At age 10, Amit Peled picked up the cello for the most natural of reasons.
He wanted to meet a girl who lived nearby.
“She was a cellist and four years older than me, so I didn’t dare talk to her,” Peled recalled recently. “I just thought that playing cello was the best way to get close to her.”
So began a lifelong romance for Peled — but it turned out to be with the cello.
Now considered one of the finest cellists of his generation, Peled returns to Clemson’s Brooks Center on Tuesday for an admission-free recital that pays tribute to Peled’s illustrious predecessor, Pablo Casals.
“He’s sort of the grandfather of all cellists,” Peled said, speaking on the phone from his home in Baltimore.
“Homage to Casals,” with pianist Noreen Cassidy-Pollera, features a program that Casals himself performed 100 years ago. Included are works by Bach, Beethoven, Faure and Saint-Saens.
Peled, an Israeli-American cellist, last visited the Brooks Center in 2013 with the Tempest Trio. Tuesday’s program is part of the Brooks Center’s free Utsey Chamber Music Series.
In Clemson, Peled will be playing the same legendary 1733 Gofriller cello that Casals used for 60 years. The instrument, which Peled has dubbed “Pablo,” was loaned to him by Casals’ widow, Marta Casals Istomin.
If a girl sparked Peled’s interest in the cello, Pablo Casals inspired the young Peled to take cello seriously.
“My parents bought me a cassette tape of Casals,” Peled said. “That kept me going as a young cellist. I grew up in a very rural area and didn’t have contact with cellists. Casals’ sound made me fall in love with the cello. I never knew one day that I’d be playing the very same cello.”
Casals Istomin offered the use of Casals’ cello when she first met Peled.
“An older student of mine had arranged an audition/introduction to her (Casals Istomin),” Peled said. “That audition turned into a lesson and that lesson turned into a conversation and I ended up with the cello in my hands.”
When presented with Casals’ cello, Peled found himself unable to speak.
“There were no words,” he said. “It was overwhelming, like winning the lottery. It took me a while to realize what I had in my hands.”
Casals bought the cello in 1913 and performed on it almost exclusively, featuring it on many recordings, until his death in 1973.
“Once you find your instrument, it’s like your wife, you stay with it forever,” Peled said. “He used to call it ‘my beloved best friend.’”
Steak and dessert
Peled’s program offers a glimpse into the sort of fare that a world-class cellist would have offered in the early-to-mid-20th century.
What may surprise some listeners is how much lighter music is on the program.
“There’s a short piece in the beginning (Handel’s Cello Sonata in G minor) that serves as an aperitif,” Peled said. “Then comes the ‘steak’ of the concert (Bach’s unaccompanied Suite No. 3 for Cello). The second half, after intermission, is all desserts, shorter works and showpieces.”
Continuing the food metaphor, Peled said modern classical music performers too often serve up too much “steak” and neglect the entertaining “desserts.”
“Many present three steaks, three big pieces,” Peled said. “But I like to offer a second half of all desserts. And if the audience wants even more, I can play an encore that will be even more dessert.”
The recital features one new work, Lera Auerbach’s “La Suite dels Ocells,” a 2015 solo cello piece written in honor of Casals.
“It shows continuity,” Peled said. “Our job is to commemorate the past but also take music into the future.”
Peled first performed his Casals homage at the Peabody Conservatory, where he is a professor, on Feb. 12, 2015, a century after Casals played the program there.
Peled has since presented the same program to great acclaim in music capitals throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Like many other modern classical music artists, Peled is active on social media. (You can find him on Facebook, and on Twitter: @PeledAmit.)
“I think it’s important for the public to get a sense of who you are personally,” Peled said. “It’s not just a matter of posting your concerts. I want to give people a sense of my personality and thoughts on music and life. I also do this during the concert. I always talk to the public during my concerts. I think it’s very important to break those walls.”
Peled has another distinction: At 6-foot-5, he may be the tallest solo cellist in the world.
No surprise, Peled played basketball for a long time and remains a devoted fan.
“I watch the NBA fanatically,” Peled said.
Peled and his wife have three children, ages 11, 9 and 5.
But whatever happened to the girl who originally inspired Peled’s interest in cello?
She gave up the cello many years ago and now lives in London with her husband.
Peled and she remain friends.
“She always laughs about this story,” Peled said. “I’m going to play this same program in London and she asked me if I could get her some tickets. I said, ‘Of course, you’re the reason I’m playing cello.’”