Thursday, July 16, 2009


I love the cello! Maybe that’s because its deep and sonorous tones could easily stand in for a handsome man wooing his lover or a creative genius throwing an explosive tantrum. Its high, tenor-like range can be as delicate as a moonlit reflection that makes me thrum in harmonic response. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a crush on a famous cello player.

When I was a nerdy fourteen-year-old and a serious violinist, Pablo Casals was the object of my adoration. I lavished that same intense admiration on Yo-yo Ma in mid-life. Now in my dotage, I have a new cello-playing idol: Joshua Roman. He was the youngest musician in the western world to have earned a principal chair at in a major symphony orchestra (Seattle) and he is a spectacular musician.

In 1957 when Casals was eighty, he married his twenty-year-old student, Marta Montañez Martínez, who was just three years my senior. I wished I knew Marta so we could talk; we were soul-sisters. Not that I loved Casals romantically—I didn’t—and I secretly doubted if she did, either. After all, he was bald and his neck had those deep fleshy folds like mine do now. No, I worshipped Casals, and I was sure Marta did the same.

Few of my contemporaries knew of my passion, but Mary, my pianist friend, was as prone as I to adolescent fixation-attachments. While others high school juniors were sighing over Elvis and his Blue Suede Shoes, Mary and I were swooning to Casals’ rendition of Bach’s Cello Suites. I particularly loved the outbursts of groaning and humming on his records, making him fully human despite his pedestal. He died at age ninety-six in 1973.

That was about the time I heard another cellist who was taking the world by storm. Yo-Yo Ma had attended Julliard and graduated from Harvard, as strong academically as he was musically and one of his generation’s most gifted up-and-coming instrumentalists. Before long, I was gaga over him.

His chameleon-like ability to immerse himself in musical genres astonished me, from Argentine tangos to Appalachian folk tunes to Bach. Whether introducing music from Persia and Uzbekistan, accompanying dances of Mark Morris, or horsing around with Edgar Meyer, Ma approached the music as though it were a monopoly. Nowadays, of course, he sells out like a rock star, but I purchased tickets to his concerts before he was a household name. I’m an ‘I-knew-him-when’ fan.

Today a new cellist star is rising, and I’m right there in his front row. Joshua Roman looks like a youngster, with his head of wildly disrespectful hair and smile like a mischievous kid’s. He acts like a kid, too—in the best kind of way—such as hitchhiking to California one summer with his cello as his only currency. When—at age twenty-two—he auditioned for principal cellist with the Seattle Symphony, he was offered the job on the spot. He appears at local jazz scenes to jam and takes on musical dares, refusing to be stuck in the stereotypical classical music mold. At one concert he played not one, but four, cello concertos! His greatest legacy may be luring youth to “stuffy” classical concerts, but he plays with such maturity and depth his audience members have to remark on his age to make sure they heard it right. After only two seasons with Seattle Symphony, he departed. He needs to locate his personal ceiling, I think . . . to conquer as much of the world as he can.

I realized recently that I’ve come full circle—from having an adolescent crush on an old-man cellist, to having a crone’s crush on a young-man cellist, with Yo-yo Ma in between. With a gap in age of a hundred-plus years between Casals and Roman, I feel particularly pleased with the symmetry of my fandom.

Copyright © 2008 Sara J. Glerum

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It has been a long time ago, but didn't you and your parents go to (was it Puerto Rico or Cuba) to hear Casals play in person. Loved your essay on the cello.