Zuill Bailey, Superhero

The North Carolina Symphony invited me to dinner on Monday, on stage with Zuill Bailey.  I’ve been to fundraising events before, and often they are fun, but I was really excited about this one because Zuill was part of the first-ever session at Manifold Recording.  The recording he played on, The Spanish Masters, reached the Top 10 on Amazon.com later that year.  The event exceeded all my expectations.

The title of the dinner was “Bach, Bailey, & Bacchus” and promised to pair music from Bach cello suites with each meal course.  Normally I like to have an exclusive relationship with music, meaning I’d rather listen to it than dance to it, and I most certainly want it to be the center of other people’s attention, so I don’t have to listen through all their distractions.  I also like music to be substantial, meaning not just some filler between other, supposedly more important programming, but something that stands completely on its own.  Notwithstanding the foregoing, I trusted that Zuill would make this evening special, because he has a way of making everything he does very special.

After the obligatory introductions by Music Director (and former cellist) Grant Llewellyn, Zuill told us how we came to be sharing dinner with him on the stage of Meymandi Hall.  The story began a few years ago when Zuill was being hosted by some high-end wine engineers in Napa (or was it Sonoma) County, California.  They proudly (and perhaps eagerly) offered him their finest creations.  He took a glass, took a sip, and then was asked “what do you think?”

Silence.

Zuill knew that the wine tasted good, but he didn’t know what fancy descriptors would accurately describe that goodness.  “It’s good,” he offered.  His hosts wanted more.  “Can you describe what you are tasting?” they asked.

More silence.

As Zuill struggled to find the right words (sublime?  amazing?  wonderful?  Those are all just synonyms for good!), he flashed on his life-long struggle (and triumphs!) with Bach.  I don’t want to give away too much of what might become his TED talk, but he developed a vocabulary for making Bach’s music more accessible.  He knew, and could communicate, how Bach made him feel, and he decided to use those feeling words to describe how the wine made him feel.  It worked brilliantly.  Late into the night, he delighted his hosts by describing the music within their wines, using terms that, coincidentally, were also used by the most sophisticated sommeliers.  Sometimes genius really does love company!

We have some amazing folks living in the Triangle who do a fairly good job of flying under the radar.  One of them is a good friend of the Symphony; he also owns one of the most extensive wine collections on the East Coast.  Somehow this came up as Zuill was planning his visit, and the idea for the event began to take shape.  A fundraising dinner would be enhanced by very specially selected wines which would pair not only with the food, but with movements from the Bach cello suites.  The opening music, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (BVW 1007) is the piece that Zuill plays every morning when he wakes up.  It is bubbly.  It makes him happy.  It is a way to celebrate each new day.  It was paired with Champagne, the celebratory libation that is served at the start of any happy occasion.  As Zuill described the mystery and the magic of this wonderful piece (played on his amazing 1693 Matteo Gofriller instrument), one could equally imagine the magic and the mystery of Champagne being revealed as well.

As the meal and the wines progressed, so did the music, from C major (white wine) to D minor (pinot noirs) to E-flat major (syrrah).  I wish I had taken better notes as to the specifics of the wines and the pairings, but the report from everyone at my table was that the pairings were perceptive, harmonious, and inspired.  Bravo!

Zuill also shared with us some personal stories, including the story of how he came to be able to play the particular instrument he now plays.  Born into a musical family, Zuill was a hyperactive child.  His parents tried all kinds of ways to distract him or tire him out, but nothing worked until they brought him a cello, when he was four years old.  He wrapped his arms around the cello, closed his eyes, and then began to play the open strings.  Musically.  For fifteen minutes.  When he was eight years old, he decided he wanted a full-sized cello, but his father was against it.  “You won’t be able to play it, and you’ll injure yourself trying,” was his father’s logic.  To make matters worse, it wasn’t the full-sized cello he really wanted, it was the cool hard-shell cases that they only make for full-sized instruments.  He didn’t like the cloth case that protected his child-sized instrument.  He begged and pleaded for months and months.  Seven months later, his father relented, saying “Here!  Go hurt yourself.”  Zuill was very small as a child.  Even in 8th grade he was less than 5 feet tall.  But he grew rapidly from there, reaching his full height of 5’11” in 10th grade.  His left hand also grew as a result of all his stretching, to the point where it appears to be a full inch larger than his right hand.  Here’s a video of him demonstrating the difference in front of a KidzNotes class in Durham the day after our dinner:

It turns out that his physical transformation empowered him to do something almost no other cello player can do, which is to play the remarkable instrument he now plays.  Originally built as a church bass, the 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello is too large to be played by most cellists.  But Zuill Bailey is not most cellists.  Zuill Bailey is a superhero, one who can play the most demanding program on stage, and then the very next day, sit down with a classroom full of 5 year olds and teach them respect for music, respect for each other, and teach them how music can transform them and the transform the communities in which they live.  Bravo!!

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