An Esa-Pekka Salonen piece killed my cello

From the future memoirs of Brinton Smith, principal cello of the Houston Symphony Orchestra:

Some people will notice I’m using a different cello for the Houston Symphony living room concert next week.

It’s a long story. Exactly two months ago, on March 5th I played my last concert before everything started shutting down. I was the soloist for Esa Pekka Salonen’s Mania with the wonderful Jerry Hou and the Rice Contemporary Ensemble. I don’t usually play this kind of repertoire, but I thought I should push myself to try something out of my musical comfort zone.

The piece is insanely hard – melodies endlessly at the end of the fingerboard alternating with perpetuo writing with non-repeating patterns at breakneck tempi. Five minutes before I was to go onstage I put my cello down, stepped over it on my way to wash my hands and heard a crack behind me. A large section of the front of my cello had come off. I can only guess that maybe the very corner of my right heel caught the edge? I had injured my left foot that day – possibly a broken bone since it has taken months to heal – and was not quite on balance.

To turn around and see your cello in pieces is one of the worst feelings. To do this five minutes before an already stressful concert is only worse. I considered cancelling, but Jerry and the talented students had put hours of work in the score and the audience was sitting there waiting (including, somewhat randomly, composers John Harbison, William Bolcom, and Hans Jensen). Norman Fischer and my student, Russell Houston both valiantly offered their cellos despite my being 0 for 1 in keeping cellos intact, and I ended up playing the solo on Russell’s cello after taking a minute to get acquainted with it. It was not too terrifying because I figured if I sounded OK, it’s a win, and if I sound bad, I had a good excuse. But it was all I could do to keep my mind on the performance, knowing that when I got offstage I would have to deal with my cello’s gruesome injury. I joked that the challenges of the piece caused my cello to commit suicide…

The repair, though it looked worse than it was, will take months. The best New York luthiers all have major repair projects stacked up and most wouldn’t have been able to start working on my cello for many weeks. Luckily my friend Ken Kuo was able to convince the wonderful Stefan Valcuha to juggle things to fit it into his schedule. Since I was swamped with teaching, my wife took it to New York on March 8 on an overnight trip and Ken personally drove it to Stefan’s house in New Jersey (I can’t say enough for what a good friend Ken has been in my time of crisis, as well as my wife flying into New York for me just as covid exploded. Fortunately she was not infected).

A few days later, the US shut down and the concerts I was racing to have it back for all disappeared. But had Evelyn not gone when she did, the cello might still be stranded in Houston, still broken. Luckily Stefan’s workshop is in his house so he was able to keep working through all this. The top is in one piece again now, and finally back on the cello. It is almost whole again and I hope things will have settled down enough that I can go to retrieve it in early June. My cello (Gaetano Pasta, Brescia, c1715) has had a hard 300 years with more and worse historical cracks on the top than this, so it won’t really change the value and I’m hoping it won’t make much of a difference in the sound. We’ll see…

This cello has been my constant companion for 11 years. It is a dead tree with no leaves – just a thing, but I spent fewer days apart from it than even from my wife and daughter. It connects to you like your own arm. To lose it for months, to damage that I can only blame myself for, and then to watch the world shut down and all of us to lose all the music that meant so much to us … It all sent me to a rather dark place for many weeks, and my hands went fallow.

It is only my promise to the Houston Symphony to play this concert that has dragged me back into being a cellist. My first two days back were spent going through all of Book 2 of Gruetzmacher- painful without a thumb callus! I have not lost perspective- I am grateful my friends and family are well, and distraught for those we have lost, but this has been a strange personal journey to go through. Hopefully one month from today, everyone’s lives will be better and my cello and I will be back together again.

Meantime, next week you will hear my ‘old’ cello, which I played in the New York Philharmonic and my first years in Houston. Both the maker and the age are unknown, but I guess around 200 years old. Like a jilted lover thrust back into your life, we are slowly and awkwardly becoming reacquainted and learning how to dance again… So that is the story. The moral, of course, is never try anything new!!

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  • Lovely story. It’s so easy to damage string instruments. Really hope the repair goes well.

    Good luck!

    • Totally misleading title to the piece. He says “I can only guess that maybe the very corner of my right heel caught the edge? ” so could equally well have been about to play the Dvorak Cto

      • I agree. Mr. Smith starts his tale with an account of the musical difficulties of the piece for his instrument, and I thought there was going to be some musical explanation that would be interesting and perhaps salutary. Instead we had a simple accident of clumsiness in a small place by a recently injured person.

        This misleading, inaccurate headline thing is getting beyond a joke. There is a difference between clickbait and out and out misinformation. And this is the second time in as many weeks that such a case has involved a living and prominent musician. It might be wise as well as principled to be more careful.

