Cellist Zuill Bailey is flying to Buffalo to perform with the BPO, and he is on the plane, awaiting takeoff. His cello is on the next seat.
“It’s called Cello Bailey,” he jokes.
This is not just any cello.
It was built by famed Venetian violin maker Matteo Gofriller in 1693, when Johann Sebastian Bach was 8 years old. More importantly for Buffalo, the cello once belonged to Mischa Schneider, the legendary cellist for the Budapest Quartet, perhaps the most famous quartet of the last century.
The four Russians who made up the Budapest Quartet made their homes in Buffalo beginning in the 1950s, thanks to their friendship with Buffalo philanthropist Cameron Baird, who arranged for a residency for them at UB.
Schneider, with his outgoing personality, was especially missed after he died at 81, at his Allentown home, in 1985.
He would be happy that his cello gets to swing through Buffalo now and then.
It will be heard today and Sunday when Bailey performs Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The concerto was last heard in Buffalo when Bailey visited in 2008, playing the Dvorak cello concerto. He was a hit. As WNED-FM’s Peter Hall joked this week on the air, “We’re pretty high on Zuill.”
Bailey, as the cheerily hurried interview suggests, has a busy life.
Born in 1972 in Virginia, he graduated from Juilliard and now lives in El Paso, Texas, where he is a professor of cello. He records on the Telarc label. In his spare time, thanks to his dark good looks, he has even done some acting. He has appeared on “Oz” (in 1997, playing a cellist) and on “Homicide.”
And so, Mr. Bailey, can you tell us how you met our Mischa’s cello?
“A woman bought it from him in the late ’60s,” Bailey says. “She had it a long time in California.” His voice grows dreamy. “It hadn’t been available long. Through a couple of amazing circumstances, I’ve been able to get it.
“It has an incredibly unique sound. The kind of sound you hear – it’s a very special cello because of its age, and it’s a bigger instrument than most. It’s got a huskier, grittier, earthier sound. It’s incredibly resonant because of the space. It’s certainly seen the world,” he says, and laughs.
When you encounter this cello, Bailey says, you know it.
“When people hear it, they recognize it,” he says. “It’s like James Earl Jones’ voice. People who hear it on the radio, they identify it. There’s a resonance, a fullness to it, that’s unparalleled.”
Bailey clearly has fun describing his cello and its attributes. Not long ago, on an NPR “Tiny Desk” interview, he called it “J-Lo.”
“Because it is robust in the areas that produce the low tones,” he deadpanned.
A bit like the fabled cello, the Haydn concerto Bailey will be playing has vanished and reappeared over the centuries.
“It was discovered in the 1950s,” Bailey explains. “Before the late ’50s, all we had was the Haydn D Major Concerto.”
The rediscovered piece proved a treasure.
“It’s the kind of virtuoso, beautiful piece that has everything in it. It’s kind of a virtuoso concerto, and I’m very looking forward to coming back to Buffalo and playing it.”
Bailey has a wide repertoire. In 2008, he played the Dvorak concerto with the BPO. He has a CD of Dvorak cello music that is proving popular.
Haydn, though, has an appeal all his own.
“Haydn was so prolific,” he says. “It’s amazing, his output. He wrote 60-something quartets. His outlook was prolific. His work extends to different periods of his life. Great Haydn is great. He wrote some of our greatest music. This concerto is tremendous to play.”
Bailey likes that the music spotlights all the musicians, not just the cello. The orchestra shares in the challenge – and the glory.
“When I walk up there I feel I am part of a virtuoso group. It’s a little like a chamber concerto that features the cello prominently. It’s amazing.” He laughs. “You’ll see.”
When he plays the masterpiece, Bailey will be inspired by the spirit of Schneider and the rest of the Budapest Quartet.
“I have all their records,” he says.
Besides the Haydn concerto, the concert includes Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Schubert’s poignant “Unfinished” Symphony and the sensual Polovtzian Dances from Borodin’s “Prince Igor.”