This month we catch up with cellist, teacher, and conductor, Amit Peled.
Before starting the Cello Museum, I encountered the work of cellist, teacher, and conductor, Amit Peled through his connection with Casals and Casals’ cello. When exploring online programs for cellists, Professor Peled let me sit in on his First Hour Online course, and I’ve enjoyed following his work ever since.
This month, I spoke with him about his many projects, including the March 2022 world premiere of Houses of Music, the fourth edition of his First Hour Online course (starting 9 April), the release of his Bach and Brahms album – Solus Et Una – later this month (29 April), and his dream of a music project that will change the lives not only of musicians but of entire communities, beginning in his hometown of Baltimore, MD.
Professor Peled has kindly given us a copy of Solus Et Una for a giveaway this month. Be sure to sign up below for a chance to win.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
World Premiere of Houses of Peace, a Concerto for Cello and Choir
Cello Museum (CM)
Congratulations on your world premiere of Houses of Peace last month. It’s such an unusual piece – a cello concerto with choir that has connections to Casals and was written for you. How did all of this come together?
Amit Peled (AP)
I’ve always dreamed of playing with a chorus. I treat myself as a frustrated singer, singing through a piece of wood. I teach with a lot of singing – my students have to take voice lessons. That vision of cello sound and chorus always struck me as something that could work. Of course, there are pieces, but they usually have the cello playing long notes, accompanying the choir.
Then, the conductor of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, Brian Bartoldus, contacted me and wanted to do a piece together. I told him about my vision. I wanted to do something with the “Song of the Birds” because it’s a song with the meaning of peace behind it. This was before the pandemic or the war in Ukraine, but I thought something for cello and a chamber choir would be practical because there are so many choirs around the world in virtually every college. Having a text that combines English, Catalan, Spanish, and Hebrew, everybody could refer to it. So that was my idea.
More than Just Accompaniment
Brian Bartoldus knew Joshua Bornfield, who is a composer. He liked it a lot – the idea and the innovation. We met with Josh, and I showed them a video of Casals’ speech when he received the UN Peace Medal – Casals was 95. He talked about the “Song of the Birds” and said, “Peace! Peace! Peace!” before performing the song. This rhythm in those three words ignited Josh’s imagination, and he said it was easy to write it after that.
Josh was very open to the fact that I wanted cadenzas in it. I wanted the cello to be more than just an accompanying instrument. So it’s very effective.
Peace, Patience, and Production
We had planned to premiere it in March 2021. Of course, we didn’t – we waited. Maybe destiny made us wait until this March. I think with the war that is going on, and also with all of us being from Baltimore, and the difficulties we have here in town with the underprivileged population and how real that is to life now in America – it brought it to a very special place for us as artists.
I’ve done a lot of premieres in my life; I have to say, without trying to insult any of the other composers, that this has been the most emotional and impactful one on the audience. I really look forward to playing it again. Now, Chorus America, a big convention, will take place on 15 June here in Baltimore, and they picked it up to be presented during the event.
Solus Et Una – Alone and Together
You’ve got so much going on! You have an album release coming up later this month on 29 April. What a fantastic title: Solus Et Una. Please tell us more about it.
You know that I don’t like to do things the “normal” way. For me, it’s like the cycle of life. The first three suites represent the younger person. Suites four and five represent maturity and maybe thinking about religion a little more than before. The sixth suite is the festival of the ends and peacefully saying goodbye.
My original plan was to record them when I could have perspective on them from my own life, so it was really great to record the first three on the Casals cello and pay homage to him and to the cello. But I felt strongly that I needed more time – as a cellist and as a person – to experience life before I recorded suites four, five, and six.
The other thing I did during the pandemic was to teach online and to be connected to my students. Last June, we did a residency in Montana, where we were completely isolated in Bozeman in a beautiful place, and we recorded this Brahms piece.
Better With Brahms
Again, I wanted to record a piece that hadn’t been done before and to take a Brahms symphony, something really beautiful, and encourage my students to have the energy to play during this challenging time.
