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.

For now, Des treats his chocolate-brown Guadagnini with care. After symphony gigs, when he drives to the restaurant Tasca, the Guad sits in the front seat next to him. Transporting it in the trunk or back seat is a no-no. Fellow cellist Bob Deutsch recoils in horror at the thought: "I'd sooner put my guest in the trunk than my cello."

Likewise, most symphony cellists fly with their instruments in the seat beside them. (Stories abound of student musicians, too poor to pay for the extra ticket, who checked their cellos and saw them splintered by baggage handlers.) Des figures that 80 percent of the time toting the Guadagnini to concerts is a hassle. Although FAA rules on carrying large instruments are standard for all airlines, most employees don't have a clue what they are. He has even been told, on his way to a concert, that regulations prevent the cello from going on the plane -- and has had to exchange his tickets for last-minute seats on another airline.

For the most part, the Guad also stays indoors, out of the Houston humidity. Des, Bob and the rest of the cello section keep throw-down cellos for playing outside, or for hauling around in their car trunks. Des inherited his backup cello from wife Alison, who paid $250 Canadian dollars for it, the bow, the case and a stack of sheet music. Bob's second cello is an orangish Chinese number that looks exquisite but sounds as if it's talking through its nose. Chris bought his second cello for $250 at a pawn shop.

Backstage recently at a Pops rehearsal in Jones Hall, several string players saw Arlington, Texas, violin shop owner Wayne Burak show off a carbon-fiber cello. It's perhaps the epitome of American instrument making: tough, cheap and high-tech, made of the same carbon-fiber material as F-117 fighter jets ("the Stealth cello," the symphony guys call it.) It retails for a minimum of $2,500, comes in a variety of colors (nail-polish red!) and can withstand far more than humidity. Burak, showing off, intentionally dropped one on the ground. The cellists were impressed. For a delicate wooden cello, the fall could have been fatal.

To help string players protect their instruments, the orchestra pays part of their insurance premiums, covering the instruments for damage up to $40,000. Des kicks in several hundred more every year to protect his Guad against normal wear and tear. It has been repaired a couple of times since he has owned it, once after a prop man knocked it over in the Wortham Center orchestra pit.

Instrument insurance also covers the Guadagnini for loss. Des doesn't know what its current value is, but he suspects it's several times what he paid for it in 1984. "Prices have gone crazy," Shaw explains; Japanese and Korean investors entered the market in the 1980s, and prices soared when the dollar weakened against the yen.

"When you have a cello worth the price of your house, you want to make sure it's not suddenly gone," Des says. He knows one cellist at the symphony who stows his 1786 Carcassi in a 300-pound gun case bolted to the floor of his house. Des doesn't think he's crazy.

Des took his most recent test-drive this spring, on a 1655-vintage Amati. He was playing a spring concert with the University of Saskatoon Symphony in Saskatchewan when the symphony's music director asked him, during a master class, to warm up the instrument, which had been sitting in the university's closet for a year.

Des quickly agreed. It's unhealthy for a cello to go unplayed, and besides, he was curious how it would sound. Amati is the oldest violin trademark in Cremona, the magical instrument-making area, and Stradivari was reputedly a disciple of Nicolo's, the family's most prominent shop owner.

The cello lived up to Des's hopes. He found it easy to play, even more open than the Tononi. Pleased, he played it at the concert then tried to get permission to leave Saskatoon with the old cello for a few weeks of solo concerts. But the academic board that oversees its use felt a little uneasy about letting go of the Amati. Des hopes that in the future he can fly to the university periodically to visit it and that, someday, the board will come around.

But even if Des ever gets the Amati on short-term loans, he'll still need another cello, for the times the Amati isn't available. Recently he began checking out another hot prospect. For about a year Peter Shaw, of the Amati Violin Shop, has heard about an Italian cello from colleagues who own a shop in New York. Dominicus Busan, a Venetian maker, designed it around 1750. Shaw wasn't sure of the asking price -- somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000 -- but he says the instrument was hyped almost as much as the Messiah Strad. He couldn't wait to see it.

Shaw flew to New York to borrow it, and last week, Des tried the Busan in Shaw's shop. Figuring out the cello's value is even more complex than usual: Because Busans are so rare, one seldom comes on the market, and Des and Shaw suspect the asking price is inflated. And the cello's papers are so old, and thus so unreliable, that Des needs to find experts to confirm the instrument's authenticity.

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