A Luis and Clark carbon fibre cello

A Luis & Clark Carbon Fibre Cello

I couldn’t take a real cello 2000 miles on the back of a bike, could I? (By a real cello I mean a wooden one with four curves and four corners, made out of five different kinds of wood, to a pattern perfected in the early 18th century and hardly changed since).

I thought about taking an electric cello – but then I’d need an amp, and batteries, and lots of cables, and ideally a roadie to carry everything. So that’s not practical either.

But there is a third kind of cello. One that’s inspired by a racing catamaran. And made out of the same material – carbon fibre.

The story of the carbon fibre cello isn’t a long one. A cellist called Luis Leguia, who’d played in the famous Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly forty years by then, was inventing it in his basement about twenty years ago.

As well as a cellist, Luis Leguia was a sailor. Seeing the smooth and shining hull of a racing boat in the water one day, and hearing it hum, he realised that a cello made out of the same stuff would be a lot less damageable than a real one. It would look good, too. And it might even sound like a cello.

Luis Leguia was, by the way, an extraordinary cellist. If you want to be really good at the cello you have to start learning it absolutely no later than your first day at school. And by the time you’re half way through school you need to be practising it several hours a day.

But Luis Leguia didn’t pick up a cello until he was 15. Far too late for any normal person to make a success of it. But he worked very hard, and by the time he was 17 the great – the greatest – Pablo Casals had taken him on as a scholarship student.

Some cellists become legendary. Mstislav Rostropovich, for instance, Russian dissident and later hero, who’s had about a hundred concertos written for him and dedicated to him, who shares a birthday with me, and was friends with Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, and Benjamin Britten. What a giant.

And Pablo Casals. Pablo – Pau in his native Catalan – was born in 1876, and by the time he was four allegedly played the violin, the flute and the piano. His first cello, a few years later, was amateurishly made for him by his father out of a hardened gourd and a broom handle. Allegedly.

Luis Leguia, now retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and unable to play the cello because of damage to his hands, sometimes laments, he says, that he will be remembered for his carbon fibre cello, and not for being a cellist. Well, he was a great cellist, definitely. Not a world-changing one like Casals, admittedly – those don’t emerge more than once or twice in a century. His carbon fibre cello though is definitely world-changing.

When he started making his prototypes, in his Boston basement, Luis Leguia’s wife was not a believer. She was, she admits, slightly scornful of the self-indulgence and waste of time, as she saw it.

But when the first prototype was finished, and Luis Leguia expressed his disappointment that it didn’t sound like a great cello – a cello, yes; but not a great one – Mrs. Stephanie Leguia was an instant convert. “It sounds like a cello!” she said. And you can imagine the surprise, the amazement, the greatest kind of reconciling apology a husband can ever hope to hear.

The rest, in the proper formula, is history. Only a few prototypes later and Luis Leguia was satisfied. The carbon fibre cello was born. A manufacturing company was set up, Mrs. Stephanie Leguia took her proper place in charge, and that was that.

It was a bit slow to catch on, though. In the first couple of years only a handful were sold. Even when Yo Yo Ma, another cello legend, bought number 4, it was still slow. Yo Yo Ma, who played for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, who played all six of the Bach Cello Suites at one marathon Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, who normally plays a 1733 Montagnana cello said to be insured for $3m.

Yes, Yo Yo Ma, who founded the Silk Road Ensemble in 1998, to connect music from China to America, and all points in between. But cellists are a conservative lot. The answer to the traditional question, “how many cellists does it take to change a light bulb?” is, “Change?! What do you mean, change?!”

So twenty years later the total world population of Luis and Clark cellos, as they are called, is still only about 1350. They’re all numbered. And mine is number 580.

Well, I bought it secondhand. But that’s another story.

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