Daughter Auctions Stradivari Cello To Hear It Again

Jan 15, 2012
Originally published on January 15, 2012 7:29 pm
Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The family of famed cellist Bernard Greenhouse is getting ready for another emotional goodbye. Last year, Greenhouse passed away at the age of 95. He had a long career as a master cellist and founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio. Now, his family is getting ready to part with the instrument that Greenhouse called his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO AND PIANO)

MARTIN: The 300-year-old instrument is known as The Countess of Stanlein and it's one of only 60 Stradivarius cellos in existence today. Now, this celebrated instrument is up for sale and it's expected to match or exceed the previous record sale for a cello, six million dollars.

We're joined now by Elena and Nicolas Delbanco. Elena is Bernard Greenhouse's daughter. Her husband, Nicholas, wrote a book about his father-in-law.

Welcome, both of you to the program.

ELENA DELBANCO: Thank you.

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: I just imagine this was a difficult decision for you to sell your father's cello, Elena.

DELBANCO: It was a decision that was long in coming, so I've had time to prepare for it. The instrument, as you know, has a certain value. And, of course, the government will be interested in the taxes for it; and that in itself would probably be more than we could muster, if we decided to keep it.

DELBANCO: Anyway, the prospect of playing it, the way I strum a ukulele, is rather horrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELBANCO: It belongs in expert hands.

DELBANCO: It's such a gorgeous instrument and it really needs to be in the hands of a musician.

MARTIN: In 2008, producer Joe Richmond actually recorded your dad, Elena, Bernard Greenhouse, at his home practice room. And your father talked about is own personal bond with his cello. Take a listen to that clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARD GREENHOUSE: The sandy quality to the sound which turns to velvet in the auditorium, to the listener it's a smooth, very beautiful quality which is peculiar to a Stradivarius work. No other instrument has quite that sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

GREENHOUSE: This cello, it's my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

DELBANCO: Beautiful.

MARTIN: Yeah. Elena, I'd like to go back to the day that your father brought home this instrument in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Do you remember that day? Do remember him playing his Stradivari cello for the first time?

DELBANCO: I do. And I remember the tremendous excitement because he just felt that he had found such a treasure. And, you know, the cello sort of became our third sibling. It was a figure in our life. It traveled with us and it sat between us in the backseat of the car. And we have to watch it and take care of it, and make sure nothing happened to it when he stepped away. And it was a family member.

MARTIN: Do you remember ever feeling like you were competing with the cello for your dad's affection...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...or attention at any point?

DELBANCO: I think I didn't feel so much about the cello as about music in general, that it was a competition. When I was a child I would erase the names of students who were coming to work with him, and put my own name in so that I might have an hour of his time...

MARTIN: Wow.

DELBANCO: ...which, of course, never worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELBANCO: But what I do really remember feeling was that the cello got to go to Europe. And it went everywhere he went and I yearned to travel with him. And that I think was what made me feel competitive. Why not take me?

MARTIN: Yeah.

DELBANCO: Can I...

MARTIN: Please.

DELBANCO: ...add a little something about the travels of the cello?

MARTIN: Yes.

DELBANCO: Because of the size of airplane seats, it required a first-class seat. And for while, he would sit back in steerage and insist that the caviar and champagne be sent to him, while the cello traveled regally up in first-class, strapped in.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELBANCO: And I think that's another version of the way Elena felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The cello getting the first-class treatment.

DELBANCO: Exactly.

MARTIN: They went on adventures together, this instrument and Bernard Greenhouse. I understand though sometimes he ended up leaving his instrument in places maybe he shouldn't have.

DELBANCO: I don't think that happened often. But it did happen once and unforgettably. I think, again, it should be my wife who tells this tale 'cause she was there.

DELBANCO: Well, I'll try to...

MARTIN: Please, Elena.

DELBANCO: ...tell it as quickly as possible. This is my first trip to Europe and our first stop was Dubrovnik, that Summer Festival, August 1968. And after the concert, as we were coming back to the hotel, my father was helping Lois Marshall, a contralto, out of the car and into the hotel. She had some difficulty walking. And when he turned back, the cab was gone and the cello was in the trunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

DELBANCO: And he just collapsed with anxiety.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

DELBANCO: And we ran to the concierge and, slowly but surely, they tracked down the taxi driver, woke him up at his house 'cause it was of course late at night. And he said I simply refuse to come back to the hotel till morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELBANCO: So, my father paced the lobby...

MARTIN: He didn't sleep, I imagine.

DELBANCO: Oh, my God. No. And we stayed up with him. And at about four o'clock in the morning, the Soviets invaded Prague.

MARTIN: Oh, my.

DELBANCO: And we had to leave the country immediately. It was, of course, it was Yugoslavia. But we didn't have the cello. So there was a great drama until the taxi driver showed up. He couldn't understand what the big deal was. He said he was coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELBANCO: And I think it really took 15 years off my father's life.

MARTIN: Oh, man. I can't...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELBANCO: Now we - everybody was waiting in the bus. And we got on the bus and we went to the airport and we left.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask you, Elena, you know, have you given any thought about who you would like to own this instrument?

DELBANCO: What would matter to me most would be that it would be somebody who made magnificent music on it, and who revered it as my father did, and kept it in this impeccable shape that it's in now.

DELBANCO: It's beyond us to control.

DELBANCO: But let's just say that we hope not to be sad.

MARTIN: We've been talking with Elena and Nicholas Delbanco, daughter and son-in-law of the late cellist Bernard Greenhouse. Greenhouse's Stradivari cello goes up for sale on Monday.

Elena and Nicholas, thank you so much for talking with us.

DELBANCO: Thank you so much, Rachel, for having us.

DELBANCO: And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO AND PIANO MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.