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100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 3: Stretches – Part One – by Robert Jesselson

Sat, 2017-03-11 08:00


I think that most people understand the importance of stretching before (and after) playing an instrument. I like to say that we are athletes: we are “small muscle” athletes involving the fingers, wrists, and arms. But actually playing the cello really involves the entire body. Whether it is a matter of producing sound from the lower back, or being physically expressive with our movements, we need to make sure that we are using our bodies in the best possible ways. Just as with any athletic use of the body, we need to make sure that our muscles are warmed up well before we start playing – and that we “cool-down” afterwards.  Warming-up helps by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, reducing the possibility of soft-tissue injury, and lubricating the joints. The cool-down after playing helps by removing lactic acid and other toxins from the muscles, and it will help to reduce muscle soreness.

Here are a few of my favorite stretches, starting with some of the larger muscles of the back and shoulders, and then moving to the wrist and fingers. I like to alternate among these stretches, spending a several minutes a day doing a few of them with repetitions.

Many people do stretches as a regular part of their day unrelated to playing an instrument. Here are a few standing stretches that I find useful:

Since tendonitis is so prevalent among string players, it is wise to address the potential for this kind of injury before it happens.  I am proud of the fact that because of our focus on healthy ways to use the body in playing the cello, virtually none of my students have experienced tendonitis.  If students start to have any issue with pain we address it immediately by analyzing the cause – whether it is poor body usage, “kinks” in the arm or wrist, tension, etc. The “anti-tendonitis” stretch helps to prevent injury since it deals specifically with the wrist and forearms by stretching and warming the muscles and tendons before playing:   In Part II, next week, I will present some stretches for the wrist and fingers.


The post 100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 3: Stretches – Part One – by Robert Jesselson appeared first on CelloBello.

Travels with Ima – by Robert Jesselson

Thu, 2017-03-09 19:04

This year my cello is celebrating its 300 th birthday. Made in 1716 by Jacques Boquay, I call her Ima, as in “I’m A Cello” because whenever I fly with her I book the ticket as Ima Cello. That way I collect the frequent flyer miles and get a free meal! When I was younger it was a lot easier to travel with a cello – in fact when I lived in Germany I used to fly with Swiss Air and they usually just let me take Ima on the plane without paying for a seat. Later I bought a big Kolstein travel case – it is huge and bulky, but it has an inflatable “balloon” that surrounds the cello inside the case and is made out of Kevlar so you can shoot a gun at it and it won’t pierce the case. Ima traveled with me all over the world – to Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and New Zealand – but it always came out of the case in perfect condition. Sometimes I felt like it came out more in tune than when I put it in!

Jacques Boquay was the first important violin and cello maker in France. He lived from 1680-1730, and worked in Paris on the Rue d’Argenteuil, which still exists close to the Opéra Comique. The family lived in two rooms above the shop. His wife was Suzanne, and he had a daughter and a half-brother, Louis Guersan, who was also a luthier, as well as an assistant, Antoine Véron, and a worker, Treuillot. After he died, at age 50, his wife married his assistant Veron, and continued the shop. Boquay is better known for his cellos than his violins or violas.

I have had the cello for about 40 years. I was beginning my professional life, having already served as principal cellist of the Orquesta Sinfonica de Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, Spain. But I needed a better instrument than the Ettore Soffritti cello I
was playing. I searched violin dealers in NY, Chicago, and visited Moennig’s in Philadelphia several times. But I never found the right cello for me. Finally on one visit to Moennig’s they showed me a few cellos but again nothing clicked. I was about to
leave, and asked if they didn’t have any other cellos I could try. I was told that there was one more – a small-sized instrument. They brought it out, and I fell in love! The Boquay had the warm, round sound I was looking for, and since my hand is not huge it seemed to fit me perfectly. I have been playing it ever since.

