Vol. 110 (2021)

A Conversation with Cellist & Professor 
Amit Peled



The New York Times praised Amit Peled's Alice Tully Hall cello debut for its: “Glowing tone, a seductive timbre and an emotionally pointed approach to phrasing that made you want to hear him again.” An internationally renowned cellist, he is known for his exciting and virtuosic performances in many of the world’s great venues, including Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Kennedy Center, Salle Gaveau (Paris), Wigmore Hall (London) and Konzerthaus Berlin. With over a dozen recordings on the Naxos, Centaur, Delos and CTM Classics labels to his credit, Musical America named him one of the Top 30 Influencers of 2015.


A Professor in the Strings department at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, that he joined in 2003, he has made unique and very creative contributions to the teaching of cello during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was thrilled to visit with Amit Peled for this Conversation to learn more about his work as a performer, teacher, conductor and author.


STAY THIRSTY: What goes through your mind when you are in the middle of a performance of Bach, Beethoven or Schubert? How do the sounds coming from your cello interact with your emotions?


AMIT PELED: When people ask me this at a concert, sometimes my answer to them is: “Maybe you don’t want to hear the answer, because you might be disappointed.” We, as artists, are sometimes thinking very ordinary things, at the same time we can make you cry. Sometimes in a performance, I am thinking, “Oh damn, I forgot to buy milk, and my wife will kill me” – and I’m in the middle of a fugue in a Bach suite. It used to concern me when I was young, but then I realized that I’m in such a state of concentration that I can think of other things.

Amit Peled

I also feel the audience and I see them and so my thoughts can sometimes go away. And sometimes it’s purely technical: a big shift is coming, and I have to deal with it, or an emotional change of color needs to come out, so I need to release tension in the bow arm.


So, many times it’s not as spiritual as the audience will feel. But my job is not to feel spiritual; my job is to make you feel inspired and to take you to another place. I’m just the pilot; you’re in business class, so I have to make sure that you have a nice flight.


And yes, sometimes everything comes together, so the technique, the emotions, the thoughts are together – that’s a magical moment. That’s not always, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not magical for the listener when I think about buying the milk.  



STAY THIRSTY: For six years you played on Pablo Casals' 1733 Goffriller cello, loaned to you by his widow, and now you perform on a 326-year-old cello crafted by the Italian master Giovanni Grancino around 1695. How are the two instruments different and the same?


AMIT PELED: Well, they are the same in that they are both very expensive and I could never afford them. And both very old. But that’s about it.


The one I have now, I think fits me better. It’s like when you go to a store to buy suits. I think until I got this cello, I used to play on suits that were on loan to me, and they didn’t really fit, but I had to wear them because they were so fancy, so famous. This cello came to me only in the past few months, so this is one of the only good things that came out of Coronavirus. This cello, it was made possible for me to try it, and from the moment I played a note on it, I felt that I was in a bath of hot chocolate. So I call this cello Shoko – Hebrew for hot chocolate. (I like to give nicknames to my instruments. The previous one was Pablo, of course, because of Pablo Casals.) With Shoko, I really feel that it’s such a dark sound, so thick, and it’s really the sound that I envision of cello.


It was made possible for me to play it thanks to a private family foundation who is loaning me the instrument. I was so shocked, and I feel extremely fortunate and grateful. It’s amazing because I feel for the first time that my instrument fits me. I just love this cello.


Amit Peled with Cello

STAY THIRSTY: Why do string instruments from the late 17th century and early 18th century continue to sound so exceptional? Are there any cello makers today that compare to the masters of bygone eras?


AMIT PELED: We don’t know what makes them sound different, but they do sound different. The best way to explain it is – it’s like driving on a highway, and that older instrument allows the artist to take small exits off of the highway that modern instruments don’t have. So in a way, it suggests color that you didn’t know existed. It allows me to go much deeper with my color, with my playing, with my thoughts, with my feelings, where a modern instrument would be like a new Toyota, very reliable, drives amazing on the highway, but it doesn’t go to the side roads.


And for the audience, some people will not hear the difference in sound, but they will feel the difference in the artist’s emotional state. So for me, it suggests much more color to explore, and that’s the fun of it.