So the title of the album is Solus Et Una (“Alone and Together”) because this is what I did during the pandemic. I was alone, and I was together with my students. As I was cooking this idea, I thought, “What if I record suites four and five and [add] the Brahms, which was special to record and was already done when I started thinking about the CD?”
The Brahms is sort of a preparation for the big climax of the end of the cycle where we play the sixth suite. As the conclusion of the cycle, I will record the sixth suite myself, of course, but also have an arrangement for the cello gang on the same CD, like a mirror of the same piece. I will play it myself and then have seven cellos playing the sixth suite.
My plan is not to play a solo line, and they accompany me – I wanted to do an arrangement where the parts will be equal. So one will be able to hear the suite the same way we have heard it now for years, but then to hear an almost orchestral approach to it. Like every project I do, I don’t know how it will sound at the end; I can only say that this is how I feel.
Catching the Moment
One of the reasons that I established my own label: CTM Classics – “Catch the Moment” – was that I can catch any moment I want. Nobody has to listen to it, but I can catch it. So that’s what I’m doing. I caught this “alone and together” process during the pandemic, and I’m now able to share it with the world, with whoever wants to hear it. The next step will be to share the sixth suite but for cello solo and with the cello gang all looking at the same piece of music.
It’s such a remarkable project; I’ve been looking forward to hearing it. But I was a little bit worried when I saw you were recording the fifth Bach suite because I thought I remembered when we last spoke about your philosophy of a cycle of life within the Bach suites. When you get to the fifth, to fully understand it, you must put yourself into a somber state of mind where you are looking toward the end of life.
It’s true. I have to say that working on suites four, five, and six during the pandemic, I leaned towards the fifth more than any other – just because of the c minor and the desperation. I wouldn’t say it’s looking into death, but it’s definitely looking inside and asking yourself, “What is the sense of all this world?”
I even went back to the standard tuning. I used to perform it with the scordatura; during the pandemic, I went back to how I first studied it because I didn’t want to have to tune my cello every day. There’s no sense to it because I know it sounds better with the A string tuned down, but I wanted to be connected to my cello. I wanted the immediacy of being able to pick it up and play the fifth suite when I felt like it. I didn’t want to go through the process of tuning [the A-string down to a G] every time.
Slowly I got used to [playing without the scordatura] again – to the raw feeling of just taking your cello out and not having to prepare too much for it. And maybe it’s also a feeling religious people have when they go into church, synagogue, or a shrine. You just go in, and you talk to God. In that way, I wanted to go and take my cello and play.
The Genius of the Sound Engineer
Another thing I want to mention is the close working relationship with a sound engineer. My last few CDs I’ve done with a fantastic engineer, Norbert Kraft, whom I love and is also a friend. But it didn’t work out for us to meet during the pandemic. Through my manager, I met probably the best engineer in the world. He’s won six Grammy Awards and has done recordings for the Emerson String Quartet: Da-Hong Seetoo. Luckily, we got together, and we clicked.
But he’s not just an engineer. He’s like a Zen guru of music. It ends up being a dialogue where his comments are not just: “This is not in tune. Do this phrase again.” Instead, he makes musical comments, and they’re amazing. I mean, it was an amazing lesson.
I’ve learned so much from him. Ten years ago, I would have just left the studio. I would have said: “No, this is not possible because I’m not going to change. I prepared so much for this moment.” And we would have argued, and I would have left.
But his is a mindset of an engineer and a musician. He hears music from a different angle – from the microphone side, from the speaker.
He’s a genius. I’m not just saying genius in how to record but also musically. When he has a score in front of him, the way he hears music is just different, and if you’re able to embrace that and be open and change, I think the result is terrific. It changed the way I approach it and teach it. That’s the greatest way to record because you can do it many times – you can experiment. It’s not a live performance. It’s different – a different statement.
What a Good Engineer (and Musician) Can Do
When I go to make a recording, especially now, I have so much more experience that I can let myself go and be flexible. Realizing that he’s so good at what he does, and also musically, I embraced this experience. A lot of it was his influence. As a violinist, he understands the voicing and asked me to change many fingerings. By the third day of the recording, he asked me to do so many things differently that I went into the morning recording session with completely different fingerings.