Some years after I had become a professor of cello at the University of South Carolina, I was told by a local cellist that he had heard there was another Boquay in South Carolina at, of all places, Bob Jones University in Greenville. I made an appointment to go there, and found that BJU had been given their Boquay in the 1940’s as a bequest. It had
been sitting in a locker for most of those years, and was not in good condition. Their cello was made in 1712, so four years earlier than mine, but it was clearly made from the same wood and had very similar proportions. It was really the long-lost brother of
my cello. I told the Dean at BJU what he had, and about how much it might be worth. A few weeks later I got a call from the Dean asking if I would be interested in buying it –which I did, for a great bargain price. Of course it was not in playable condition and needed renovation. I eventually had it restored, and used it as a Baroque cello for many

As I mentioned, I have travelled all over the world with Ima. In 1983 I spent six months in China, touring and teaching. I was one of the first cellists to go to China since the Cultural Revolution, and I had the opportunity to travel all over the country playing recitals and working with orchestras. (For a full description of that experience, go to an
article I wrote in the American Music Teacher journal, “Cellist in China”: ) In February I flew from the cold and dry northern city of Taiyuan to the very hot and humid city of Guangzhou. Days before the concert, I had shown my Boquay to Xu Fu, an up-and- coming violin maker in Guangzhou. They had never seen an 18 th century cello in person before. He and his associates studied Ima and took pictures. On the day of the concert, the cell suddenly cracked – and it continued opening a 6-inch gash on the top of the instrument during the concert. It was perhaps the worst experience in my professional life. As I was playing, the crack opened more, and the beautiful sound was lost. After the concert I had to decide whether to just leave China, or to let Xu Fu do the repairs. I decided o the latter – and I went across the border to Hong Kong for a week. When I came back the work was finished, and he had done an excellent job in repairing Ima. When I came back to the States I took it to Moennig’s and they said the crack was perfectly repaired – they only needed to do some cosmetic work on the top. Thirty years later I was in China
again with Ima in 2015, with a residency and recitals in Lanzhou, Baiyin and Beijing. It is unbelievable how much the country has changed during that time.

On another trip, in 2001, I led a delegation of string players and teachers to Cuba as the past-president of ASTA. On that trip I almost caused an international incident. I gave a cello master class at the Conservatory in Havana. A student played Bach’s Saraband from the G-major cello suite, but he played it in duple meter by holding notes too long. I asked the student if he knew anything about the history of the sarabande dance. He didn’t, so I told him that the sarabande is in triple meter, with the accent on the second beat, and how it originated right there in Havana before being brought back to Spain. As I explained that it was considered to be a lascivious dance because men and women actually touched, I could see the front row of professors talking agitatedly with each other. After the class one of the professors came up to me and asked why I was giving such false information. I was shocked that they did not have this basic knowledge, and that night I called my wife and asked her to fax us a few pages about sarabandes from the Grove’s dictionary. Apparently because of the embargo, musicians in Cuba had not
had access to basic musicological information and research since 1959, and they had no idea about the history of the sarabande.

Ima and I have had many other adventures together – including losing her soundpost on a bumpy dirt road in Brazil while going to a festival near Porto Alegre, and playing the Tchaikovsky while on the Trans-Siberian railroad as we journeyed for five days across the Steppes of Russia. In fact, Ima has circumnavigated the world! We also lived through an earthquake and a sandstorm together, as well as spending several weeks in residencies in Taiwan, Korea, and England. Ima and I have played much of the cello-piano literature, including complete Beethoven cycles and all the Bach Suites. We have also enjoyed the company of other musicians in chamber music and concerto performances.

Ima and I have had a good partnership over the years. She has had a facelift or two, and maybe a tummy-tuck, but overall she is in great shape. However, a few years ago I felt that it was time to give Ima a complete overhaul. I asked luthier Damir Horvat to do the work. Damir is a violin maker and restorer, originally from Serbia, who lives in Columbia, SC. I asked him to write something about the restoration of the Boquay cello for this article:

It was a delight to be able to preserve the work of art which was crafted in Paris around the same time that famous Italian counterparts lived and worked in Cremona. This extensive restoration took about two months to complete.