Now, if you sit in the last row in Carnegie Hall would you hear that difference? I’m not sure. But the microphone would pick it up and you would feel in Carnegie Hall that I am in a different state than if I were driving the Toyota from A to B and not really enjoying the road.

Amit Peled album - Bach Suites (Casals Cello)

STAY THIRSTY: You have performed all over the world in some of the most renowned venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Salle Gaveau in Paris, Wigmore Hall in London and the Konzerthaus Berlin. How do the acoustics of a concert hall inform your performances? Is there a special energy that you feel in one hall vs. another? Do the audiences react to your performances in different ways depending on the country and the venue?


AMIT PELED: Absolutely – there are different energies in different halls. And, of course, I’m talking about live concerts and getting goose bumps because we don’t have them now.


But to go to a different hall, you have two vibes. One is the actual audience that you have there. And that changes between countries, like if you play in Russia. For me, playing in Russia brings probably the best of both sides because you have this history of the hall and then you have the culture of the people, the way they listen to music, it forces you to really strive for greatness even more. They are so cultured. They really want to drink every bit of the music and of you. Nobody rushes for the parking lot after the concert. They stay. They buy flowers outside the hall and they give it to you on stage even though they don’t know you. It’s really an amazing experience.


Playing in different halls is about those two vibes: the history of the place, and the actual human beings in the hall. So, let’s say in Russia, in St. Petersburg, one of the most amazing experiences playing there, knowing that Rostropovich, and Shostakovich, and Prokofiev and all those people not only played in the hall; they actually sat on the same chair in the dressing room.


The Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg used to be where the Tzar would host his New Year’s parties, and the room where the Tzar’s family would gather before they would go out to the party is now the dressing room. You’re sitting on the Tzar’s chair. When you warm up there, you get inspired by all of this. And then you walk out to the stage and all the holes in the floor, you know one of them is Rostropovich, the other one is Yo-Yo Ma, another one is Casals, and so you step in there and of course it inspires you to play in a different state of mind. Absolutely.

Amit Peled & Noreen Polera - Beethoven Cello Sonatas 3 & 4

STAY THIRSTY: With over a dozen recordings released on labels ranging from Naxos to Centaur to Delos and CTM Classics, what do you strive to achieve in the recording studio that is different from a live performance? How do you bring the energy of a live performance onto a recording?


AMIT PELED: That is a big question. I think of myself as more of a theater actor than a cinema actor. So for me, it’s very hard to create magic for my performances. And it took me years of work on myself as an actor – because I think we are musical actors – and to create for myself the sense that the microphones around me are human beings, so I am making music for people, not for microphones. Because the moment you play for a microphone, for me, I am not as warm and inviting and spontaneous.


In order for me to get a good recording, it’s important to have a recording engineer that I trust and love. And I found one like this for my last CD. It’s almost somebody that you don’t mind standing naked in front of them and not caring that you’re not perfect. Somebody that will know at some point to let me play even though he won’t use that take but just because I need to play. Or somebody that will tell me “Hey, let’s take a break.” It’s a very sensitive relationship. The hall is also important. One of the best places for me to record is a church in Spencerville. And it’s, again, acoustics but also the history I have of this place and with the people of this place. So if all of those come together, it’s the closest I can be to a concert hall.


But then again at the end of the day, I think a recording is a snapshot of that day. So when I leave the recording studio I ask myself, “Would it be interesting to me in 20 years to look on that photo and to have a smile on my face?” It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s me on that day, in that hall, with this cello, with that piece. It’s just a snapshot of reality on that day; it’s not more than that. And the moment you realize that you’re not going to change the world with this recording, it’s just a snapshot, you might feel more relaxed and more comfortable creating.

CTM Classics

You mentioned CTM Classics, which is my label. CTM means Catch the Moment. The reason why I founded this label and chose this name is I wanted to get away from people telling me what to record and how to record and I want to capture a moment in my life and then I want to release it. So now on my label, I can record whatever I want, how I want, and people can decide if they like it or not. So it really gave me a much bigger feeling of freedom.


And now it has developed into a production company and I have two books that I have self-published. So all of my crazy ideas, now, I have an address for!


Another one of them is my children’s book, A Cello Named Pablo, which has been really successful, but for two years I tried to send it to publishers. Nobody even replied to our emails. So I did an online funding drive for it and we raised the money in three weeks and published it and never looked back.