It was an extraordinary process. I mention it because a lot of people hear a CD but don’t understand the relationship with the sound engineer and how much an engineer can do – not just cleaning up what you play, but being part of it, at least in my experience.
Recording as Collaboration
Imagine being a cellist preparing the suites to record them. You play one through, and then he says, “You know, why don’t you do this on the G string?” And you try it and you say, “Okay, I will do it.” I mean, you have to be so flexible and so prepared. I see a lot of this recording as a collaboration.
I told my students, “You know, a lot of it may be stylistically not what I would do myself.” But I felt so strongly at the moment that this recording was a collaboration, and I liked it because it made sense to me.
This recording is a creation of both of us. I feel lucky that I could work with him. For the next CD, I would like to come beforehand and play for him without the microphone. I want to get his view of it earlier so I can adapt (or not) before we record.
First Hour Online Course (4th Edition)
You’re also returning to your First Hour Online course, which starts on 9 April. You kindly let me sit in on it at one point, and it was phenomenal. Please tell us more about it. How long have you been teaching it? Why are you still doing it when the world is opening up? Has the course changed or evolved?
First of all, I think everything we do now is somehow affected by the pandemic in a good and in a bad way. I try to see the benefits of those two years where we were stuck at home: we opened up to the world in different ways and reached out to share our artistic capabilities. Now I’m much more open to teaching online. These days, I have less and less time, but this is something I’m open to where I wasn’t before.
This upcoming 4th edition started with many emails from students asking me when is the next time I would teach it again. I chose April when I have four Saturdays available. I’m not at home for all of them, so I’ll have to teach from hotels. But I don’t have to play on those Saturdays. I have to rehearse in the evening on two of them, but I don’t have a Saturday concert.
The Same – Only Different
Instead of meeting seven times, which we did during the pandemic, it will be more intense. It will be four sessions of 90 minutes each instead of seven one-hour sessions. I don’t know how it will work out, but I can say that the entire first hour evolved for me a lot. It’s like you wish you could re-record something – I wish I could write the book again. But my book is a snapshot of what I thought back then.
I still believe in all the patterns and exercises, but the way I deliver them is different now, and that’s the way it should be. I will do it again because, for me, it’s different. I’ve had former students who said, “Wow, you didn’t teach me this that way. This is different now.” That’s the beauty of it.
I think the whole point of the First Hour and this method is that you take patterns and you apply them to who you are at that moment in life and what you need to do on the cello. I look at those same patterns differently now, and I want to share that.
Now and Then and Now
The beauty of this course is that even if you cannot be there from 10 to 11:30, let’s say Eastern Time on Saturdays, this is all recorded and gets delivered to the participants the same day. So they have the 90-minute recording to play with at home, and then they have the whole week to practice before the next session. And it’s a great way for me to communicate with students during the year.
I’m not sure I will do more of them, but I don’t see why not as long as people want to apply. It’s something I do every day and, for instance, my starting routine is a little different now. I do more open strings and spiccato open bows. But it’s where I am now with myself as a cellist. I will relate it to part B of the book on the bow and then go to the left hand. Even on the left hand, I have some new ideas on how to look at the same patterns. So it will be very similar, going through the basics and connecting them to your body.
I’m leaning towards creating a second edition of the book and teaching First Hour practitioners to work with people and then see how they teach their own students.
Inspired by Shakespeare – Music House in the Community
I don’t know how you have time, but please tell us about any other upcoming projects.
Maybe the biggest thing I do is the Mount Vernon Virtuosi. I’m mainly a cellist, but the cello gang is part of it. It’s a chamber orchestra, but it’s much more than that. I conduct and run this orchestra, but there’s a much deeper side to it, too. I realized during the pandemic, just by being forced to be here in Baltimore more than usual, the city needs music as much or even more than other cities where I have been sharing music.
Whenever I’m invited to play somewhere, I do outreach work. So I decided to put more time into my own city and into the future of where I live. The Mount Vernon Virtuosi is a nonprofit, and all our concerts are free of charge. But it’s more than that – now we are establishing what I call a music house.
