Peter Weiss AO, Richard Tognetti and Tipi holding the 1729 Guarneri filius Andreæ cello. Image by Jack Saltmiras.
Peter Weiss AO, one of Australia’s most dedicated arts philanthropists and a successful businessman, has just donated an exceptionally fine and extremely rare cello to the ACO. Made by Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andreæ in 1729, the cello is the biggest single gift in the history of the ACO.
We spoke to the cello’s ‘custodian’, ACO Principal Cello Timo-Veikko “Tipi” Valve, on what this incredible gift means for him and the Orchestra, and how the cello has influenced his playing over the years.
When did you first hear the 1729 Guarneri filius Andreæ cello?
Tipi: I joined the ACO almost exactly 10 years ago. Only a few weeks into the job, in late 2006, I was told that Peter Weiss was keen to enhance the sound of the orchestra by purchasing a cello that I would have the privilege to play on.
So off I went to London as I was visiting Finland, my home country, for the Christmas holidays. I was told to go to a musician’s version of a ‘candy store’: a stringed musical instruments shop. I spent a good 3-4 days trying multiple cellos in this wonderful place, learning more and more about each instrument, testing and playing them to other musicians that happened to be passing by.
Many of the cellos were fantastic, but the 1729 Guarneri filius Andreæ spoke to me more than the others. It was instant friendship. And a few months later, the cello arrived in Australia for the first time and met the Orchestra, Richard and of course the then owner, Peter Weiss.
You have played the cello since 2007. How has having access to such an instrument affected your performances?
Tipi: These wonderful instruments enhance the imagination of the musician for sure. One has access to a special pallet of colours, with which you can paint better reds and better yellows, for example.
Sometimes they can be tools that make my job easier in a way. They help me achieve the quality that audiences might expect of us, or me. And it is quite special to notice that once you have been able to access those rare colours, you can also transport some of them to instruments which are not as good as these ones.
All of the instruments are of course individuals, as are we, the musicians. But in the same way that we learn from our colleagues, we also learn things from the instruments we play.
Given that we spend so much time together, I’ve had plenty of time to learn from this cello and I am a better cellist for it.
Has it changed your performance style?
Tipi: Yes and no. It has changed me or directed me to play a certain way. But then again, I would only have chosen a cello that I can understand, that I have a certain familiarity with.
It’s like choosing a voice from all the possible voices one can imagine. And you'd probably choose a voice that fits your personality. Otherwise the connection would be artificial.
And in terms of your confidence as a player?
Tipi: Well, if one thinks enhanced imagination being better confidence, then yes it has changed me!
Image: The front of the 1729 Guarneri filius Andreæ cello.
How would you describe the instrument?
Tipi: Dark… and mysterious. Richard Tognetti sometimes describes his fiddle as a painting of Caravaggio. I think that is a good comparison as our instruments are made by members of the same instrument making family, the Guarneri.
Your instrument is almost 300 years old. Do you know any stories from previous owners?
Tipi: Unfortunately we do not know much about the history of the cello. We know it was in the hands of a prominent London-based cellist for decades before it travelled to Australia, but we don’t know much more than that.
If I remember right the cello might have enjoyed the Mediterranean sun somewhere in Spain before being sold to England. It is though exciting to imagine where it might have been, surviving multiple World Wars and all that. Bach wrote his Solo Cello Suites the same decade the cello was crafted. Maybe the very first thing ever played on it was a rather recently composed Bach Suite?
You regularly rehearse, perform and travel around the country with the ACO. What kind of special care do you have to take with an instrument of that nature?
Tipi: The most common question is how does the cello survive the airplane trips and the often rough baggage handlers. Well, it never goes near the baggage handlers. It sits (silently) next to me on a seat in the plane the whole time! Insert joke about ”Don’t you ever wish you’d taken up the flute?” The answer is a firm no.
As the instruments are being vigorously performed on, they do need to see an ‘instrument doctor’ every so often, just to make sure they are in good health and always performing at their best.
Image: The back of the 1729 Guarneri filius Andreæ cello.
The ACO also has a range of instruments from the ‘Golden Age’ on loan from donors and benefactors. How has having such amazing instruments changed the sound of the ensemble?
Tipi: The ACO has always been an amazing sounding orchestra. But it has been interesting to witness the way our sound has changed as we progressively acquire these fabulous instruments. The Strad, the Maggini viola, the da Salò bass - every new instrument enables us to do new things with the music we play, and achieve new heights.
What does a donation such as Peter Weiss’ means for an orchestra like the ACO?
Tipi: As Peter said himself, the sound of the Weiss Guarneri has become such an integral part of our overall sound that it only makes sense that the cello belong to the company on a permanent basis. He described it as “natural evolution.”