Boquay is a very characteristic maker in his own merit. He does not use any particular well-established pattern. The overall size is very small for being a full-size instrument, the choice of maple for the ribs, back and the scroll is rather ordinary instead of carefully selected curly flame, the top plate has a very evenly grained spruce. The varnish is oil based, with rather dark brown tones. Boquay did not shy away from leaving a few minor visible tool marks.

Dr. Jesselson’s cello had structural problems that needed to be addressed. The arching and the bass bar had become deformed significantly due to forces of the bridge and strings. A couple of internal reinforcements and cracks have come unglued. The edge of the top has been weakened by numerous openings so that the edge needed to be reconstructed in the process called doubling. The internal restoration of the top plate utilized numerous advanced techniques including special arching, de-warping, installation of numerous patches, re-installing cleat supports, crack repair, and the newly properly positioned bass bar.

To our surprise, the most interesting part of the restoration was the discovery of the so-called “through patch” in the bridge area. As the warm sand bags were applied to the arching correction process, the heat from the sand had warmed the patch so it came unglued. The “through patch” refers to a new piece of wood inserted and disguised into the middle bridge area which has had a total sound-post or bridge protrusion through the top plate. The “through patch” was so well-hidden, but after the heating it was very visibly obvious. I ended up installing a new “body patch” to reinforce an entire bridge and sound-post area, followed by extensive varnish work to make everything look as if no “through patch” was ever there.

Attached to this article are some pictures from the renovation. I was delighted with the results, and happy to be reunited with Ima. Mr. Horvat can be reached at

A few weeks ago I celebrated Ima’s 300 th birthday by playing a recital with pieces from 1716, 1816, 1916 and we commissioned a piece from this year, 2016. The composer of this piece, Mandy Fang (Fang Man), listened to me play Ima and then wrote a work inspired by a lullaby that my grandmother, Oma, had sung to me when I was a baby.  Oma had made up a different lullaby for each of her grandchildren, and I still remember it more than 65 years later.

The piece from 1716, the year of Ima’s birth, was by Jakob Klein. I had never heard of Klein, but in researching the music for the recital I came across his sonatas. They are very charming and should be played more. They are among the earliest sonatas for
cello (and are a few years earlier than the Bach solo Suites), sounding a bit like Vivaldi or Marcello (although they were written earlier than those pieces also). They have never been published since the original 1716 publication, so I used that first edition, and we played it with harpsichord and bassoon continuo. Interestingly, these sonatas are written scordatura, so the cello is tuned to B-E- A-D in order to sound more brilliant than he standard tuning of today.

I have been privileged to have had a forty-year association with Ima, and hope to have many more adventures before I pass her on to the next cellist who will enjoy her company!

The post Travels with Ima – by Robert Jesselson appeared first on CelloBello.

Spring 2017 CelloChats on CelloBello

Mon, 2017-03-06 12:57

Join the interactive conversation on CelloChat with our incredible hosts, on Sundays this spring!

All Chats take place at 8 PM ET unless otherwise noted.

All Chats are broadcast via Facebook Live on the CelloBello Facebook page:

March 12
University of South Carolina

April 2

Cleveland Orchestra

April 9
The Shepherd School of Music, Rice University

April 16
Borromeo String Quartet, New England Conservatory

April 23
Los Angeles Philharmonic

May 14
Mannes College at The New School

May 21
Eastman School of Music

May 28
Amerigo Trio



January 29
“Bowings in Bach – A Topic That Never Goes Away!”
New England Conservatory

February 5
“Decision Making in Bach, What’s Important?”
Stony Brook University, St. John’s College Oxford

February 12
“If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Break It?”
Amerigo Trio

February 19
“The Bach Suites as You Have Never SEEN Them Before”
University of California, Los Angeles

March 5
Parker Quartet

The post Spring 2017 CelloChats on CelloBello appeared first on CelloBello.

The Bach Suites as you Have Never Seen Them Before – By Antonio Lysy

Thu, 2017-02-16 20:38

Hundreds of scholars have studied and written about the Bach Suites, yet we can only speculate about how or when they were first performed. The original manuscript is lost, leaving us with various facsimiles to decipher, and there are no written accounts by Bach’s contemporaries. The one advantage of this predicament is the wide spectrum of artistic decisions on which a cellist is compelled to ruminate, in order to make them “their own”.

