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.

What makes antique Italian instruments so special remains a mystery. To the trained ear, their sounds are noticeably colorful and open; they possess a core that's not too focused; they're able to project. Other old cellos simply aren't as good: Antique French cellos tend to sound bright but nasal; antique German ones sound sweet but soft.

Some musicologists say the secret lies in the varnishes, some of which were concocted from oil thinned with wine, with a little bee glue mixed in. Others believe Stradivari carved the belly and the back with a special touch. One legend had it that old masters knew how to tap live trees to find the most resonant wood.

The scientific community persists in putting Stradivari's designs under a microscope, but Shaw prefers to explain their magic in architectural terms. "There's not one single element that makes a great violin," he says. "It's a combination. If you're not 100 percent on a few details, you still have a good violin. The better you do in all of them, the better the instrument."

The Storioni dated from that magical period, and to Des it seemed like a contender. He brought it to symphony rehearsals of the opera Der Rosenkavalier. But finding a stringed instrument is a bit like finding a mate: A good pedigree helps, but it's more important that the musician and the instrument be compatible. Des's gut told him the Storioni wasn't right. It didn't respond to his vigorous style of playing. He feared he might eventually break it.

But even as Des was deciding the instrument wouldn't work, the cellist who sat behind him was falling in love. Bob Deutsch, a friend of Des's, loved listening to Des's solos on the Storioni. Bob hoped Des would buy it, but he could tell his friend wasn't that keen on it.

So one day at rehearsal, Bob made his move. He told Des, "If you ever decide you don't want the cello, I'd like to try it out." Des agreed.

When rehearsals finally moved to the orchestra pit, Des tried the Storioni in its real element. To Des, it sounded no better in the concert hall than in the practice room. He confided to Bob, "I'm not sure this is the cello for me."

Bob secretly rejoiced. He tried hard to be discouraging. "Des," he said, "don't settle for second best. Keep looking."

Des rang up the dealer and got permission to let Bob give the cello a whirl. Bob, who'd been playing a 19th-century French cello, grew only more smitten with the Storioni. By comparison, it made his French cello sound sterile. And the traits that had bothered Des worked in Bob's favor. In Bob's supporting position in the symphony's cello section, he didn't need an instrument with a commanding presence. And he also often performs in string quartets or piano trios, where he needs something that doesn't bark louder than the other chamber players. He bought the Storioni.

Bob, at least, had found his perfect cello.

A year after Des passed on the Storioni, he got the chance to buy a late-18th-century Tononi. He took it for acoustical spins in Jones Hall and concert halls at Rice University, and asked his usual suspects to listen: Shaw and symphony cellists Chris French and Jeff Butler.

His colleagues loved the Tononi's colorful overtones. Its palette was so rich with hues and tints that the tone of Des's chocolate-brown Guadagnini, by comparison, resembled a canvas awash with nothing but reds.

But Des lost faith in the dealer. The cello's owner, who lived in Vienna, needed to make a quick six figures on the sale to pay for another cello, and conservative Des disliked the dealer's high-pressure sales tactics. He also felt uneasy about the price -- inflated, he thought, by at least $100,000.

But what scared him most was the dealer's eagerness for Des to trade in his chocolate-brown Guadagnini as part of the deal. "All my personality and all that I'd done were in this cello," says Des. He worried that the Tononi might somehow not work out -- and that his trusty Guadagnini would be gone before he could rectify matters.

Certainly, the stakes were high enough to make anyone nervous. At 37, Des has attained the tier of success next to stardom, but this cello would require a huge fraction of his income. Last year Houston Symphony cellists earned a respectable base salary of $63,700 a year. Des makes more as first chair and earns a bit more by teaching cello performance at Rice's Shepherd School of Music. But still, a quarter of a million is a huge amount of money to him; his cello will likely cost several times more than his house. And the more expensive it is, the more costly a mistake could be.

Des said no to the Tononi, and the dealer quickly sold it elsewhere. Des now thinks he made a mistake: The Tononi was one worth keeping.

Three years ago Des met fellow Canadian Alison Hendry in Houston, after a mutual friend introduced them. They were married in a year. At 34, the gregarious, fair-headed Alison is abandoning her former career as an obstetrical nurse to design costumes for the theater. Fittings and rehearsals keep her busy while Des does solo concerts out of town. In the living room of their one-story ranch home in Knollwood Village, she giggles when she discusses her former life with Julian Armour, a cellist who runs the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. She and Julian learned the pitfalls of cello shopping firsthand when he dragged her searching all over New York before settling on a $40,000 English model.

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