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James McKean

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James McKean | Violin | Viola | Cello

Maple -- as string technology has evolved, it's become possible to reduce the string length on a cello to more and more manageable lengths. As a young apprentice at Nigo's, I was struck at how the quality and sheer volume of the sound had nothing to do with the size of the instrument; in fact, several of the best sounding cellos I saw were on the smaller side. Considering the technical demands of the literature, I also saw that the shorter a string length was, the easier it was for a cellist to play -- not just in agility, but in quickness of response. Once the string length is established, the next step is to design the heart of the resonating chamber: the chest, and the shape and spacing of the f-holes. The rest of the dimensions are governed by ergonomics -- what is most comfortable to hold, and in the case of the upper bout, to shift around. As for the curves themselves, that's entirely a matter of aesthetics: as the Italians say, per occulo -- what looks right. My spruce and maple all come from Europe; I go to great lengths, and considerable expense, to seek out the finest sets of wood, both tonally and in their figure. The maple on this cello is Bosnian (as is all the maple I use) -- famed for its gorgeous flame, its lightness, and the richness of its tonal response. I store the wood for years to season it properly; I found this set of maple in southern Germany, where most of the woodcutters are, over twenty years ago. Maple gives a rich sound with a fast response and definition to the sound, whether at triple pianissimo or triple forte.

Willow -- I call this the 'Christmas tree' cello, because of the distinctive markings in the willow for the back and sides. Willow was commonly used by the great Italian makers, from Amati to Stradivari; in fact, the great cellist Zara Nelsova spent her career playing the deCorberon, a cello built by Stradivari in 1726 on his famous 'forma b" pattern (the cello, owned by the Royal Academy of Music, is now being played by Steven Isserlis). I know of a superb Goffriller with a willow back, and one of my favorite cellos -- with a fire-engine red varnish, to boot -- is a Rogeri with a willow back. Willow gives the sound a darker, more basso profundo tone. I love working it; there's something very sculptural about it. It also wears beautifully -- the patina of age gives the wood a pearly depth under the varnish. This willow is from a dozen sets I found in Vermont well over ten years ago.

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