Apparently the suites were not intended to be performed as a cycle, although this approach has become increasingly common in the last couple of decades. My current perspective, developed over many years of performing and teaching the suites, is that each of the six tells a distinctive story. And, like a series of books or films, each component is woven into a broader narrative. Presenting these works in chronological order highlights this overall structure as well as Bach’s astoundingly fluent compositional style. He begins, in the first suite, with youthful simplicity, and after choreographing an array of preludes and dances with heavenly sophistication, ends with the glorious, life-affirming sixth suite. It is as if the cycle is an etched outline of life itself, in one continuous brush stroke.

Embarking on this project to perform the Bach Suites cycle at The Broad Stage a year ago, allowed me to further explore the possibilities of presenting traditional classical music in a fresh light, while making every attempt to preserve its pure, aural integrity.

The performance’s visual component, a combination of projected photography, video, and lighting, stemmed from my experience producing the multimedia show Te Amo, Argentina. The projected backdrops became stimuli for reflection on an imagined narrative, and offered an inspired ornament to the setting, transporting the public to fantastical concert venues. Mark Swed of the LA Times eloquently described a similar concert experience: “to transform the space in which the music is performed through projections that alter one’s perception of space, place, and just maybe, sound.”

The virtual venues chosen by me and my production assistant Chloe Knudsen were: For the first Suite, an Antelope Valley cave, illuminating the stunning strata within, and the genesis of time; for the second, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, in all its glory, allowing the audience to quietly and slowly survey some of its most celebrated frescoes; the third, the magnified lit-up interior of a cello, with light pouring in from the F holes – a glimpse into its soul; the fourth, a series of colorful and intricately decorated cupolas from Muslim temples (a tribute to tolerance of diversity in our country, right after the shooting in San Bernardino); the fifth, grand rooms of abandoned buildings, conveying the message of the futility of war, via the dark and dramatic qualities of this C minor Suite; and finally the sixth, celebrating the natural wonders of our earth, depicting fjords, salt deserts, the Giant’s Causeway, and in the final Gigue, a time-lapse explosion of the magical, dancing Northern Lights.

The most conspicuous feature of that afternoon’s performance, however, was my cello. The audience did not see the golden varnish of my three hundred year old Italian cello (a CarloTononi), but rather a gleaming, modern, Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello, made in Boston in 2014. This cello is light and quick to respond, which among other benefits, facilitates surprising physical freedom. That relative release of effort allows for remarkable surprises in tackling the Suites, from choices of fingerings, articulations of the bow, sound concepts, and a general psychological sense of liberty that encourages an improvisatory quality.

Performing the cycle on this cello taught me a great deal, and pushed me further to research the boundaries of interpretation, juxtaposing the contemporary and the ancient, and to strive to make a compelling case for interpreting Bach’s Suites on what preconceived notions would consider hardly a cello. It was risky, as for many it verged on the sacrilegious! No rotten tomatoes were thrown at me however, and by all appearances it was a success – the sold-out theater saw the audience on their feet after the closing bars, apparently not for a mad rush to the exit. I am now very curious about how such an instrument will change in time, and affect the evolution of performance practice in classical music!

To hear more from Antonio Lysy, click HERE

The post The Bach Suites as you Have Never Seen Them Before – By Antonio Lysy appeared first on CelloBello.

If it ain’t Baroque, don’t Break it? Thoughts about Playing Bach Today…. – By Inbal Segev

Sun, 2017-02-12 20:59

When I decided to record the Bach cello suites a couple of years ago, I started not by
playing but by reading. I read Bach’s biography, and then a few Baroque practice books
(extremely dense and quite boring) and then I became inspired to change almost
everything about the way I played Bach. I eventually came back to doing things the way
that had been a part of my DNA after years of playing Bach the “modern” way (but
improved), and I’d like to share some of my experiments with you.

I never played from a manuscript copy before. The notes are difficult to decipher and so
the work is slow and cumbersome. Worth it! Playing from copies of the surviving
manuscripts by Anna Magdalena and Kellner taught me so much.