The location? It’s an amazing story because somebody donated property for us to build it. Of course, we have to raise the money to build the house, but I feel this is more and more my calling.
The music house will be shaped like a Shakespearean theater, and it will be located in what it’s considered one of the worst neighborhoods of Baltimore. Here 15 musicians – 15 string players – young musicians who just finished college, will commit to living in this house for two years in the midst of where music is needed most. Instead of playing a concert once a year in an underprivileged school, musicians will live in that area and be part of the community. People will see the musicians walk outside with the instruments, and the musicians will work in the schools, all free of charge.
The property we have is an old warehouse in Baltimore, and the architect that I’m working with is a former musician who is a fantastic genius artist. He completely understood my vision.
Part of the Community
Kids in the neighborhood will hear the music and can go inside. The idea is to create a model that will change a community, and then maybe in 10 to 15 years, we could do the same in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and other places. But it’s a two-way education system where the musicians will live in the community and educate people about music. More importantly, living and working there will educate the musicians.
I want to create different music citizens who, when they leave this house, will go and get a job in communities and see that they don’t have to play in the New York Philharmonic or in Carnegie Hall to be a good musician. They can create something in the community, make a living, and make a difference.
The Sum of Experience and Dreams
This project brings together all my experiences in the last 25 years of teaching, performing, and meeting many communities – and brings it to Baltimore. The way we will teach the kids is called Every Child Deserves a Voice. We will teach them instruments, but instead of using the Suzuki method, we will take the gospel music that so many kids in Baltimore grow up hearing. That’s what they will learn when they learn to play the violin, cello, viola, and double bass.
My dream is that they will play in this house and other places with us in the orchestra. It will take some time, of course. I know I’m a dreamer. But right now, we are at the stage where we have the property, and nobody believed we could do this besides me.
Another thing is that the architect and I are working on a design that will not change the old-style look of the warehouse. We’re going to keep the natural look of it because we don’t want the neighborhood and the people there to feel that we are trying to gentrify the neighborhood with classical music. We want to keep it the way it is now, to live there, and be part of the community.
Helping the Community and Musicians
It’s a five-year campaign to raise the money because it needs to look the way I want it – not just halfway. Next to this music house, I want to establish a gluten-free bakery. This will bring people from outside the neighborhood to buy amazing bread, muffins, etc., and they will be introduced to this area and this beautiful music house. And I want the musicians to work in the food pantry there on Saturdays.
I think the musicians in this music house might be in for a ride that they are not expecting, but they will have time to practice – this is a big part of the curriculum. They will teach, and they will perform.
My vision is that this house will have a fully equipped apartment for guest artists, too. I envision, for example, the principal oboist of Berlin Philharmonic coming for two weeks to live with us, eat there, make music with the musicians, and bring this experience to the schools. It doesn’t have to be just musicians – we might get a philosopher or other specialists, and every dinner would be together, interacting with the resident musicians.
Many musicians just out of school work for a couple of years before getting a job. Many of them are extraordinary, but what they do is they start gigging. They play weddings, funerals, and community orchestra gigs – and they stop practicing, they’re deteriorating in their level of playing. I want to create a place where they have the time to practice – and the comfort, with free meals, free housing – everything is free.
However, my vision is that for about one week of the month, they work like crazy. They go to schools, jails, and hospitals, teaching and performing. The rest of the time, they live there in the comfort of not having to worry. They have time to practice, and they have those guests to inspire them. And they can have coffee in my gluten-free bakery just next door.
We gave readers a chance to win a copy of Amit Peled’s Solus Et Una CD and a cello bridge tote bag. Two runners-up each won a cello bridge sticker. The random prize drawings were held on 29 April 2022.
The giveaway is now closed for entries. Thank you to everyone who entered. Congratulations to our winner and runners-up:
- Winner of the CD and tote bag: Martha Vallon, Madison, Wisconsin
- Margaret Laing, Chicago, IL
- Nina Lucia Perina, Tisno, Croatia
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