As a 16-year-old growing up on a small kibbutz in northern Israel, Amit Peled had to make a choice between his two loves — basketball and playing the cello. He chose the latter, but remains an avid follower of the game.
Peled now travels the globe as a cellist, performing on the instrument Pablo Casals played for Queen Victoria and President Kennedy. He’ll present a program he calls “Journey With My Jewishness” on Thursday, June 8 at the Kohl Mansion in Burlingame.
But he also finds time for hoops. After returning home to Baltimore from a concert tour of Austria and Germany, he jetted with his older son to Cleveland last week for Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
“A friend in the Cleveland Orchestra got us tickets. I flew there with my son, it was the best time in our lives,” Peled said in an interview. “To me, to be on a trip without a cello, just with my son, the only thing that can top it would be to see Game 7 between Cleveland and Golden State.”
Peled, 43, grew up on Kibbutz Yizrael near Nazareth — his parents still live there — and became a basketball junkie in his early teens. But he was only 5-foot-11 at the age of 16, when he attended a summer music camp in Massachusetts.
“I really felt a strong connection with the cello and I knew I probably wouldn’t make it to the NBA,” said Peled, who’d grown to 6-foot-5 by the time he did his service in the Israel Defense Forces. “It was not difficult to decide. The cello is so much a part of me. I was destined to do it.”
Peled, who often makes basketball references while teaching cello students about proper body positioning at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said his height and large hands can be both an advantage and a curse. They give him great leverage in playing the cello, but can make hitting high notes — where there is little room for the fingers — a challenge.
He points out that Casals produced lush sound despite being only 5-foot-4, and then uses an NBA analogy — mentioning that 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics is one of basketball’s best scorers despite being a foot shorter than many opponents.
Peled studied with Bernard Greenhouse, a pupil of Casals, after graduating from Yale University. Five years ago, Peled made a more direct connection with Casals, considered the greatest cellist of the 20th century.
My religion is music, even though I’m a proud Israeli and Jewish.
Casals’ widow offered Peled the chance to use her husband’s iconic cello, an instrument crafted in 1733 by the Venetian luthier (maker of stringed instruments) Matteo Goffriller. The last time Casals performed on the instrument, which Peled calls “Pablo,” was during a visit to Israel in 1973 a few weeks before he died at the age of 96.
Peled, who was born that same year, said playing the Goffriller cello is like driving a fancy vintage car. He doesn’t know how long the loan will last.
“The instrument has its own voice and what you have to do is learn how to not disturb it, and then you can find color that you didn’t know existed,” he said. “There will be an end to it, but I don’t ask. The fact that I got it was such a dream that I don’t want it to end.”
Peled’s performance at Kohl Mansion, presented by the Peninsula JCC, will feature five works — as well as some personal reflections from the cellist, who will be accompanied by pianist Elizabeth Borowsky.
It opens with the Israeli ballad “Eli, Eli” (My God, My God) — “a song I remember my mother singing,” Peled said, and includes Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 1 and Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei.” Also on the program are “From Jewish Life” by Ernest Bloch and “Hungarian Rhapsody” by David Popper.
“It’s really me sharing my journey from a small kibbutz in Israel,” he said. “My religion is music, even though I’m a proud Israeli and Jewish. I love to tell the story of the instrument, and my personal story.”
Being Jewish is an essential part of his music, he said.
“You see how singing is such an integral part of being a Jew, the prayers and songs at Shabbat dinner. It’s all part of being expressive. And I think there’s something about striving for greatness, striving to be the best you can, that’s part of our upbringing. There’s something about it that translates into music. I really feel it with art, with music.”