There is really no way of knowing if a particular bowing works unless you actually
practice it. Not only calculate it in your head, and not only read it a couple of times, but
REALLY practice it. And tha’s what I found I had to do. I focused on Anna Magdalena’s
copy because making a hybrid of Kellner and A.M. didn’t make sense to me. Her copy
was just too different from his and I felt I gravitated towards hers.

Experimenting: I tuned my cello to 332=A, then 334, 335, 336 and 338=A. Having
absolute pitch, this was mildly painful, but one can get used to anything over time. I
found, though, that my sound quality deteriorated. The colors and sonority that I thought
would change for the better, did not. It turned out that you can’t go half way on this. A
whole different set up is required, and gut strings sounded awful on my 1673 Ruggieri.
Why? The instrument was set up for modern playing. In order to change the setup I
would have to give up playing the Shostakovich concerto on this cello and I was not
willing to do so. I could possibly have played on a different cello, but there is a bigger
issue: the whole concept of Baroque sound and the stylistic changes that I tried to
emulate required permanent changes in my playing technique. Not something you can
snap in and out of, but rather a commitment for life.

And so, I started thinking back to my childhood and how the great Paul Tortellier
recordings where so fantastically beautiful that I would dance to each suite in our living
room and the orange and brown swirls of our old carpet are still etched in my memory.

Tortelier was not a Baroque cellist but he nevertheless brought Bach to life; he
understood Bach’s language. I wanted to understand it too.

What I suggest for anyone who is studying the suites:

— Harmonic analyzation of each movement. If you can’t do it yourself, here’s a book
that you need to read: Allen Winold’s Bach’s cello suites.

— Compare all the different Allemandes, different Courantes, different Sarabandes, etc.

to try to understand the differences and bring them out

To be continued…

Other reading suggestions (warning: may lead to severe drowsiness and eventual


The History of violin playing from origins to 1761 by David D. Boyden

Extra points:

Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach by Meredith Little

The post If it ain’t Baroque, don’t Break it? Thoughts about Playing Bach Today…. – By Inbal Segev appeared first on CelloBello.

17 (Not so) Random Tips for Practicing the Bach Cello Suites – by Inbal Segev

Thu, 2017-02-09 13:49

1. First play the bass line. Then add the top voice.

2. Think about voicing.

3. Sequences.

4. Find circles of fifths and enjoy them!

5. Gestures on slurs; the Baroque bow is heavier at the frog and lighter at the tip and sometimes it’s beautiful to show the tapering of sound towards the tip.

6. Show where codas happen.

7. Interrupted cadence?

8. Sigh figures.

9. Be aware of the underlying harmony.

10. Echo effects (not too much!).

11. Vary bow pressure — Baroque bow is heavier on the down bow, lighter on the up bow. This can shape a passage of descending eight notes for example. They are not all equal in length and strength.

12. Gigue — breathe more. Feel like you are about to skip before the start.

13. When playing triplets — when two notes are slurred, the third note is still part of the group.

14. Gigue or Giga? French, Italian or a mix of both? Italian Gigue is brilliant, bright and simpler harmonically than the French, which has dotted rhythms and is contrapuntal.

15. Play with figuration. In other words, notice repetitive patterns and show that they repeat; change their expression as you repeat them.

16. Different registers have different colors.

17. Gut strings take a while to speak, especially thick C strings. Even if you play on modern strings — give them time. Also, when playing large intervals, take some extra time.

The post 17 (Not so) Random Tips for Practicing the Bach Cello Suites – by Inbal Segev appeared first on CelloBello.

B A C H S U I T E S – by Colin Carr

Thu, 2017-02-02 15:17

Bowings, beats, bass, bowings and fingerings fit together, bow distribution, bible?
Articulation and Anna Magdelena
Chords, cadences. common themes within each suite, comfort?
Harmony, harmonics?

