Amit Peled is a world-renowned cellist and a professor at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. A native of the northeastern Israeli kibbutz of Yizre’el, he is known for his accessible approach to live performances, including friendly banter with audiences, casual attire and personal stories.
On Saturday night, Feb. 17, Peled, accompanied by the Peabody Chamber Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, will perform works by Shostakovich and Beethoven at the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore.
Jmore recently spoke to Peled, 44, who lives in Pikesville, about the upcoming concert.
Jmore: What can the audience expect from your Saturday night concert?
AP: It’s going to be live streamed on the internet, which is pretty scary and cool, because my parents [and others] are going to wake up at 3 a.m. and watch the performance in Israel.
I’m really looking forward and excited [to work with Alsop]. I know her … but we’ve never created music together.
What is Amit Peled’s Peabody Cello Gang?
Well, it’s me and my students. Part of finding my voice and my legacy is the teaching part. And not just teaching, but sharing knowledge and history. I discovered the best way to do it is to play with them onstage — not just speak in the classroom and do one-on-ones. So for one day, they become professionals. For that day, [they] are equal to me, [they] are playing with me, we tour together, we make a recording together, and we discover how to create magic onstage and to share it with the public.
We literally have people crying in those concerts because you see this vast variety of age and nationality — a boy from Cuba, from upstate New York, from China, from Taiwan, from the West Coast. I am from Israel, and all of us are at John Hopkins, in America, creating music together.
How have you come to play the historic 1733 Matteo Goffriller cello owned by the late legendary cellist, Pablo Casals?
I was lucky about five years ago to meet his widow [Marta Casals Istomin], who is still alive and lives in Washington D.C. She’s really a legend herself. I came to her apartment with my cheap instrument and I played for her, just as a way of introduction and a thank-you for agreeing to see me.
That introduction turned into a lesson. She was very tough, and after an hour or so she said, “Let’s have a glass of wine.” She started talking, and she said, “I want you to take this cello and to be the ambassador of this legacy, to make sure that the world knows about Casals, about what he meant and what music meant for him.”
It was really sort of a shock to me, sort of like winning the lottery. You get this instrument and you get sort of a publicity boost, but it’s sort of a responsibility because, why me? I’m just this little boy from the kibbutz in Israel. Can I carry this kind of legacy and responsibility?
How do you carry the legacy?
The first few months, I was subconsciously trying to imitate Casals. But then I realized if I wanted to carry the legacy, I had to find my own voice through that cello. That’s what I’ve been doing, through the music, the way I present the concerts to the public and presenting who I am. Maybe the point is to find your true inner voice and share it with the public. That cello has really helped me find that.
How would you characterize the state of classical music in 2018?
When you look at reviews from the end of the 19th century, people were worried about classical music. What will happen to it? How it’s changing?
Classical music has survived for four centuries almost and it will stay forever. The question is, how can we, the performers, make it more accessible and exciting for younger people? With the Cello Gang, we do concerts, we call it “The Cello Gang in Jeans.” And we just wear jeans and T-shirts and go onstage. We want to show people that, “Hey, we are like you. We are not nerds that play this sophisticated heavy stuff that you have to behave and be quiet. No! We’re going to talk about the music so you have a better idea of what it is, and it’s as exciting as rock ‘n’ roll.”
What is your “Journey with my Jewishness” program?
It’s really the story of my life. I start with an Israeli song that my mother used to sing for me as a child called “Oh God, Oh God.” I tell the public how I started to play and how the first thing my teacher put in front of me was a Bach suite, which really I couldn’t play. I play that for the public, then I play Kol Nidre, which is a Jewish piece — one of the first pieces I learned as a child, and the first piece I heard Pablo Casals playing as a child.
The journey ends with a piece [by the late cellist and composer David] Popper that was not written by a Jewish composer. Because when I think of myself, deep inside, of course I am Jewish and Israeli but what I really am, what my religion is, is music.
People talk, they have questions. They go out of there knowing exactly who I am, knowing more about the cello and knowing more about Jewish music and Israel.
How would you describe your own Jewish upbringing?
It’s a huge part of my life and I’m very proud of it. I was brought up not religious in Israel. However, we celebrated holidays and I did a bar mitzvah.
But in America, I found that I looked for [Jewish] identity much more. In Israel, of course, you’re an Israeli but here, who are you? I started going to synagogue and now, my three kids go to Beth Tfiloh [Dahan Community School]. I love the school. I speak Hebrew to my kids.
There’s something very special about the fact that no matter where I go in the world, it’s Friday night, there will be Jewish people, and we will have Shabbat [and] challah bread.
Matt Ellin is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.