Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New cellos

I am in San Fransisco and... I bought 2 cellos!

I first met with builder Andrew Carruthers in Santa Rosa. It was the first cello I played and... I fell in love! But I did not trust it. How could I: it was the first cello I tried after all!
I immediately connected with the instrument though. He had another cello, which I did not like at all.
I left him after playing the cello for quite a while. I had many more to try!

Next on my list was Ifshin in Berkely, for the baroque cellos. They had four instruments set up for me. Two had the Stradivari pattern and two a Montagnana pattern. They were all very different. I did not like the Strad instruments as much.

Generalizing, the Strads sound higher and lighter. The Montagnana's sound deeper in the bass and have lower overtones. For those of you who know me, it is pretty obvious which I liked better!

The two Montagnana's were very different, but one was significantly better. I decided to buy it. For that price I could not dream of owning an instrument this good!
I talked to the co-maker, Mr. Haide.

He knew I was going to bring the instrument into Canada and that it would probably suffer in the dry climate. (his sister lived in Edmonton, but he had never been there: "o no!, no!, no!; I just always bought her a ticket to come here. Too cold there, too cold").
Leave the cello with me, he advised. He would take the top off, dry the instrument and glue it back together, so that it will not go through such a rough transition.

He is also willing to build me a piccolo, as long as I tell him the specs.
As far as I know I want a 3/4 size baroque cello, wider neck, thicker/wider ribs (for more bass). I understand that there is some debate how large or small the body of a 3/4 is! I guess I need to figure that out first, but we are at least a step closer.

While I was there, I tried a dozen or so "regular" cellos in my price range. None that I liked at all.

A highlight of the trip was a visit with Bill Lazar from Lazar's Early Music in Sunnyvale. What a nice man! He has everything a person could want for early (medeval, renaissance and baroque) music. From the weirdest looking old wind instruments to an amazing collection of Viola da Gamba's (viols).
How unfortunate that he did not have a baroque cello that suited my needs. I would have really wished him my business!
Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures as well while were there.

Another day of cello hunting followed. I must have played at least 40 cellos at different shops. I tried 21 in one shop only! Yes, sure they were nice, but... not like the Carruthers...! Could this be it?!?

I have decided to bring the Carruthers home... I am so excited and afraid at the same time. Will this be my new voice, my new identity?

Getting the instruments across the border may pose a slight challenge, but we will cross that bridge when we get there!

Well... decisions, decisions...! If anyone wants to buy a nice 1870 mirecourt cello...?!

Friday, October 19, 2007

California here I come!

It has been a few weeks, and the project has taken me places I did not expect. Where to start!?

I still have two bows from the Quebec bow maker, and am expecting another one from a Toronto maker any time now. I have gotten re-acquainted with baroque playing and am loving it.

I am starting to realize that I have really missed type of the baroque performance practice that I grew up with. In Alberta I miss hearing baroque music performed the in a manner I can identify with.
We do get rare visits from leading baroque performers such as the Tafelmusik orchestra (from Toronto) or a soloist like Anner Bijlsma. But those performances are far and few between.

I have started to practice the 6th suite! No I do not have a piccolo yet, (more on that later) but have felt the urge to start practicing the 6th.
While somewhat awkward without a 5th string, it certainly is playable on a regular cello. Great fun even! I had a chuckle when, after I read through it the first time, at the end if the gigue, in the Henle edition, it said: "end of the 6 suites"!
Rostropovich called this suite "a symphony for solo cello" and characterised its D major tonality as evoking joy and triumph.

I practice it on the baroque cello, so that I will at least keep it in the baroque tuning ( a=4:15HZ, rather than 4:40HZ).
This suite has a much more free form than the other suites.

It is also the only one of the suites that is partly notated in the tenor clef, and even the treble clef! None of these clefs are used, or even necessary, for the other five suites since they never go above the note g4 (g above middle c; the 4th finger in the 4th position for the cellists among us). That will certainly help in performing it on 5 strings. For those on the inside: a little trick some beginners at the use of the tenor clef use; the notes in the tenor clef are played "a string above" the notes in the bass clef. While that involves some more advanced "geography" on a regular cello; it becomes very logical on a 5 string.
For me: it will probably confuse me for a while. I am excited to find out though.

Which brings me to the highlight of the week: I am going to California shortly, to try out several baroque cellos! There are four baroque cellos set up for me in one location. I am so very excited!! There even is a chance that I am going to commission them to build a piccolo for me! It depends on the quality of the baroque cellos that I find. I am eager to find out.

And while I am there, I am going to...
Dare I say it out loud?!?...
Look for a possible replacement for my Mirecourt...

PHEW!!! That was difficult to write down!!!

And I haven't even told my parents yet! My father helped me find this cello... O! I won't even go there!

My Mirecourt has been my faithful companion, my musical identity, for almost 19 years.
I have always loved its sound. Loved its warmth, its depth.
I have always struggled with its moods. I struggled with its size (it seems very large!). I also have found it difficult to play. And I am not getting younger and instrument related injuries are accumulative. Do I sound as if I am trying to justify it? Perhaps!
But I have always accepted all of its flaws, because I was so in love with the sound.

Over the past two years, my faithful Mirecourt and I have grown apart. (My husband jokingly wonders if he is next, since I started dating both my husband and my Mirecourt in the same week in 1989!).
I blame the perfect Luis and Clark carbon fibre cello. While that instrument certainly has its flaws; it will mostly do whatever I ask it to do, without much complaining. The weird thing is: I have no personal bond with the instrument. I feel so very closely connected to my old Mirecourt, I feel totally blank with my Luis and Clark, but... I am only playing the carbon fibre...