Slurs, scales, sequences, spontaneity
Understanding direction of phrases. Up bow or down bow?
Tension from dissonance. tempo choices, trills

I was asked to choose a Bach related topic for this live Facebook chat, but I couldn’t think of justone. Instead I thought I would try to cover as many issues as I can think of, using this (gimmicky) chart as a starting point. I will talk about each of the sub-headings, and in doing so hope to answer a lot of questions before they have been asked!

I have been playing and teaching the suites all my life. There have been countless performances, single suites in recitals, three suites in a concert, and often all six in one day. So it may come as a surprise that, whilst loving this music and feeling intimately connected, I will offer the provocative and (for a cellist) heretical premise that the Bach Suites are not the deepest, most profound music that the great man wrote. Sure the 5th and 6th are more complex and substantial, but the “cello bible” notion doesn’t ring true for me. It is in fact the simplest of music that requires easy listening from its audience and easy playing from its performer. The catch is that there is a tremendous amount of hard work that must go into the easy playing. One thing is for sure: the music doesn’t play itself. It is in constant need of the imagination and vision of its player, now more than ever, without which it struggles to come to life.

Anna Magdalena Bach helps us on our way in this respect. My infatuation with AMB began long ago when I realized I was bored by my Bach playing. With AMB there is never a dull moment, she challenges us to think beyond the notes, to extend our right hand expertise, and to live in a spirit of improvisation. I will explore this more in the chat when discussing use of the bow and many of the other topics, but I will say here that the issue of bowings is not limited to decisions of whether to play up bow or down bow, or how many notes to slur. It is much more complicated: varying the amount of bow to feel the direction of a phrase, varying the contact point as a reaction to different chords, particularly with reference to dissonance, tension and resolution, deciding in which part of the bow to play, defining the meaning of a slur (more than just the number of notes in a bow), and above all, takings risks!

Comfort is another important issue. Comfort is both friend and foe. We don’t play well unless we are comfortable, but we make too many artistic sacrifices in the name of comfort. To give just one small example, the need to have every main beat begin on a down bow is very limiting. That’s the beauty of the first bar of the first prelude in AMB’s hand where the middle of the bar falls on an up bow. And from there it never ends!

Many of the topics are related and ideas about one will answer questions about another. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed thinking about it.

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CelloBello Launches an All-New Website

Mon, 2017-01-23 13:18

Welcome to the All-New CelloBello! 

We are thrilled to finally unveil this classy new website; more beautiful, more versatile, and more flexible than we ever imagined possible. Seven years of growth necessitated a move from CelloBello’s original digs to a roomier and more updated new home. We are certain that you will enjoy the dazzling graphics, mobile friendly layout, and all of the many new lessons, master classes, interviews, and substantive new content of this site.

Please take a self-guided tour through all sections, and familiarize yourself with the layout and navigation. The website is now mobile friendly, and will conform to your smart phone or tablet screen, making it easier than ever to take it into a practice room and keep it next to you as an educational resource as you work. And we have a new global, site-wide search function that will pull related material together for you. Try entering “Bach” in the search box, for example, and you will be shown literally dozens of recordings, lessons, master classes, interviews, and blogs, accumulated over the past several years.

To celebrate this opening, we have released 11 new videos full of wonderful advice and information from Robert deMaine, Paul Katz, Yo-Yo Ma, Marcy Rosen, and Alisa Weilerstein. And we have much more on its way! We will give you a few days to digest these lessons, master classes, and interviews, and then begin sharing additional material!

You can read about our Bach Celebration in CelloNews. We began last week with a livestream of Pieter Wispelwey performing all six Bach Suites live from Amsterdam, and a CelloChat on Bach with Paul Katz. This week we have a live-streamed class on Thursday, and a CelloChat on Sunday on the Bach cello suites with Laurence Lesser. The Bach Celebration will continue in future weeks with Colin Carr, Antonio Lysy, and Inbal Segev. And be sure to read their articles on Bach in CelloBlogs as well!

