The Well-Tempered Ear

Are cellists the most friendly and sociable players in classical music? | March 28, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I like festivals.

I also like cellists.

Combine the two, and you have a good thing.

A very good thing.

Just ask, if you could, that most famous cellist and festival founder  of all, Pablo Casals (below), the man who rediscovered and rehabilitated the solo cello suites of J.S. Bach.

But is the old story about cellists being the most friendly and sociable (or is it social?) of all instrument players in classical music true?

Singers might be even more social, especially given the collaborative nature of opera and choral singing.

But I have indeed found that it is very often the cellists who speak for string quartets. Locally, I have spoken with cellists Parry Karp (below), Karl Lavine, Janet Greive, Sarah Schaffer and Benjamin Whitcomb, among others. And the rule holds up.

All the cellists I have interviewed as individuals or orchestra players are also a pleasure to deal with. They often have hearty laughs and a whimsical sense of fun.

They also very often seem to preserve a sense of proportion and to act as the peacemakers in a group.

And in my experience even solo cellists like Alisa Weilerstein, David Finckel and Yo-Yo Ma (below) are gracious, outgoing and sociable.

What is it about the cello and cellists that make them that way?

Could it be because the cello’s tone is so close to the human voice?

Could it be that you learn to offer help to and accept help from others when you lug around a big instrument and pay for a second plane seat on the airplane?

Could it be you feel especially close and human as a musician when you wrap your legs around your instrument?

Could it be the kind of music, very songful and lyrical music, that cellists so often play?

Could it be all of the above, or many of the above in some combination?

Well, it turns out that my own personal impressions are not just mine.

Take a look at the following stories.

The first examines the inaugural First Piatigorsky Cello Festival in Los Angeles, overseen by cellist Ralph Kirschbaum (below), who performed a few seasons ago with the Madison Symphony Orchestra:

More to the point, using the festival’s collaborative celebration of J.S. Bach’s 327th birthday last Wednesday, the second story takes a closer look at the reputation cellists have for being amiable.


  1. This entry got me thinking and it’s kind of true 🙂 Perhaps one’s character plays a part in why an individual picked up the cello among other instruments. Among the people I know who play an instrument, the cellists are slightly more mellowed. Somehow a handful of violinists tend to be more flamboyant and competitive, and may even come across as showy. *shrugs*

    Comment by ikmeow — March 28, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    • I think you are right.
      I spoke to a cellist today who hadn’t thought about it.
      But after she did think a bit, she agreed with the story’s premise.
      Yeah, she really really likes her colleagues.
      And yes, I think you have a valid point about one’s temperament determining the instrument rather than the instrument determining one’s temperament.
      Thanks for reading and replying so thoughtfully and affirmatively.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 28, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Last week, my significant other and I went to the Brussels’ Bozar for a concert by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Valery Gergiev at the helm. We had last-minute tickets, fifth-row seats, rather to the right, so we could see the cellists from close by.

    After the concert, we commented on the cellists’ behavior. Between each piece, they discussed the score in a very lively way, pointing out difficult passages and expressing their joy at managing these. So, they were very talkative, even a bit garrulous but otherwise very congenial.

    Comment by jgysenbergs — March 28, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    • What a great story to prove the point, not only about individual cellists but about whole groups or sections of cellists. Thank you for reading the post and replying with such an interesting and engaging, even reassuring, observation. It makes a bit sorry I didn’t study the cello rather than the piano — though something in me really connects with the piano. And strings are hdd, even with congeniality! Best,

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 28, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  3. Dear Jake,

    You mentioned, in today’s post, the solo cello suites of J S Bach. I have loved his solo violin partitas for years – they were the first pieces to make me “hear” the glory and potential of the instrument. (I have the old recordings of Heinrich Szering.)

    Can you recommend your favorite recordings of the cello suites? Many thanks.

    By the way, what music is found on your piano these days? I am discovering the Amazing variety of Alexandre Tansman. Also delighting in an obscure (at least to me) Debussy that seems to be the first steps into Paris jazz: “6 Épigraphes antiques.”


    Nan Morrissette

    Comment by Nan Morrissette — March 28, 2012 @ 4:56 am

    • HI Nan,
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      I love the violin partitas too, and I have Szeryng (pianist Artur Rubinstein’s favorite violinist, by the way) as well as the great set by the Belgian Arthur Grumiaux on Philips. I also have the ones by Nathan Milstein and a recent set by Gidon Kremer.

      As for the cello suites, I tend to favor the hybrid readings that use modern instruments but very transparently with sprightly dance tempi, much like period versions.
      I like Jian Wang (who was featured as a kid in Isaac Stern’s Oscar-winning movie “From Mozart to Mao”) on Deutsche Grammophon and also Ralph Kirschbaum (on Virgin, I think).
      But beefier, more Romantic versions work too, including ones by Mischa Maisky, Rostropovich and Janos Starker (who won a Grammy for his second set on RCA).
      I listen to both kinds, depending on my mood. That versatility is part of what is so great about Bach’s music and about different performers and their interpretations of Bach.
      Hope that helps.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 28, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

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