Inbal Segev on Climbing the Mount Everest for Cellists
NEW YORK—It was on her mind for at least 20 years. Inbal Segev had been preparing, practicing, gearing herself up to consummate her musical career by climbing what she called “the Mount Everest for cellists.” Recording J. S. Bach’s complete cello suites constitutes the pinnacle of her internal journey as an artist so far.
The Bach cello suites are so challenging because, as Segev said, they are so simple and yet complex, so structured and yet so free. It is something that any great cellist is expected to accomplish.
Segev trained in a 19th and 20th century-centric style. Despite her precise technique, like a thoroughbred racing horse, she had to abort her first try at recording the suites when the sound engineer gave her some truthful feedback—he sensed she was conflicted inside.
Talking about it now, after finally reaching the summit of her Mount Everest, she reflected on her life and musical career from the comfort of her spacious Upper East Side apartment. Slightly laughing at herself, she said she still tears up a bit when she remembers her first attempt.
“There was so much pressure in succeeding,” she said, yet after years of painstaking research, preparation and practice, she still wasn’t ready.
“I was trying to come back 300 years in one month,” she said in a new documentary video that traces her two-year process of recording the six Bach suites—36 pieces of over two hours of music.
Before making her second and ultimately successful climb, she switched gears for about four months to stop overthinking. She performed in several concerts and had publicity photographs taken.
She realized she had been imposing ideas on herself, instead of interpreting the music based on her own decisions. She had to be truer to herself, to hone her own voice. “I really had to make decisions that I’m happy with, well educated decisions,” she said.
“Bach was one of the most intelligent composers. He’s always going to be smarter than the performer, so you have to rise up to his intellectual level and try to figure out what he wanted,” Segev said in the documentary.
The Bach suites are the pure expression of what that instrument can do, one of Segev’s producers, Todd Landor said in the documentary. And because they are so pure, it also gives ample opportunity for the solo performer to project his or her style and character.
Less Is More Style
The time musicians live in invariably shapes the music they play. Being true to Bach did not mean imitating performers of times past, but instead bringing his music to life in the 21st century by interpreting it in her own way.
Segev described herself as “a lyrical understated kind of performer.” She shies away from any mannerisms, while still creating a beautiful and expressive tone.
Similar to her welcoming spacious apartment—unobtrusive, unpretentious, with an elegant simplicity and carefully curated furniture, art, and objects—she takes on a less is more approach to her interpretations.
“Sometimes the most moving things are when you are not throwing yourself all out there,” she said. “But it depends on the piece, with Dvorak I like to be more out there,” she added.
She released her album, “Inbal Segev: Bach Cello Suites” this fall. Her contagious laughter throughout the interview seemed to counterbalance her self-admitted perfectionism and a tendency to be too hard on herself. Then she said, “But I’m better now. … I put the CD on and I actually enjoy it.”
Although it would be interesting to hear how her interpretation of the Bach cello suites could develop in the future, she does not plan to do it again any time soon. She is committed to commissioning new music for the cello, working with composers such as Timo Andres, Avner Dorman, and Gity Razaz.
Finding Her Voice
Segev was immediately drawn to the sound of the cello when she heard it for the first time on the radio. She started playing at the age of 5 in Jerusalem where she grew up. Since then she hasn’t stopped—except for a nearly one-year hiatus at the age of 8. She called it her “little mid-life crisis” and guffawed.
At 15, the violinist and conductor Isaac Stern heard her play and got the ball rolling for her to receive a full scholarship at Yale to study under Aldo Parisot. At 16 she moved to the United States on her own. “It was really amazing and very scary,” she said. In Israel she had been very sheltered. “I was living in a bubble, I still live in a bubble in a way,” she said.
She found the level of the cellists at Yale School of Music unbelievable. She wasn’t the only top student winning all the competitions anymore, but she still felt quite sure of herself. Then when she went to New York to study at Juilliard a few years later, she said, “That was a real shock. That’s where you really are nobody. Nobody knows who you are. Nobody cares who you are,” she said laughing.
She decided to leave Juilliard to study privately on Cape Cod with the late cellist Bernard Greenhouse during the winters, because he would go sailing in the summers.
“He really saved my playing and he inspired me,” she said. “He talked about all the techniques to make music come alive … how to control the vibrato, shades of glissando (when you shift from one note to another), little details that I was never taught before. We would talk about one phrase for a whole lesson easily.”
While Greenhouse taught Segev step by step what to do, after the three years of learning from him, it was time to move on.
“He had a huge influence on me. I lost some of my own way because he had such a strong personality,” she said.
Her playing fluctuated a bit as she became self-conscious but eventually came into her own, especially after she married and had children. Having a family helped balance her life, gaining a broader perspective. It was no longer only about playing the cello. She has two girls and a boy. The three of them play string instruments—the violin, the viola, and the cello.
Cello With a Distinct Personality
Segev’s cello was made in Cremona, Italy, in 1673 by Francesco Ruggieri. She’s understandably very protective of an instrument that could be a museum piece. “I take it with me everywhere, even to the bathroom in restaurants,” she said. She knew what she was looking for and she knew her price range. After trying about 10 cellos in New York and London, she found the one she owns in Chicago.
“I was looking for a baritone sounding instrument, not a tenor, there’s different shades in between. Some cellos are very bright and carry very well over an orchestra, but you want the depth too. I didn’t want to compromise the darkness,” she said.
As she played snippets of various pieces in her home, including the first Bach cello suite, prompting goose bumps, her cello gave an incredibly full warm sound. It was like a deep burgundy, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, with a slight hint of sweetness. Her pet parakeets started chirping excitedly. Segev laughed.
While every cello has its own personality, ultimately the musician affects the instrument. “I sound very similar on different cellos. After a while, after I get used to it, it is my sound,” Segev said confidently.
When asked what music means to her, she said, “It transforms you on so many levels. It makes us better people. It’s beautiful because it’s good,” she said articulating “good” at length, smiling and then giving a hearty laugh.