CelloBello has a huge amount of content to integrate and so we expect some inevitable bugs that we will need to work out over the next couple of weeks. We would appreciate a quick email from you if you experience problems or notice something that is not working. Please help us by writing to

I am immensely grateful for the Team CelloBello staff – Jussi, Clare, Danny, Elana, and Michelle. We are also fortunate to have found the brilliant Paul Boivin and Blink-Tech, who have given us devoted web design and computer expertise for this educational project at bargain prices. Above all, this new website is thanks to my amazing web-master, Jussi. Jussi’s technical and organizational skills, tasteful and sensitive sense of aesthetics, and iron-willed work ethic, have guided this entire project over the course of many months.

My thanks to all the amazing artists and pedagogues who volunteer their time to contribute their knowledge and artistic perceptions, and to the many thousands of cellists and cello-lovers who frequent CelloBello; it is your enthusiasm, loyalty, and support that make this all possible.

In a world so fraught with division, it is immensely satisfying to be able to foster something of beauty and collaboration on an international scale. I like to think that CelloBello serves as a tiny example of what can be accomplished by people who value cooperation, have an interest in and tolerance for a broad range of differing ideas, and the desire to openly share their knowledge and expertise. This adventure continues to enrich my life, and I thank you all!


Paul Katz

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CelloBello’s Celebration of the 300th Anniversary of the Cello Suites of J.S. Bach

Mon, 2017-01-23 12:56

The six solo suites of J.S. Bach (composed 1717–1723) are so central to the life of every cellist, young and old, amateur and professional, that we don’t really need an anniversary year to celebrate them. Yet, while historians are unable to tell us in precisely which years they were written, many feel it’s possible that Bach began composing them exactly 300 years ago, in the year 1717.

The wildest science fiction of Bach’s day could never have predicted the Internet, that the music of this modest composer in the little German town of Cöthen would be revered and celebrated worldwide with livestreamed concerts, CelloChats, master classes and blogs.

But that is exactly what we are doing on CelloBello!  Nothing could be more central to a website devoted to the cello, than the celebration and substantive discussion of these enduring masterpieces.

Thursday, January 26, 2017 at 4 pm
on Facebook Live

Lesser has devoted much of his artistic life to the study, teaching, performing and recording of Bach. He approaches performance with reverence, intelligence, life-long inquiry, and an innate musical talent. You don’t want to miss his streamed master class and CelloChat sessions this week.

A few of his thoughts on Bach:

“When anyone approaches the Bach Cello Suites, it’s natural to begin thinking about a “correct” way to play them. My teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky, used to say: “Never play for the cellists in the audience – they always have a different idea.”  Start that instead with “Never play Bach for . . .” and life gets even harder! Like every young cellist of my generation, I was very influenced by the recordings of Pablo Casals.  How could I not be?  He was considered the “greatest” cellist of his day.  And how could one deny the performances of an artist who always convinced you, at least as long as his sounds were in your ears.  I was lucky enough to play the d minor suite for him in 1961 and his ideas made a big impression on me. But as I became a professional musician, there was a wonderful new and fresh voice speaking through his playing about the Suites – Anner Bylsma.  I am very lucky to have become his friend – and his ideas continue to stimulate me immeasurably.  The Suites haunt me and are astonishingly deep and wonderful messages from a great master.”


Each of our Chat Hosts – Laurence Lesser, Colin Carr, Antonio Lysy and Inbal Segev – are also contributing in the week of their chat,  companion articles on Bach – be sure to read them in CelloBlog!


Sundays, 8pm ET

January 29
“Bowings in Bach – A Topic That Never Goes Away!”
New England Conservatory

February 5
“Decision Making in Bach, What’s Important?”
Stony Brook University, St. John’s College Oxford

February 12
“If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Break It”
Amerigo Trio

February 19
“The Bach Suites as You Have Never SEEN Them Before”
University of California, Los Angeles

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Happy 60th Birthday Marcy Rosen!

Mon, 2017-01-23 11:07

CelloBello pays tribute to the extraordinary American cellist Marcy Rosen on the occasion of her 60th birthday!

Check out her interviews Learning from Your Students, Left Hand Positions and Vibrato, and her wonderful master class on the Dvorak Concerto.