For me, it offers reassurance that I can follow my inner voice and I don’t have to convince somebody that it has value.



STAY THIRSTY: You are a Professor in the Strings Department at the Peabody Institute where you have taught since 2003. How has your teaching changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and how have your students adjusted? Do you reflect on how instruments from the 17th century are used to play compositions from the 18th century and are communicated worldwide via the technology of the 21st century?


AMIT PELED: The only thing that changed is that I’m more available to many more students. I realized after the shock of that first week in March, that instead of rejecting what was happening, to embrace it, and I started doing an online academy where I opened myself up to the world of cello. And I started having students on a regular basis signing up for this academy from Tehran in Iran, from Abu Dhabi, from Korea, from Australia. It’s just amazing. It opened up my world of cello to the wider world of cello and vice versa. There are no borders anymore, people don’t need a visa, they don’t need to prove that they are eligible.


I’m doing this in two ways: one of them is the intense online 10-day academy, with 10 active students in a lesson and many inactive participants observing. There are a lot of amateur cellists, doctors, lawyers, you name it, from everywhere in the world, who want to listen and take notes. And we always have Q&A so they can ask questions. It’s an online master class.


The other thing I do is with my technique book The First Hour, which I also published through CTM Classics. I realized that a lot of people who buy the book have questions. In the past, when I would travel, I would give a master class and people would come with the book and ask questions. Now I do an online “First Hour Journey,” and students pay for seven consecutive Saturday mornings. We meet for one hour a week on Zoom. We have 50 cellists registered for the course. We just finished our second course, and we start our third one on March 6. They’re playing with me; they’re all muted; and I play with them and I demonstrate and I explain the patterns and the method behind it and the cello emojis that I invented for that. But the cool thing about it is that we record it and about two hours after the session, it’s already posted, so they can practice with the session during the week. And we have a Facebook page where they can ask each other questions. I have participants from Australia where the live session is at like 4am the next day. And that has been amazing because The First Hour is probably something that I am most proud of as a teacher and because it is a system that I feel strongly can really make a change in their approach to cello playing and to music.


Having all of those participants … it’s really emotional for me that I am able to reach out to so many people, when I just couldn’t do that before. I have former students from Peabody that are taking this class. I just had a student who studied with me I think 15 years ago. She’s in her mid-30s now. She bought the book and wrote to me about the journey I have taken as a teacher! She remembered all these crazy ideas, but they were all seeds then. I had just started developing them. And now it became a book. And this is all thanks to Corona – because I always refused to do online lessons. I was against it because of the quality of sound and everything else. But this will stay for sure for me.


My own Peabody students are not happy now because we added a Sunday morning First Hour play-a-long. They thought they only had to play in their lessons, but now we added this play-a-long. With my students, they know what I’m talking about so we don’t talk much, we just play. But it does keep them on their toes. They’re actually getting better even in this pandemic.

The Amit Peled Studio Zoom Play-a-Long


One of the biggest challenges I had last semester was how to motivate my students to practice music, not just scales. So we came up with this Bach Suite Cycle. I basically assigned each student to play two or three movements from the Bach Suites and we put them together so we had the Suites played from 15 different places around the world. They got really nervous about recording it, but it came out really well. We just found ways to keep it going.


My online cello competition helped too, not with just my students, but cellists from around Maryland. It was fun because I could invite jury members from everywhere in the world and it made the students nervous, which was the point.


One other thing: On Zoom my students are never sick, they never miss lessons and they’re never late.



STAY THIRSTY: In addition to being a performer, recording artist and Professor, you are also a conductor and an artistic director. What is it in your personal background that has motivated you to express yourself in so many ways?


AMIT PELED: I think it comes down to the communication piece. For me, a cello is just a tool to communicate and it’s not more than that. Of course, what I communicate in is the most beautiful thing in the world – music. It could be an actor communicating Shakespeare. It could be LeBron James through a basketball game. I feel strongly that I need to communicate what I find out. If I find out something special in music or emotion between humans, the way to explain it, I feel an urge to share it. And there came a point when I felt that just sharing it as a cellist was not enough. I wanted to share it with more people, so of course being on stage does it. But the fact that I can work with orchestras, that I can work with violins, with violas and double basses, winds, allows me to express my crazy ideas not just with celli. So that was the impetus, the reason. And then in a very selfish way, I just love that repertoire, and I wanted to – for me – to learn it and to learn how to conduct it. I did study conducting in college. I don’t consider myself yet as a conductor; it’s a long learning curve. But I love doing it so much. And then I see the reaction with the musicians, let alone the public, so I’m really happy doing it.

