When asked about her 1710 Vincenzo Ruggeri cello, Tanya Prochazka pauses before she replies. One look at the elegant fingerboard, the richly stained wood, and textured body of this cello makes it easy to understand why Prochazka hesitates. An off-the cuff comment just would not do—this cello demands respect. The almost 300-year-old instrument got its start in Cremona, Italy, where it was constructed by artisan Vincenzo Ruggeri. After its creation little is known about the cello, except that it passed through the hands of five or six generations of European cellists.
Then in 1886 the rich voice of the cello was heard in Budapest, where it was being played by David Popper, a European pre-Casals cellist, who had moved to that city to accept an appointment at the Franz Liszt Academy. Popper taught more than 200 Students at the academy—one of whom acquired the Ruggeri cello. The fortunate recipient, Arthur Weiss, brought the cello overseas to New York some eight years after its Budapest debut.
Weiss played the Ruggeri in Walter Damrosch's New York Symphony. Then in 1902 he began his 30-year career in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Inseparable—and in demand—the duo were continually performing, rehearsing, or teaching, and both survived the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, although Weiss's home was destroyed.
After Weiss's death the cello was silent—hidden in a closet—for years, until it was inherited by Weiss's granddaughter, cellist Jane Bergen. In 1967, after lengthy negotiations, Bergen sent the cello to its new owner in Edmonton, Claude Kenneson. A founding member of the Univcrsity of Alberta String Quartet, Kenneson played what he called, "the cello with the golden voice," until he retired it in 1978. From time to time, however, lie would allow others -including Marina Hoover of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and former pupil Eric Wilson of the Emerson String Quartet—to intoxicate audiences with its mellow voice.
Then in 1993, Prochazka acquired the expressive cello. She still remembers the day—summer solstice. "An instrument like this has so many voices and the sound quality is so very complicated and interesting," she says. "It is a bottomless pit of exquisite sounds."
The cello—she calls it her chocolate box — is very special to Prochazka. One simply has to see her and the cello together to understand the deep connection that exists between these two. At the very instant that she drew the bow across its four strings, she says, the cello became an extension of herself.
Published Autumn 2000.