And there’s more of Marcy coming soon! Watch for her masterclass on the Mendelssohn D Major Sonata,
and two additional interviews:

  • The Bow Makes Expression
  • Bow Arm Fundamentals

For more about Marcy, read this terrific interview.

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The Bach Suites Dilemma – by Laurence Lesser

Sun, 2017-01-22 12:41

For longer than any of us may care to remember, we know that violinists are blessed with a beautiful manuscript of Bach’s 6 solo works they have, carefully written out by the composer; but sometime after he wrote the 6 suites for solo cello (finished by 1721) his manuscript disappeared, probably after his death, and has to date never been found.  We are very lucky to have 2 sources, each important in different ways, that have saved these works from oblivion: copies by his wife, Anna Magdalena and by his Leipzig fellow musician, Johann Peter Kellner.  While each has its share of problems, we have more than enough from them to be able to perform these great works.  But still, no MS from the composer . . .  In this context, the existence of JS’s contemporaneous transcription for lute of the fifth suite, with a manuscript in the composer’s hand, is of greatest interest and value. (This MS and both copies have all been dated by musicologists as ca. 1728-9.)

I first became aware of this manuscript in 1965, as I was preparing for the Tchaikovsky Competition of the following year with my teacher, Gregor Piatigorsky.  He had an old-fashioned copy of it on heavy photo paper.  The original is in the Royal Library in Brussels and can now be seen on IMSLP.  While the lute version is in g minor, it is really the same piece as the c minor cello suite, but the differences are truly revelatory:  filled out counterpoint in the fuga and other movements as well as a bass line in Gavotte II; unexpected harmonies in double stops throughout, while in the cello version there are mostly only solo notes; and written out ornaments.  I needed only the suite’s prelude for the competition and focused on that.  My performance of it in Moscow was widely commented on, but then life went on and I didn’t pay more attention to it.

In 1983 I was named President of NEC and, while I never stopped performing and teaching, I also didn’t have enough time to learn new repertoire let alone return to what I had started with the suite.  As that big administrative role was winding down, I was determined to do my best to catch up and one of the most obvious things to do was to make a full transcription from the lute manuscript back to cello.  I completed that transcription late spring of 1995 and made a test recording of it that June at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada.

Over the years since, I returned to the transcription often, tweaking it to make it more realistically playable (there is no way a cello can play all the added notes for the lute).  I learned that most important was to add only enough notes to highlight the differences and I settled on a version in which the Prelude is done based on the lute version and all the dance movements are first played in the cello version and the lute version in the repeats.  And I can also add that perhaps with a few extra ornaments, every note in my version is written by the composer (not even filled out chords across 3 strings).

Why is this version important?  Simply because it gives us so many insights into Bach’s thinking about harmony and clear examples of his ideas about ornaments – not simply where to add them, but equally where not to.  I think of the comparison in the dance movements as “black and white” vs “color” – each version wonderful but the differences truly fascinating.  Even if cellists choose not to play this version, my hope is that an awareness of his added ideas will be heard internally and influence the performance.  Maybe the most telling movement is the Sarabande, almost identical in both versions, but with some startling deeply felt harmonizations of not more than about a dozen notes.

So, there it is!  You can hear it in my complete suites recording released in 2015 and available through my website, where you will find more written about my approach to the suites – and other things, hopefully also of interest.  I am now exploring a way to publish the transcription and share that result on the website when that’s done.

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Cellist Taeguk Mun wins $25,000 János Starker Foundation Award

Wed, 2016-12-14 21:00

Reprinted from The Strad 12/14/2016

South Korean cellist Taeguk Mun has won the János Starker Foundation Award, worth $25,000.

Granted to cellists under the age of 30 ‘who have already begun a significant career in music’, the prize was created in memory of legendary Hungarian-American cellist and pedagogue János Starker, who died in April 2013 at the age of 88. Candidates submit an unedited video recording of six works, representing Pre-Classical, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century and Contemporary eras of Western music.

A former Juilliard School student, Mun is currently a pupil of Laurence Lesser at the New England Conservatory in Boston. He won the Pablo Casals International Cello Competition in 2014, and the Andre Navarra International Cello Competition in 2011.

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