Amit Peled (Israel)

And then the Mount Vernon Virtuosi – my orchestra here – because of the pandemic, we accelerated a lot of what I wanted to do before and we couldn’t. So a lot of community outreach that we just didn’t do before, we do now through Zoom. Storytelling time with the Pratt Library, we read books for them – not just me, other musicians in the orchestra – and we record videos for our audience to keep them engaged. We established the "Every Child Deserves a Voice" initiative and we just got 10 instruments that we are going to give to kids in Baltimore. So a lot of things that I want to do and just didn’t have the time in my previous life, before Corona. Conductor, artistic director, cellist, teacher, you name it, it’s just to communicate.



STAY THIRSTY: How do you react to students who are technically good on the cello vs. students who have technical flaws but are massively gifted? How do you modify your teaching styles? Can talent be taught or merely nurtured?


AMIT PELED: That is a dangerous question. Like any art form – when you study in medical school, before you get to operate on a human, you go through years and years of studying knowledge and just standing next to a master. Our world is the same. So I don’t like when a freshman or a sophomore – actually any level that still has a lot of problems – when they come in and they want to express their emotions in a certain way or they want to play a certain piece because it’s very beautiful but they can’t play in tune. Or they can’t hold a bow. So my job is to tell them “Stop, let’s take a step back now. We learn now to play the cello.”


Once you learn how to use this voice and you have the vocabulary, I’m not going to tell you what song or what poetry to write. My job is to make sure that you have the vocabulary, and in that case, I am very tough. Very Russian School, like my childhood teacher. There are no games and there’s no blah-blah-blah. You sit on your butt and practice and you do your scales and you do things the right way. And through that, yes, I find that some people need more time, or I will give them a special juicy piece to play just to motivate them while they’re doing the hard work.


And I’ll tell them, you know, “If you cannot play in tune, you’re not going to get a job.” I have had students who will send a tape to a festival, without having me approve it, thinking that the festival will not be as tough as I am, and then they learn.


I also tell them when they come in: “You all get A's.” Because it doesn’t mean anything. What means something is: Can you play the cello? Can you play in tune? Do you have beautiful sound? Can you use those tools to become yourself?


Grades don’t matter. If you think that will make you happy, fine, but soon you will realize that that’s not what matters. They understand, and that’s why the level in my studio is high.


In the end, you see that’s what students want – they want to get better. They don’t want somebody to sit here and clap and say, “Oh you’re wonderful and you play all the concertos.” "Okay," I say, "but how do you play the exposition of this concerto? Play one page and play it well." That’s different.


It’s not easy, but if you want to be a performer, you have to find your voice. It’s the same in any profession. I often use the example of Picasso – for years and years he painted portraits. And he would do it really well because he had the technique. And out of that, he became Picasso. Same with Einstein. Same with everybody that found their own voice – it comes out of knowledge.


So when you say somebody is special but doesn’t have the good technique, I disagree with you because I think we’re all special. I think every human being is special, but many of us have so many walls which stop us from expressing it. So my job is to teach them to break down those walls and to simply give them knowledge.



STAY THIRSTY: If you could perform a duet with Pablo Casals, what would it be and how would you feel?

"Homage to Pablo Casals" - Peabody Institute Founder's Day


AMIT PELED: Well, I would be so scared. Honestly, if I would have a chance to play with Casals, first of all I would sit down and smoke a pipe with him and talk with him before I played with him. I would actually rather spend an afternoon with him with a pipe and a glass of whiskey and talk about all his experiences, hear about them firsthand. Like, how was it to know Saint-Saëns and Fauré and to play with Richard Strauss, to premiere Don Quixote at Carnegie Hall. How was it all those things you did in your life?


And maybe then, if he would ask me to play with him, I would just shut up and play. But I would never ask him to play with me.


(Amit Peled photographs - seated & with cello credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)



Amit Peled     

Amit Peled – Peabody Institute      

Peabody Institute - Johns Hopkins



All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.