Lat week I had a performance, which was also recorded by the learning channel (TV), for a documentary on the maker of my contemporary bow, Roy Quade. I had decided that I should probably play the Mirecourt for this, since the instrument would not distract from the craft and artistry of a conscientious maker such as Roy.
I was sincerely excited about it: I had not performed a solo concert on it in nearly two years! I played it all of the week, also during my string quartet rehearsals. I got mixed reactions there. Our first violinist was disappointed that I used my Mirecourt: it was so much more difficult to play with, so much fuzzier!

I asked her to listen to my solo piece on both instruments. She found it no contest: the carbon fibre was far superiour in clarity, sound quality, even character in her opinion. I asked several people, all with the same answer.
In the end I decided against playing the Mirecourt!
I justified it by telling myself that I would be playing in a very dead space (the heavily carpeted ballroom of a hotel), with about 200 guests, finishing their dinner, so I would need to project with ease, and compensate for the dead space. The only answer: Carbon Fibre...
I performed, it was great fun, I was glad to have the carbon fibre.

But this sent me on a completely different train of thought...
Perhaps I should look for a different wooden cello?!?!
Perhaps I have now been somewhat spoiled with the ease of carbon fibre that I finally realize that perhaps I should sell my Mirecourt and buy a different instrument?
Perhaps this isn't my instrument, my voice anymore?

And thus: I have approached several luthiers in California. I was going to go there anyway, right?!
I will visit them while I am there. There is much more choice there than we can possibly dream of here.
It will make for some very long hours in the car! My husband, who will go with me, just planned the trip, based on the addresses of luthiers that I gave him, and figured we would drive at least 6000 kilometres. At an average of 100 kilometres an hour that is 60 hours. And that is not counting any stops.
It better be worth it!!

I am hoping to fall "head over heels in love" with an instrument, so that I will feel no regret letting my old friend Mirecourt go.

I have strayed so far from my original blog idea of talking about baroque interpretation, performance etc. I will certainly come back to that; My world is currently in such upheaval.
  • Trying to justify and getting used to the idea of replacing my cello.
  • Possibly buying a baroque cello.
  • Perhaps commissioning the building of a piccolo.
  • Choosing a baroque bow.
It is quite the emotional roller coaster.

I should say that in my search for instruments and bows I have had the most interesting conversations with musicians and luthiers all over the world. It is great fun!
Talking to a leading baroque specialist, a cellist, just this week, I discovered a lot of common ground.
It will be fun to share my experience and thoughts on interpretation and performance practice with you in the coming months. I will be so excited to share the enormous differences the instrument and the bow makes in the interpretation! This project makes me such a different player and teacher already.
It is important for any artist to keep challenging themselves!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


A shipment of 3 bows from a bow maker in Quebec arrived this week. It is so very exciting!

Finding the right bow is a very difficult journey. It is often underestimated, but a good bow is almost more important than a good cello.

(The bows were shipped in a large tube).

Given the choice between a mediocre bow and a great cello or a great bow and a mediocre cello, most serious performers would choose the better bow over the instrument. This is, after all, what you make all of your sound with!

No one will ever say :"wow, your bow sounds so great!" I do remember when I bought my "modern" bow a few years ago, I suddenly got many more compliments about my cello than I ever had before.

All performers understand the value of a good bow. The journey to find one is difficult and personal. Not only does the bow have to feel good and do what you want it to do; it also needs to be the right bow for the instrument that you play. When I bought my modern bow it was a great match with my Mirecourt cello. When I bought the Luis and Clark, I had to find the right cello to fit with that bow!

I remember having to play my husband's cello for a few months when my Mirecourt was being restored. The bow that I had at the time sounded great on my cello, but really terrible on his!

Many students have to buy different bows when they buy a different cello. When the instrument doesn't quite sound the way they think it should, it is often difficult for them to understand that sometimes their bow doesn't "match" the cello!

Now I am repeating the journey that I took a few years ago with my modern bow, but with a baroque bow this time. Since it has been so many years since I have seriously played with a baroque bow, I had forgotten which qualities to look for in a baroque bow. It took me a few hours of playing to remember and be so very excited about it again!

This time I shouldn't be looking for a bow that easily sustains sound, or makes quick transitions from legato to spiccato. It has to be a different type of playing that it compliments. It is hard to describe. Since the weight of the baroque bow is so differently distributed, it makes the types of bow strokes very different from the contemporary bow. The down bow is definitely a much stronger stroke and the sound tapers to the tip. It is so easy to play "inegal" or uneven with it for example. It takes no effort!

While I am trying to simplify it here in an attempt to explain it; it goes much

deeper than that of course!

It is so exciting to hear the baroque bows bring such different overtones out of the instruments!

I am having fun with it right now. All these bows are very different. I will keep you updated.

Gut Strings

I put all Oliv's on my Mirecourt. I had forgotten how terrible these strings sound when you first put them on!

But have they ever changed already! The cello sounds better than it has in years and I enjoy practicing it!

I really enjoy the different approach. On gut strings you have to work a little harder, because the strings have such a different tension. They vibrate so much wider! This brings out all sorts of different sounds. The vibrato requires a different approach as well. Colouring with the vibrato on gut strings is so much more effective!

(In this picture you see the difference in thickness between an Evah Pirazzi C-string and an Oliv.)

Totally off topic: I suddenly have to perform a solo piece by George Andrix next week at an arts council conference. A camera crew from the learning channel will be there to film the performance as well, because they are making a documentary about the bow maker of my contemporary bow; Roy Quade. I really should play the Mirecourt, since playing it on the carbon fibre would be making too much of a statement. But since I just put these gut strings on, the instrument squeaks and squacks a lot!

I have my work cut out for me in the next week: I have many practice hours to look forward to, not only to practice the piece (which is great!), but also to try to speed up the "play in time" of the strings!