw this melody. If you see women separated from the men, and when you hear the rabbi praying with the tallit [a prayer shawl] and not facing the people. I mean, this is so intimate. This intimacy, if you don’t see it you can’t understand it. So when you start singing Kol Nidrei, it’s a person that is begging for forgiveness for all the bad things that you did during the year, but is covered, and is facing God, facing the Torah. What does it mean to be on the bimah [platform] and not to face the public, they’re replying to you, they have this sigh. Each time that it happens, the sigh becomes more emotional because they feel strongly that you’re actually going to hell. So you become more emotional, they become more emotional, but you never see them and they never see you. So this kind of intimacy that’s in the blood for me.

It’s like Brahms had a beer and cigar every day in the restaurant in Vienna. That’s what he did in the afternoon. For a lot of German people that’s, I mean, [my German wife] Julia’s brother, when we have parties with the family, that’s what they do. They sit from 4 o’clock and drink! They’re not drunk but it’s in their culture to sit and drink and discuss the world. Where in Israel we cook 10 times more food, we eat it in two minutes, we’re done with it. And then we start arguing. I say something, you say the opposite. Why? Because somebody has to say the opposite. And then you have to win. Why? Because I have to win. That’s Israeli! But we have opinions. I think it’s wonderful.

Can you do that, find any of these different conversations, in the music? That’s the goal.

People should know that you have two cellos for performances. Your 19th-century cello by [Jean-Baptiste] Vuillaume has a big “bloom” to the sound. The Casals cello seems to have a more unique, distinctive sound.

They’re very different. Do you know about the children’s book that we’re putting out about the Casals cello? A few years ago I was on Morning Edition on NPR telling the story about the Casals cello. I didn’t realize how nationwide this show is. I didn’t realize it was a live broadcast all over the nation, and every person literally listening to it in a traffic jam going to work. So there’s a woman who lives in Philadelphia who heard it, Marni Fogelson, and Marni is an author of kids’ books. And she was so inspired by the story, she wanted to tell her own young kids the story.

So she wrote it out, as a story told by the cello, by “Pablo.” And “Pablo” is telling the story of how it was made in Venice in 1733, and then many years later this guy from Spain [meaning Pablo Casals himself] got “me” and we became best friends, and we played all over the world. And then one day, Casals became old and died, and I was left alone with his widow, I was in my box, I even had the smell of his pipe, but nobody played me for years and years. And then later on came this boy who grew up in a kibbutz and who fell in love with a girl and that’s why he plays the cello, and now he plays me. It took us a while to get to know each other, but now we’re really best friends. And we are traveling the world and I’m so happy again. And the end of the story basically says: Who knows, maybe if you – talking to kids – work hard, you will be my friend and you will get to play me some day.

Marni sent it to me, and I read it to my kids. It was so cute and so well-written, you know, for kids from 3 to 6. I immediately had an illustrator in mind, who is the father of a friend of mine from Israel who grew up with me playing music. And she, for two years, tried to approach publishers to publish this book. And always – no, no, no, no, no. There was one who said yes, but he started changing everything in the story.

Eventually about six months ago, I told my wife, I told Julia, you know what, I love this story. And I found an illustrator who I love, I know his drawings, he’s amazing. So I wrote to Marni and I said, you know, I want to buy this story from you. But I looked into it and to do a real nice children’s book, it costs a lot of money. It’s actually close to $20,000, the whole thing together. So I went on Kickstarter and I made a video. And nobody believed I would get that kind of money. But we got it, we made it. Just today we did the final proof. I hope that by the 13th when I play [at the JCC], I will have it along with my CDs to sell after the concert. If not it will be in late September. But it’s done. It’s an amazing journey.

Why did [Pablo Casals’ widow] Marta Istomin give you the cello in the first place? You’re an ex-basketball player who’s more than a foot taller than Pablo Casals was, and you have to hold it in a little different way.

Why? Because this cello allows me to find my own voice. From what I understand from her, there’s something in the tradition of making music that Casals got from the Romantic period and taught in Marlboro and taught my teacher, Bernard Greenhouse. And it has a lot to do with the vibrato, and the speed of the vibrato. With the ability to change the vibrato according to the notes in the phrase. Not just to vibrate every note passionately, but with the ability to build the phrase. For instance [he sings an example] the note that gets what I call the “gold medal” vibrato is the high note. The first note of the phrase, even though it’s easy to play, it’s the least important one. Ninety-nine point nine percent of cellists would vibrate a lot on the first note.

Is it accurate to say there’s a particular grain in the sound of the Goffriller cello?

Yes, like a human voice. The way I describe it, I used to play on a Guarneri before, which has a golden, Pavarotti-like sound, a singing, golden tone. Whereas the Goffriller of Casals has a sandy, “old man” speaking voice.

Why does that appeal to you?

Because it’s human, much more than the golden Pavarotti sound. It’s a sound that goes to your guts, at least to me, and I see it in concerts. It connects to the inside. I hear people’s reaction. They say, “I don’t know what it is, it hurts inside.” For me, that’s much more meaningful. It’s like a knife that you strike in the heart and then you turn it [laughs].

With your students at the Peabody Conservatory, you don’t call it your “Cello Studio,” you call it your “Cello Gang.” How did you come up with that? What does that express?

Because they are my family. I think carefully, if they fit in this family. I mean it’s not my immediate family right here in my house, but they come here a lot, they live with me, they tour with me, they record with me. It’s so intense that they get to be very close to me. I didn’t want to have anybody there that is not somebody I want to have in my family. Not only with me but can they fit with others? I make a point of taking them with me on the road, the good ones. You know, rent a big van, we go on tour, I pay them, I treat them as professionally as I can.

And there might be a magical moment in a concert, on the spot, something that I could never teach them in a classroom. You know, all of a sudden there’s a pianissimo that none of us expected, none of us anticipated, it happened. And since I have more experience, I capitalize on it. So that’s a learning experience that I want them to have.

Can the audience also recognize such a special moment?

Yes – after all, when I’m creating on stage it’s not mine. What you’re feeling is perfectly fine because it’s yours. Picasso’s painting, once it’s done, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s gone, the creation is done. When I create sound, I can think about something to create that sound, to create that life, but once it’s created, it’s not me, it’s there for you to hear. I need all that knowledge and technique, in order to put me in a place to create that sound, to create that statement. What you do with that statement is not up to me, it’s up to you.

Amit Peled performs My Journey with Jewishness on September 13, 2017, at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia — 8900 Little River Turnpike in Fairfax, VA. ​For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

Amit Peled performs on September 16, 2017, with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts — 4373 Mason Pond Dr in Fairfax, VA. ​For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

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