    • Why on earth would someone give this perfectly innocuous comment a “thumbs down”?

      Mysteries of the interwebs…

  • This old gheezer, who thinks that music ended with the death of Britten in 1976 (that makes allowance for the Gorecki Third, which was being composed at the moment Britten died) would like to think that the poor cello took its own life. Good luck to Britton Smith!

    • Clearly, the instrument killed itself on the prospect of over-use of an un-idiomatic writing style. It was not the player who was conservative, but the instrument. Given the fact that all string instruments of today have been developed to a certain point around 1800, such instrumental conservatism is understandable, if not excusable.

  • The durability of such instruments is astonishing. Seeing that photo is painful — and then to read that the cello has had “more and worse historical cracks on the top than this” simply boggles the mind. All the best to Mr. Smith and his cello!

  • joking aside, just to be clear- the blame is 100% and my heel and not on the composer. There was no indication in the score to “destroy the cello!” That was ad libitum…

    • I thought the story was wonderfully told with a fine moral at the end. Hoping your instrument is able to forgive you for twin abuses: new music and inattentive violence.

  • I perfectly understand that it was a joke to blame the “new piece” for this accident, but it is not quite appropriate. There are enough prejudiced people, not to mention fellow musicians who are only too happy to take this kind of a comment seriously. One should also realise that in sharing this to a very public site this is no longer a innocent private joke.

    The article betrays a regret of having accepted to learn a piece that turns out to be very demanding technically. I appreciate the wish to push oneself out of the comfort zone, but I would imagine that with lots of experience one would see that the title of Mania is not a joke.

    It is clear that if we ever think a piece is dangerous to our instrument we need to have a serious discussion with the composer.

    Esa-Pekka’s Mania offers great technical challenges to the player, nothing unusual to the instrument. It needs time to learn it and stamina to perform it. No more time than to learn the Dvorak and no more stamina than the Prokofiev.

    From a personal experience I can say that any difficulty in learning Mania is returned many times over by the excitement in performing it and the appreciation of the audiences. I am honoured and proud to have premiered it and shared it with dozens of audiences. A further proof of its value is that my colleagues have taken it up the world over.

    • Ansi- I agree with you in all aspects of what you say. My gallows humor did not translate well or clearly in a public forum. I do not in any way actually regret learning or performing, the piece which is incredibly effective for the audience, and it was your fantastic recording that inspired me to ‘step outside of my usual comfort zone’ (youtube.com/watch?v=uEF_60W85aE) For me at least, the piece takes time to digest from a technical side, because the patterns are unusual, but I do actually look forward to having the chance to play it again (this time on my cello, without destroying it.) I am full of admiration for all you do to promote great and interesting music, which is so important to our future, and regret if someone takes the wrong implication from my attempts at humor!

    • Ridiculous. It was and still is a joke; people without a sense of humor likely are not an audience for new music anyway. In this era of offensensitivity, certainly your overwrought anxiety is misplaced in this instance.
      Love your performance of the Magnus Lindberg Cello Concerto, by the way.

    • Anssi- I agree with you in all aspects of what you say. My gallows humor did not translate well or clearly in a public forum. I do not in any way actually regret learning or performing, the piece which is incredibly effective for the audience, and it was your fantastic recording that inspired me to ‘step outside of my usual comfort zone’ (youtube.com/watch?v=uEF_60W85aE) For me at least, the piece takes time to digest from a technical side, because the patterns are unusual, but I do actually look forward to having the chance to play it again (this time on my cello, without destroying it.) I am full of admiration for all you do to promote great and interesting music, which is so important to our future, and regret if someone takes the wrong implication from my attempts at humor!

    • There are too few senses of humor on this site. Bravo to Brinton Smith for his very amusing tongue-in-cheek piece — and headline — and to the rest of you, chill!

  • The total absence of sense of humor in some of the commenters here is sometimes astonishing. The cellist said he “joked that the difficulties of the piece caused cello to commit suicide”, hence the title of the post. It is a reference to the joke, that’s all it is. There are misleading titles on this blog, as everywhere else for that matter, but this one is not one of them.

  • Hi Brinton, As a fellow cellist who has suffered similar self inflicted damage to my expensive instrument in the past, please check out the “celloGard.” This is a safety stand that I have spent over 5 years developing specifically to prevent this kind of accident to vulnerable cellos lying on their sides. There is a website and several YouTube videos showing how the product works. Between me and my students, we used to have 8 – 10 knock-over accidents in my studio every year. Since we introduced the celloGards – zero! If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll send you a comp to try out. Bob Ng http://www.cellogard.com, celloGardllc@gmail.com

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