Cellist Amit Peled has found a deep and sonorous connection to his Judaism through his instrument and in his near total immersion in the world of music. The Baltimore-based musician explores his duel paths — becoming a renowned cellist and discovering his love of Judaism — in an intimate program he calls “Journey with My Jewishness,” Sept. 13 at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax, where he will be joined by pianist Stefan Petrov.
“It’s a chance to get to know my audience, because when you have 2,000 people in a concert hall you can’t really talk,” he says. I love to explain the pieces and answer questions. I call this program a performance chat.”
Growing up on Kibbutz Yizrael in the Jezreel Valley, Peled was a basketball fanatic. In fourth grade, all the children began learning an instrument. “I picked cello because there was a girl I wanted to get to know, but she would never talk to me,” he says. “My plan was not to be a cellist, but to talk to that girl.”
The cello stuck, the girl didn’t.
He studied in a local music school until another teacher told his parents he had talent and should study in the “big city,” Tel Aviv. At an audition for the top cello teacher in the country, the master teacher told Peled he would have to practice four hours a day.
“That was how much I was playing in a week! It was really outrageous, but I tried my best,” Peled says. “I woke up every morning at 5, practiced, went to school, went to basketball practice and then went to Tel Aviv on the bus for lessons.”
By 16 he began winning music scholarships and realized he had to choose: basketball or cello. “I remember sitting in my room deciding to go with the cello because I thought I would never be tall enough. And here I am: 6’5.”
Like many highly gifted musicians in Israel, Peled did his army service in a unit where he joined the Israel Defense Forces string quartet. “The army uses you for ceremonies and performances and you can at least keep up your level and not ruin your fingers,” he explained. “Age 18 to 21 is a crucial time for a musician. I’m very happy I could give back to my country as a soldier.”
The day of his discharge, he boarded a plane to the United States to take a full scholarship at Yale University.
By the time Peled turned 28, he was a professor of cello at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University where, at the time, he was even younger than some of his students. These days he juggles a prolific concert career and teaches 15 conservatory students. They even perform and record together as the Peabody Cello Gang.
Some of this narrative is interspersed into Peled’s program next week. “I start with the Hebrew song ‘Eli, Eli,’ [My God, My God],” he says. “That’s the first memory I have of being in the kibbutz and my mother is singing it to me. That song means a lot for me … this song really brought me into music.”
He also plays the Bach Cello Suite, No. 1.
“It’s a monumental piece,” Peled says. “And it’s the first real piece I played for cello. It’s like the story of creation. I recall my first cello lesson at that small music school. The teacher said sit down and play. I laughed; I didn’t know how to hold the cello and I didn’t know how to read music. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, just try.’ Of course, it was awful.”
The concert also includes Max Bruch’s setting of “Kol Nidrei” and Ernest Bloch’s “From Jewish Life,” but it ends with a work by a non-Jewish composer: Popper’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” Peled notes that Popper was the greatest cellist of the 19th century and this piece helps him underline the point that the journey that began with “Eli, Eli” and continues with Jewish pieces ends with a piece that champions cello and classical music in general.
“It champions exactly where I found my religion: in music, not in Judaism. I’m very proud to be Israeli and Jewish – I send my kids to a Jewish day school. But if I look inside, what I practice is the religion of music.”
Music, Peled says, is where he finds his spirituality. And while he enjoys studying the weekly Torah portion and attending services, music is how he expresses his most soulful experiences.
“A lot of what we experienced in our history as Jews was oppression. Classical music was a way to express anything you wanted without being offensive because there are no words. This allowed you to live in a society where you weren’t allowed to speak out in any other form,” he says, adding,
“With music, you can say whatever you want and everyone will listen to you.”
“Journey With My Jewishness,” Amit Peled in recital, with Stefan Petrov, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.; Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, 8900 Little River Turnpike, Fairfax; tickets $22-$35; call 703-323-0880 or visit jccnv.org.