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Our Cello Takes a Bow

CelloTaken at Purim . . . Luthier Avraham Regis Amar in his atelier, dressed as Sherlock Holmes with his pipe, cap and magnifying glass, looking for clues to discover what is wrong with the violin

When my daughter was 16 years old, she told us that she would like to play the cello. We had been taking care of my cousin's cello during her two-year stay in the States and my daughter had become enthralled with the cello's stunning appearance and majestic presence. Sara had already studied piano and guitar for several years and investing in yet another, and expensive, instrument required some reflection.We told her to think about it for six months and if after that time she was still enthusiastic, we would find her an excellent teacher and start her on cello lessons, if she promised that she would learn the instrument for at least three years and practice every day.

Six months passed and with promises intact, she started lessons. My cousin returned to Israel, the cello returned to its owner and we bought an inexpensive, beginner's cello made in China. After two years of study, we bought a much better, more expensive and beautiful second-hand cello from a cellist and lessons continued. Thirty-three years after buying this beautiful cello, the front of the instrument started separating from the body (the ribs).

There are several excellent string instrument makers and repairmen in Israel. They are called luthiers. Although we live closer to Tel Aviv, we chose one in Jerusalem and brought the cello to him. Avraham Regis Amar, who had been trained by Malcolm Healey in London, made aliyah from France twenty-four years ago. When he was 14 he decided that he wanted to be a luthier. His grandfather played saxophone, his mother played cello and he himself played the violin.The craft attracted him, he said, because it affords a combination of discipline, poetry and music.

Mr. Amar was interviewed by Antoine Mercier on Qualita, the French web radio station created for French immigrants in 2015 by Marc Eisenberg. He was asked whether one needs to play a stringed instrument in order to create or repair one.He answered that it is advantageous to play a violin or cello, for example, to know how to make fine adjustments of the sound post or the bridge. "When a musician buys an instrument, it's like acquiring an extension of his body."

Mr. Amar agreed that our European Maplewood cello was indeed beautiful, but said that simply gluing the front to the body would not suffice. "It will come apart again," he said, in his lilting, French-accented Hebrew. "The cello is warped; it has to be opened.I must see what is happening inside and will call you in a few days."

When he did, he told us that the cello, made in 1920, was sick. "It is cracked in several places and there are worms inside that have eaten the wood. I can fix it, but it will take about three months. The bow is "tired" and the strings need replacing. I cannot put the cello back together again without fixing it because it's just too warped. It will cost fifteen thousand (15,000) shekels to repair. You must return to Jerusalem to see for yourself what the cello looks like inside. Once repaired, however, the cello could sell for 25,000 Euro."

We were in shock. But we knew someone who could help us.

About thirty years ago, we had received a call from a medical colleague, a friend of ours who had come on aliyah and lived in Beer Sheva. He asked us if we could host Hannah and Asher Blachman from Beer Sheva for Shabbat in our home in Kfar Saba. This couple, a cellist and a violinist, were both Sabbath observant immigrants from Canada and the U.S. respectively. Asher was going to perform in Kfar Saba's Cultural Center with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva an hour after Shabbat ended. Since the two of them would not start traveling on Shabbat, they could never get to the performance on time. Thus started a warm friendship. We continued to be in contact over the years and celebrated other Shabbatot together.

We called Hannah, the cellist, and told her the unfortunate tale. She believed that the luthier knew what he was talking about, since she had had a similar case with her cello.After assuring her that neither we nor our daughter had intentions of paying 15,000 shekel to fix the cello, she suggested we ask Mr. Amar whether he would agree to trade our sick cello for another one of the cellos in his atelier which was worth 15,000 shekel.He could certainly repair the sick cello and eventually sell it, making a nice profit, though he might have to wait several years before finding a buyer. We, in return, would immediately get a very good cello, not as fine as what we had, but healthy. No money would have to pass through any hands.

The luthier said he had two Chinese cellos ("celli" in Italian). We could try them both out and chose one to trade for ours. Hannah agreed to meet us in Jerusalem, see the inside of our unfortunate cello and play on the two alternatives. We brought our daughter's original, inexpensive Chinese cello with us to compare its quality with the ones Mr. Amar planned to show us.

We climbed up three flights of stairs to a modest apartment which was both the home and atelier of Mr. Amar, entering a fascinating world of violins, violas and cellos, some waiting to be rented and others to be fixed or in the midst of being created. Some hung on the walls and others waited patiently on tables for their turn to be serviced. There was a pleasant scent of wood, varnish and paint. Near us, standing majestically and silently on the floor were two cellos made from Chinese Maplewood.I wondered which one, if either, would be leaving Jerusalem for my daughter's home in the Hills of Menashe.

Our cello lay open, like an anaesthetized patient on an operating table. And like a surgeon, Mr. Amar showed us the cracks, the dead worms and the wood which had turned to sawdust. Hannah sat down to try out the two replacement cellos and was very pleased with one of them, choosing the outstanding bow among the six which Mr. Amar offered to include in the trade, as well as a new case. "The cello you chose," he said to our friend, "is the better cello. It is a Chinese cello which I bought and upgraded, replacing the strings with the most expensive ones. The Chinese used to make very heavy cellos, like the one you brought today. They were not good.But in the past few years, they have sent their luthiers to Europe to learn how to make cellos, and today their instruments are very good.

Our daughter, now a mother of six grown children, who could not be with us during this tense but educational and unique experience, played the cello later on that week in her home.She was sad to lose her beautiful cello, but was very pleased with the sound and appearance of its healthy replacement.

"I hope Avraham Amar sells the cello to a professional musician," she said. "I enjoyed playing it for many years and now it's someone else's turn.It deserves to be seen and played often in public."

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Thursday, 24 September 2020

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