Surprise! Joe and his Gagliano are here . . .

So there were two pleasant surprises today. First, me playing in tune on Baroque cello. And then a note from a mysterious visitor.

After our Baroque ensemble rehearsal, I went back down to my office and found a note on the door. “Hi Eric,” it read. “I’m in town for a while and am upstairs [in the practice rooms] practicing. Come on up if you have time. I’d love to see you.” It was signed, “Joe Johnson.”

Joe Johnson. Who is Joe Johnson? I racked my brain. He must be a former student. But I know I never had a cello student named Joe Johnson. Who is he, I asked myself. A DePauw alum who I’ve forgotten? Well, I never could come up with an answer. But then I had to run to a (very long) faculty meeting and teach a lesson and had no more time to puzzle over the mystery.

Just as that lesson was ending, there was a knock at my door. And there is Orcenith Smith, our orchestra director, with a handsome blond guy in his early thirties, cello case in hand. Joe Johnson.

So Joe came in and we started chatting. All the while I was hiding the fact that I didn’t know who the heck he was–although the name did kind of ring a bell. Well, finally it turns out that he had auditioned for DePauw back in 1990, but ended up going to Eastman. Then he did a masters at Northwestern, and landed a job in the Minnesota Orchestra, where he’s been playing for the last ten years. Family business has brought him to Greencastle.

He’s a great, friendly guy and, it turned out, and an absolutely fabulous cello player. He was very interested to try the Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello that was in my office, and eager to show me his “baby,” a beautiful Niccolo Gagliano cello he’s had for about six years. It’s an incredible-sounding cello, and it was clear from the first notes he played on it that he and his cello are true soul mates. I have met plenty of cellists with great instruments in my life. But I don’t remember ever encountering someone who is quite so “one” with his instrument.

We played each other’s cellos in my office and then went down to our recital hall, where Claude Cymerman was just finishing a practice session of his solo piano arrangement of The Rite of Spring. So we got to play the cellos for each other in there. It was such a delight to hear Joe, who is true virtuoso, play, and to hear his Gagliano, which manages to be powerful, rich, deep, and mellow all at the same time. He has a gorgeous sound (and flawless intonation), and I just fell in love with the cello all over again.

That’s one of the great things about being a musician. Every once in a while there’s a magic moment in which one is awestruck by the phenomenon of music and the beauty of one’s chosen instrument. Sometimes it happens in a concert. And sometimes it happens just hearing a man in love with his instrument play it for you.

It was also great to hear Joe play the Luis and Clark cello. I hadn’t before heard a professional cellist play this cello I play so often, in our recital hall. It sounded fantastic, too. Perhaps more powerful (or at least louder) than the Gagliano, if not as rich and complex. Both instruments are amazing, in different ways.

All in all, a very nice day.

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