When he was a basketball-playing 10-year-old growing up on a kibbutz in northern Israel, Amit Peled developed a crush on a girl who was 14. “I didn’t know, really, what one should do at that age,” recalled Peled. “I thought that if I played cello, like her, she would basically marry me. So that’s what I did.”
It worked out well. No, Peled didn’t get the girl — in fact he barely even spoke to her. But he did find love: with the cello itself. “I combine teaching cello at the Peabody Conservatory, which is part of Johns Hopkins University, and performing as a cellist and conductor all over the world. That’s my life.”
It’s a life in which performing, conducting, teaching and mentoring come together on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 30, when Mount Vernon Virtuosi, the chamber ensemble Peled founded to employ his former students, performs a free concert at the Bender Jewish Community Center in Rockville.
“I never decided that this is what I wanted to do,” he explained. “It was decided for me; I fell in love with it, really.”
He was the only musician in his family, and no one ever had to remind him to practice because playing the cello was his passion. At 15, Peled chose the cello over basketball, not realizing that he eventually would grow to 6-foot, 5-inches, and started winning competitions and scholarships.
“When I was 18, like any Israeli, I had to go into the army for three years,” he said. “I was lucky. I was drafted into the official Israeli Army String Quartet. We have only one, and I was picked to be the cellist, so at least I didn’t have to stop the cello.”
After his discharge, Peled came to the United States on a full scholarship to Yale University, which he left to study with Bernard Greenhouse, complete his degree at the New England Conservatory of Music and then finish his graduate studies in Berlin.
“When I was 28, basically just starting my career, I came to Baltimore to play a run-through concert before my Carnegie Hall debut,” he said. “The lady who hosted me was part of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, and she knew the dean of the Peabody Conservatory and invited her to the concert.”
The dean, Eileen Soskin, was impressed. Peled taught a master class at Peabody the next day, and a few months later, he was invited to audition for a spot on the faculty. With “my wife, two suitcases and a cello,” he moved from Israel to Baltimore. “Now, 16 years later, we have three kids and a life here,” he said. “We are American, and we’re happy, and I have generations of cellists that have been through my hands already.
“So it’s really an amazing story.”
The story segues into the birth of the Mount Vernon Virtuosi. When he became a professor, Peled wanted to pay forward to his students the warmth and generosity that had been shown to him. “Teaching is a really important component of my life, and performing is as well,” he explained. “I always felt that the ‘punch line’ as an educator in the performing arts was to take the very best students and share space with them — rather than just preach to them what to do.”
In the “gap year” between graduation from a prestigious conservatory program and landing a spot as a professional musician, many students take on jobs that don’t allow them to continue to improve their musicianship. Peled created Mount Vernon Virtuosi to provide that key first-job experience to his most talented students.
“There’s a big difference between telling them what to do and how to prepare, and preparing with them and paying them,” he noted. “To be paid, to be professional—that’s a whole different ballgame. I would like to take that first step, take them through that door into professional life.”
And on the eve of New Year’s Eve, they will dance through that door, performing a program based on traditional dance forms by Boccherini, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Strauss, Bartok and Piazolla. Because Peled’s mission is two-pronged — along with providing high-level work for his students, he wants to spread his love of classical music in the community — admission to the concert is free, although tickets must be reserved through the JCC.
“This is really taking classical music to where it used to be,” he said, noting that a philanthropical approach that allows wealthier donors and corporations to commission an orchestra like the Mount Vernon Virtuosi — a 501c3 — appears to be working.
“So far, the first concert we had at the JCC was packed, with more people than any other concert there,” he said. “The presenter was absolutely shocked. It’s been amazing.”
Also amazing is the program Peled will present at the free Sunday afternoon concert. “We call it ‘Dancing into 2019,’” he said. “It’s all based on dances; we start with a dance from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, we go to five Romanian dances by Bartok, and then I play — I take the cello seat, not the conductor — three dances by a Jewish-Israeli composer.”
There’s more music, including a surprise encore by a Georgian composer, and Peled promises the concert “will really put you on your feet.” Yes, he encourages dancing, and he expects the audience will be moved by the music emotionally as well as physically.
“I think that classical music is a universal language,” he said. “Not only the music we play but our musicians are literally from all over the world — from Cuba, Russia, Israel, China — and the message I’m trying to bring out is that this is the most beautiful thing about America, this melting pot of people from all over who become proud Americans.”
It’s something we tend to forget, especially today, he added, “This is what this country is all about, and I’m a product of it. Here I am, an Israeli teaching in one of the most amazing universities in the world, becoming American and teaching kids from everywhere — and showing, through music, what being an American is all about. This is who I am.”
Who Peled is, that’s clear, but what about the cello-playing girl who inspired him back on the kibbutz? What became of her? “The funny thing is, apparently she wasn’t that good at the cello,” he said. She quit when she was 16. But she still loves music.” And the maestro stays in touch: she lives in England, and attends Peled’s concerts there. “She always says, ‘At least I had one good reason to play cello,” he said. “To make you a cellist.”
“Mount Vernon Virtuosi: Dancing into 2019” will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 30 at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. Admission is free; tickets are available at www.benderjccgw.org.