"Travels With My Cello" is a new book in a genre that includes "Cellist" by Gregor Piatigorsky, "I Really Should Be Practicing" by Gary Graffman and "Galina" by Galina Vishnevskaya. Such anecdotal accounts of the lives of famous musicians entertain and inform readers by combining a fascinating glimpse of the soloist's life, both on and off stage, with in-depth personal descriptions of the people, places and events that make up such a life. They also paint a revealing portrait of the author through his choice and presentation of material, his reaction to and interaction with others and his expressed view of himself and his place in the world. But there is an underlying assumption that the author has something interesting to write and is capable of writing it.
Julian Lloyd Webber (brother of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber) is an English cellist in his mid-thirties. Although he has made several recordings, both classical and jazz, it is hyperbole to call him a "successful international cellist," as does the dust jacket, when much of his repertoire is British, most of his concerts are in England and even other cellists fail to recognize his name. This is not an indictment of his career as a cellist -- there is nothing wrong with specialization or concerts in England, and a lot of very good cellists are not universally known. But the success of an autobiographical collection of anecdotes depends to a large degree on the stature of its author. He must command enough respect in his field to approach and associate with the people he mentions in his book. Rostropovich, Piatigorsky, Casals, du Pre', Perlman, Solti and Queen Elizabeth all appear in "Travels," but at most they shake hands with Lloyd Webber or tell him something. Otherwise, he reads their books, attends their concerts or stands where they once stood.
A substantive relationship with celebrities adds spice but is not an absolute requirement in a well-written book of this kind. Lloyd Webber leads an interesting life, which many readers would like to know more about. Unfortunately, he lacks a storyteller's gift for descriptive detail. He is vague when describing people, places or events, and awkward when describing emotions or philosophical ideals. Jacqueline du Pre', the famous English cellist confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis, elicits this response: "meeting her, just after playing myself, made me feel profoundly grateful for my own good health." Stephane Grappelli, a French jazz violinist, who played concerts and radio broadcasts with Lloyd Webber, is merely "a seasoned jazzer who can improvise anything, anytime . . ."
These cardboard characterizations, typical of those offered throughout the book, seem curiously incomplete and especially inadequate when used to describe people important in the author's life. Worse, the book's balance suffers when he spends so little space on these figures but lavishes a half-page on a meaningless encounter with an old man in Old Goole who was "wandering around the street chuckling and gibbering to himself."
Lloyd Webber reveals most about himself in his ruminations on the place of classical music in the world. In a pub one night after a concert he finds the locals fascinated with his cello. One fellow says he didn't attend the concert because he "wouldn't have enjoyed all that upper-class music." At this point, some cellists might have taken out their instruments for a short impromptu concert, winning converts by demonstrating the beauty of classical music. Lloyd Webber, instead, attempts to persuade with this uplifting message: "Great music is not the preserve of a privileged or wealthy elite. It is an international language that cuts across barriers of race and class."
There are a few bright spots: an amusing anecdote about an interview at a New York radio station in which Lloyd Webber described a work as "one of the fastest, most technically difficult pieces ever written for the cello," but because of an engineer's miscue one of the slowest, most melodic compositions is heard. Lloyd Webber's stories about plane travel with a cello also have a universal appeal: "Once we let you bring your cello on, every passenger will want to," and "If we let you bring that on, the next passenger will want to bring a grand piano."
Unfortunately, most of the book is so marred by Lloyd Webber's lackluster writing that it is difficult to enjoy any of it. Readers looking for a fascinating account of what it is like to be an internationally acclaimed artist should reread Piatigorsky's book "Cellist" or hope for the one Rostropovich could write.