One time when Robert deMaine, principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was traveling to Argentina to perform, his cello was bumped up to first class without him.
“Traveling with a cello is stressful,” deMaine said last week. “You sit next to it on the airplane and get attitude from the gate agents.”
As a world-renowned cellist, deMaine, now 51, has several cellos, including the one he has played on since joining the L.A. Philharmonic in 2012 — a 1684 Stradivarius cello called ‘General Kyd’ made by the famous luthier Antonio Stradivari.
“With the Strad, it’s like you’re traveling with a gold mine or holding a Picasso right next to you,” deMaine said.
DeMaine’s Strad made the trip to Montana for a previous performance with the Glacier Symphony, but when he arrived in the Flathead Valley on Monday to begin rehearsals for this weekend’s “Illumination” concerts he did so with a different cello in tow.
“It’s the cello that really is my voice,” deMaine said about his instrument crafted by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume in 1841. “The Vuillaume is much more akin to my personality and at 180 years old, I think it’s entering its prime.”
DeMaine says that his inspiration for music, and the cello specifically, came from his family. His mother, aunt and sister were all cellists, exposing him to the instrument at an early age, and his family’s relationship to string instruments extends back several generations.
He recalls a summer vacation when he was around nine years old when he pulled out one of his mother’s records, placed it on the record player and dropped the needle.
“A gorgeous cello sound came out of these primitive speakers and I turned to my mom and said ‘I’ve got goosebumps,’” deMaine said. “I’ve been chasing those goosebumps ever since. It lit a fire under me and I started to get a lot better very quickly.”
DeMaine made his debut performance with the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12 and studied at the Juilliard School and with teachers around the world.
This weekend’s performance will be the third time deMaine has played with the Glacier Symphony, under the direction of Maestro John Zoltek.
The two musicians met back in 2012 and bonded over their similar French and Polish ancestry. When Zoltek asked if deMaine wanted to solo with the Symphony again during his 25th anniversary season, deMaine posed a semi-rhetorical question as to whether Zoltek had a desire to compose a piece for the cello.
Zoltek began work in May and five months later completed the full-length three-movement cello concerto titled “Through Tamarack and Pine,” which will premiere on stage Nov. 20 during the Masterworks 3 Illumination performance.
“I won’t say the music just poured out of him, because I’m sure he struggled like any composer to put abstract thought and sound on paper,” deMaine said. “But over a very rapid period he pushed through and created this beautiful musical organism.”
Zoltek first sat down to go over the piece with deMaine on a Zoom session, and he didn’t hear the first live performance until earlier this week.
“On one hand, it’s exhilarating playing a piece of work for the first time,” deMaine said. “On another, it’s terrifying because things can go wrong. Sounds can happen that don’t correspond with the composer’s imagination.”
Zoltek composed “Through Tamarack and Pine” from his home in the Flathead Valley, and he says the piece is derived from the view of the mountains from his property.
“It’s an abstract meditation on viewing and contemplating nature, but it’s not necessarily placid nature music,” the composer said. “It’s powerful, how you feel when you see a mountain coming out of the clouds. It’s pretty heavy, like hard rock romanticism.”
The concerto is the longest piece Zoltek has crafted in 15 years and is one of several of his compositions the Glacier Symphony is highlighting during this anniversary season. The premiere performance, and the entire program for Saturday’s performance are a highlight of Zoltek’s 25th season with the symphony.
The Glacier Symphony will be performing in the Flathead High School auditorium, one of the last few shows in that space before the organization shifts to a new performing arts venue at Flathead Valley Community College next year.
For all his history playing around the world, deMaine says soloing with any group and in any venue is the highest privilege, and his goal is to deliver the best performance possible to the audience and for the other musicians on stage.
“I’m already grinning ear to ear just talking about coming up to Montana,” deMaine said last week. “I’m so excited to sit down in front of the orchestra in that rehearsal and make music with tons of people. It’s a privilege to perform anywhere and I want to deliver the very best.”
“It’s never been about glitz and glamor for me,” he added. “It’s about the pursuit of goosebumps.”
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