Over ten years ago, when I was a graduate student at UT-Austin, I met the Boston Symphony cellist Luis Leguia, who had come to make a compact disc recording with our university symphony. He brought with him a prototype of a cello made from a very strong, very light kind of polymer reinforced with carbon fibers. He explained to his eager audience and our professor that he’d had the idea for the cello after noticing how light and durable carbon fiber boats were.
Together with Steve Clark, an expert in carbon fiber and boatbuilding, he’d invented this intriguing instrument. (This video shows how they make them.) He generously let all of us play it, while we oohed and aahed over its huge tone, quick response, and charmingly space-age appearance.
I must admit, I’d been pining on and off for a Luis & Clark cello ever since this encounter, but a number of things prevented me from buying one. The chief reason was that soon after my doctoral graduation, I co-founded the Tasman String Quartet, where we had the privilege of loaned instruments, so there was less need for me to buy a cello.
After I left the quartet in 2010 for my current position as a cello professor at the University of Idaho, it became obvious to me that my own cello, which I’d had since my undergraduate years, wasn’t going to be adequate for my needs. I tried to find instrument foundations and sponsors who might help me with acquiring a better instrument, but I appeared to be too old and too employed to receive priority consideration for any of them.
The Cello Problem, as I call it—the fact that any wood cello I like seems to cost a six-figure sum, which is an irresponsible level of debt to take on when you have a family—bothered me for some time until I remembered Mr. Leguia and his robotic-looking cello. I called Luis & Clark and spoke to Stephanie Leguia, his wife. She patiently answered my dozens of questions—could I request a custom order? (Yes, but she didn’t recommend it, because then you couldn’t return it.) Could a regular luthier make repairs to the bridge and soundpost? (Yes.) What kind of strings worked best on it? (Jargar Forte on the A, a medium-gauge Jargar on the D, Spirocore Tungsten on the lower two; don’t use Larsens because they make the wolf tone worse.) What kind of endpins did they use? (Incredibly sharp carbon fiber ones: don’t cut yourself!)—and I thought and procrastinated a while longer.
Then I called my friend Rachel Johnston, who’d had a Luis & Clark cello for years, and she raved about it. “The only problem with them,” she said, “was that you’ll never want to go back to playing a wood cello.” This woman, by the way, used to play on a Guadagnini.
Then my husband said “Look, this is just silly. I know you never make spontaneous decisions, but you’ve wanted one of these for a decade, and they cost barely more than seven thousand dollars, as opposed to a cello that costs as much as our house. Just get one already.”
So I called Mrs. Leguia and said I’d like one, and the next day (free next-day shipping!) it arrived in a coffin-shaped cardboard box.
Once I’d freed it from its bonds, I found that the cello was perfectly in tune, even after its 2,800 mile journey from Boston to Idaho. I played one note, using the kind of arm weight I’d normally use for pianissimo on a wood cello, and this giant resonance sang out of it like a…like a…like a nightingale. I have barely put it down since.
I’d initially thought I’d reserve my virtually indestructible carbon fiber cello for playing new music, since my wood cello really can’t take some of the extended techniques I want to inflict upon it. But when I started playing all my repertoire on it, I realized it actually worked brilliantly for solo Bach and continuo playing, two of my top activities as co-artistic director of the Idaho Bach Festival. The Luis & Clark cello has a kind of hollowness to the resonance that can sound almost like a viola da gamba when you play it with a Baroque bow and minimal vibrato, and this can blend beautifully with a harpsichord.
At the same time, it can also stand up to a concert grand piano. I experimented with a pianist friend last week, and found that she could play with an unreservedly huge sound without drowning me out, even in densely chordal repertoire. The balance problems that plague cellists in the big Romantic sonatas–Brahms, Franck, Rachmaninoff and so on–are more or less non-existent when you use a Luis & Clark cello.
I have long arms and, after many years of experimenting with logical ways to play the cello, don’t experience pain when playing, so I can’t comment on Mr. Leguia’s claim that the smaller size and ergonomic shape of his creation can prevent injury. But I can say that it’s much less of an effort to make a projecting tone. It’s true that I’ve had to adjust my technique in several ways to accommodate the different resonance of the instrument, and one thing I haven’t quite figured out yet is how to get the kind of soft-edged Impressionistic pianissimo you need for, say, the Debussy sonata. I’m working on it, however.
Two weeks in, I’m completely converted, and so are my college students, who beg me to let them play it. The more I think about this, the more I feel quite strongly that these instruments are the way of the future for any young cellist who isn’t from a financially privileged family. The market for fine wooden instruments is, in many ways, a complete racket, with the top Italian instruments becoming so expensive only millionaires can afford them–and musicians themselves only getting to play them on sufferance, since the millionaires would rather lock their investments up in vaults. I often read the memoirs of musicians from the mid-twentieth century, when it was still possible to buy a wonderful old instrument for a reasonable sum. Those days are gone. Cellists are now winning international competitions on carbon fiber instruments. It seems like everyone’s got one.
Is the Luis & Clark cello better than a $2,000,000 Stradivarius? Of course not. But you’re also not going to mortgage your family’s future buying one, and they’re one heck of a substitute for one of those $100,000 wood instruments I used to long for. Their enormous, powerfully beautiful tone fills up a concert hall. You can safely check them in the hold of an aircraft without fear that the airline will pulverize them. They don’t go bananas when the weather is hot or dry or damp. You don’t have to worry about scratching them.
I still have questions, such as whether their value decreases the minute you get them out of the case, the way a car’s does when you drive it out of the dealership. What will happen to the resale value if the technology, materials, or manufacturing methods change? What happens if a larger company buys the business one day?
This is all academic for me right now, because I see my Luis & Clark cello as a tool of my trade more than as an investment. I don’t intend to sell it at any point in the foreseeable future. Why? Because you’d have to pry this thing out of my cold, dead hands.