Searching for a Cello

In school, Des Hoebig learned to play an instrument. Now, out in the shady world of big-money dealers, he's learning to buy one.

At age 11, Des was ready for his first full-size cello. It shone with a bright yellow varnish and had been made by Canadian George Friess. Des paid $1,000 for it, prize money from the national finals of the Kiwanis Music Festival. When he played the Friess at Juilliard, buddies dubbed him the Mellow Fellow with the Yellow Cello.

Des's connection with Mellow Yellow intensified as he played it. It grew to be an extension of his own voice, the tuneful piece of his soul. Before he graduated, he and the yellow cello won a number of contests. The best was a $5,000 purse from Canadian Broadcast Corporation's Search for the Stars, a variety show where he beat out a rock group and a couple of dancers by playing Chopin's Polonaise Brilliante.

In 1984 Des won a coveted post as the Montreal Symphony's associate principal cellist. He realized it was time to retire Mellow Yellow: He was on his way to the big leagues, and Mellow Yellow wasn't up to that level of play.

Des had $15,000 in contest winnings to use as a down payment, and with that grubstake he went cello shopping in New York. At Jacques Francais, a large instrument shop owned by one of this century's most venerated violin experts, he spotted a chocolate-brown cello. Made in Turin, it was designed by Antonio Guadagnini, a descendant of G.B. Guadagnini II, who was reportedly Stradivari's pupil. Today, a G.B. Guadagnini cello can fetch half a million, but cellos by Guadagnini's descendants cost less. Jacques Francais's Guadagnini -- a mere 119 years old -- is considered "modern" and was priced at $40,000.

Des took it home to Montreal for a long test-drive, the extended trial period that's standard operating procedure among cello buyers. Instrument sellers know that a musician won't buy until he gives an instrument a good workout in a concert hall with listeners he trusts. Not only do instruments sound different in such a large space, they sound different to the audience than to the player. Italian cellos, for instance, sound bright and scratchy directly under the ear, but to an auditorium listener, their tone is rounded and focused.

Des loved the Guadagnini's richness -- a huge improvement over Mellow Yellow. After three weeks, he phoned a dealer at Jacques Francais and told him he was ready to buy. Excited, the dealer asked Des the price of the instrument.

Des hesitated and for some reason fibbed: "I'm not really sure. I don't remember." He remembered perfectly -- $40,000 is a lot of money.

Back on the phone, the dealer gave him the store's asking price: $35,000.
Silently, Des did the math. The first salesman at Jacques Francais had tacked on $5,000 more than the store's actual asking price -- perhaps, Des thought, because he had looked young and inexperienced, an easy mark. Des vowed never to be taken again.

Des's career continued to prosper. In 1991 he became the Houston Symphony's principal cellist. The job was both prestigious and satisfying: He got to work with conductor Christoph Eschenbach and to lead one of the best cello sections in the world. But the chocolate-brown Guadagnini didn't seem up to the task. Des began to notice the darkness in its tone, the muddiness that didn't allow him to achieve the effects he wanted. It wasn't enough anymore to have an Italian cello; Des wanted one of the old Italian cellos, the best of their kind.

Realistically, he aimed for the tier slightly below the pinnacle. Even superstars can't afford the most expensive instruments: Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, owns only one-third of the Strad he plays; a consortium of banks owns the rest.

Four years ago Des connected with a Maryland dealer who'd acquired a 1786 Lorenzo Storioni cello made in Cremona. The instrument was numbered 1,019, but only six others like it still existed. A paper trail traced its ownership back to December 8, 1945, the date of its earliest known certificate of authenticity. Des thought it had an unusual, beautiful design. Covered with a red-brown varnish, its maple sides had a small curl. A plain scroll adorned its neck, and its top was crafted from medium-grain spruce.

When testing a cello, Des relies on a handful of listeners, people he trusts to assess how the instrument's voice sounds in the concert hall. One of those listeners is Peter Shaw, a violin restorer and the owner of Amati Violin Shop near Rice University. When Des and other cellists in the orchestra are trying new cellos, they usually go to Shaw. He's happy to tinker with the instrument a little to make it sound right: He can change out strings, reposition the bridge, maybe even adjust the inside sound post.

To Shaw, it seemed only appropriate that Des should play an old Italian cello. Shaw estimates only 10 percent of Houston Symphony string players perform with "modern" instruments such as Des's chocolate-brown Guadagnini. More than 80 percent, he figures, play on pre-1880 designs, and about 5 percent own a rare Italian violin or cello that dates back to Italy's golden age of violin making, the era between the 17th and 18th centuries that produced the master, Antonio Stradivari, and others nearly as good.

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