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The sound of music


A one-of-a-kind cello

Ashley Sidon’s cello was constructed in 1789, the same year George Washington was inaugurated. It sat unused for decades at the home of an East Coast cellist.

Ashley Sidon’s cello was constructed in 1789, the same year George Washington was inaugurated. It sat unused for decades at the home of an East Coast cellist.

As a 6 year old, Ashley Sidon’s cello was bigger than she was. The youngster despised practicing, and she resented her instrument. She often daydreamed of destroying her big wooden burden. In her mind, she would carry it to the highest point of her childhood home and heave it out the window.

“Sometimes I hated it,” she says.

Fortunately, she never climbed those stairs with the cello and let her grip go. Sidon grew to love the instrument. She currently sits as one of the world’s best cellists and serves as The Briggs Endowed Professor of cello at Drake University.

Sidon’s current cello set unplayed for decades in the attic of a different house. Its owner was a cellist in the New Jersey Symphony and used another instrument.

Prep Iowa

Sidon didn’t think she’d ever be able to afford a cello like this one, at least while she was young. It was made by Antonio Gagliano, an Italian violin maker who worked at the end of the 18th century. Many of his family members also made instruments during this time, including his unparalleled father, Giovanni, who is considered one of the best craftsmen of all time.

Fortunately for Sidon, the woman who had owned the cello believed in karma. She quietly announced that she’d like it sold, but she had one string attached: The purchaser must also be an up-and-coming cellist who wouldn’t otherwise be able to buy an instrument of its caliber.

Little about the instrument’s history is known, but the value of handcrafted cellos made prior to the Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court decision have historically outperformed most financial markets.

Some researchers say the difference in sound between old and new instruments is difficult to discern, but Sidon knew as soon as she heard hers that she was in love.

“I played the lowest string, the open string, and my heart just soared,” she says. “I knew it was special.”

Cellos are like people. If they aren’t used, they get a little creaky. This one needed to be played into shape — but that was a labor of love for Sidon. Her 6-year-old hatred had grown into her favorite passion. The 1789 relic still functions better than many of its modern-made peers.

The cello is a member of the violin family and is short for violoncello. It has four strings, to be played with a bow or plucked by hand.

“The cello is the instrument that is closest to the human voice,” Sidon says.

If you have a passion for music, and if you want to hear this cello’s voice, Sidon says you should consider taking in the city’s premier musical event next month. She is the driving force behind the Zenith Chamber Music Festival. It began last summer, and it’s back for another run. The annual summer chamber music concert series highlights national and international guest artists along with local talents. The venues are in intimate settings like the Salisbury House.

“We bring in people who are from tier-one orchestras,” says Sidon.

She adds that guests can expect to hear a sample of some of the best musicians in the world playing a unique and lively blend of chamber music — classical music composed and played by a group of instrumentalists that’s small enough to fit in a palace’s chamber or a big room. The intimate nature of chamber music has earned it the distinction of being called “the music of friends.”

“It literally means chamber of the house,” says Sidon.

The Zenith Chamber Music Festival will be held Aug. 15-19.

The trials of a cellist are many. It isn’t conducive to easy travel.

“I can’t check it,” she explains. “It’s from 1789.”

And since it isn’t wise to check cargo that was constructed during the Washington administration, to travel safely, the airlines require it to have its own seat, and thus its own airplane ticket. And every pilot gets to decide on his or her own if it will be allowed on the flight. Usually they say yes but not always. Sidon assures the music will be worth checking at the music festival. ♦



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