Playing on Their Heartstrings

Cellists admit they are hooked on the sound and camaraderie


"You have between your legs the most sensitive instrument known to man," Sir Thomas Beecham said to a cowering cellist, "and all you can do is sit there and scratch it."

With that, the British conductor not only added to his lexicon of bon mots, but also summed up the two towering truths about the cello: It is an uncommonly beautiful music-making device, and it is difficult to play well.

More than 300 cellists, from internationally respected artists to a New York lawyer who has been taking lessons for six months, will gather at Towson University next Sunday to begin a weeklong exploration of the instrument's challenges and rewards. The World Cello Congress III is an intensive, extensive enterprise that includes master classes, symposiums, recitals, concerts with orchestra and, in the end, a performance by an ensemble of at least 200 cellos.

With most events open to the public, the congress offers an extraordinary opportunity not just for practicing musicians but also confirmed cello fans and those in the I-am-curious-cello category to become steeped in the "most sensitive instrument known to man." "Cellists are gregarious people," says stellar practitioner Yo-Yo Ma, by way of explaining why they enjoy coming together like this. "And we have to have a good sense of humor to lug such an unwieldy instrument around. "I think cellists want to share things. A congress gives them a chance to say, `This is how I do this,' or `I get nervous.' Anything is discussible. There are many truths expressed, but nobody has all the answers. A congress celebrates multiple points of view. There is such a sense of fellowship."

Janos Starker, self-described "oldest still-performing cellist -- in spite of my smoking and Scotch drinking," serves as honorary president of World Cello Congress III. He traces the roots of such gatherings back many decades. "The whole thing grew out of cello clubs, which had as their goal to popularize the instrument," Starker says. "The objective was to play the cello in such a way that the public did not think only of a dying swan or unrequited love, a tear-inducing instrument."

One of those early cello societies was founded in 1955 by Bernard Greenhouse, whose 32-year stint with the Beaux Arts Trio helped make him one of America's most respected musicians. "Fifty, 75 years ago, the cello was not appreciated as much in the U.S. as it was in England and some of the other European countries," Greenhouse says. "Great musicians like [Gregor] Piatigorsky and [Emanuel] Feuermann had a very difficult time making a living out of the cello. Today we have wonderful superstars enjoying careers with the cello."

Time was when an orchestra rarely engaged a cello soloist, and then would tend to use its own principal rather than a guest artist. Though cellists no longer have to struggle to be noticed, they still feel the need for occasional bonding.

Wendy Warner, a noted young player with a busy international schedule, has been attending cello gatherings since she was 12. "Something like this could never happen with violinists," she says. "They're so competitive. With cellists, I don't know -- there's a camaraderie, a warmth. At a cello congress, the focus is a love of music. Amateurs and professionals come together as equals. "And when you get to the end, and you're playing in a 300-cello orchestra, you really feel the love. It's an unbelievable sound."

The first World Cello Congress was held 12 years ago at the University of Maryland, College Park, the second in 1997 in St. Petersburg, Russia. How the third ended up at Towson University, let alone how it came to be directed by a dance professor and an emigre nuclear physicist, is quite a story.

Sharing an office in an under-construction building on the Towson campus, an office where the phone and fax lines ring continually and a cello-shaped wine bottle graces a side table, executive director Helene Breazeale and associate director Sergei Zverev cope with one crisis after another. "We're hysterical," Breazeale admits with a hearty laugh.

On a typical day, she and Zverev might fight bureaucratic tape to speed up visas for cellists from any of the 45 countries being represented at the congress, or try to reassure a young Bulgarian who apparently has never heard the words "credit card" that he can still reserve accommodations here.

At least there's a good chance that each problem will be solved, unlike at the Russian congress, which found Breazeale and Zverev even more frenzied during their first attempt at running an international conference of cellists. "People here are more responsible," says the Ukraine-born Zverev, who emigrated in 1994 and worked as a maintenance man before becoming a senior lecturer at Towson's Department of Physics. "In Russia, no one really cares."

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