So there I was in bed, listening to Classic FM, when Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei came on. Apart from marvelling at the majesty of the music, I couldn’t help but wonder at the beautiful tone of the cello, so set about looking it up. Here’s what I found out about Mischa Meisky and his Montagnana:
The story of how I acquired my cello has been greatly exaggerated over the years. I like to think that the story is interesting enough without all the hyperbole.
I left Russia with almost nothing. I did have a piece of wood that was cello-like, but I didn’t think of it as a real cello. Charles Beare, who was known for his generosity to young musicians, lent me a very nice Grancino cello, which I used in my 1973 Carnegie Hall debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg, playing Rococo Variations. After everybody cleared out after the concert, a gentleman who had been waiting patiently backstage introduced himself and said that he had heard I didn”t own a cello. His uncle was an amateur cellist and apparently had a very beautiful cello that his uncle loved so much that he never wanted to part with it as long as he could play at least five minutes a day. But now his uncle was 94 years old, partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, and couldn’t play at all. His uncle didn’t want to sell it to a dealer, who would treat it as a mere business transaction, and he didn’t want to sell it to an orchestral musician. He wanted it to be played by a young and talented solo cellist who would perform in public so that others could enjoy the instrument.
The next day the man brought me to his uncle and I spent several hours playing for him and chatting. By the time I was ready to leave he had tears of joy streaming down his cheeks. He said, “Now I can die peacefully knowing that someone is going to play this cello and that people will hear it.” He would have given it to me as a present, but it was the only valuable thing he owned and he was a man of rather modest means. At age 75, his wife was a relative youngster and he had to leave her something when he died, but he knowingly offered it to me for less than thirty percent of its value.
I was still heavily in debt from when I had left Russian so I couldn’t afford to buy the cello myself. But I was lucky that a few nice Jewish people in New York raised some money through the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Foundation bought the cello for me, though the Foundation retained ownership. I fell in love with the cello and lived in constant fear that the Foundation would want to take it away from me. If my career went well, they might say that I could afford to buy my own cello and that it was time to give another young musician a chance to use it. If my career faltered, they might say that they had given me a shot at the big time and now it was somebody else’s turn. I loved the cello so much that I couldn’t imagine my life without it, so I eventually secured a loan from a German bank and bought it from the Foundation. I now own the cello outright.
My cello and I have gone through several stages in our relationship. I call it my “beautiful lady,” since the word for cello in Russian is feminine. In Italian and French it’s masculine and in English and German it’s neutral. My cello is therefore a “she.” Anyway, we fell in love at first sight. Then we had a wonderful love affair while she belonged to the Foundation. Then we became engaged when I bought it from the Foundation. Now that I’ve paid off the bank we are married for life. It’s been 34 years since we first met.