First published in The Record, March 7, 2017
Barbara Streisand’s cellist takes the bus
E. Zoe Hassman arrived in Hackensack with her cello on her back. She came to the front door of Johnson Public Library at 9 a.m., just as the building opened, and carried her instrument and 50 pounds of gear down to the basement.
Hassman could be sitting in her apartment near Lincoln Center, preparing to play again for the New York Philharmonic. She could be backing Barbra Streisand, with whom she's toured the United States and Europe, or on Broadway, where she has played in the orchestras for “The Lion King,” “Candide” and "Cabaret."
Instead she is here, in Hackensack, on a Monday morning, preparing to play for an audience of 17 people.
This is what happens when you love something very much.
“I think this cello is about as tall as I am,” said Hassman, a slight woman who stands 5 feet 1 inch tall. “I will do whatever it takes for my passion.
Hassman took 45 minutes to set up a stool, two music stands and a cordless microphone before unzipping her cello from its black canvas case. At 9:50 a.m. she started to tune the instrument, an Emile Boulangeot cello made in France in 1923.
Its red lacquer is worn to the wood at the shoulders from decades of rubbing against her chest.
Audience members started to trickle in, taking seats and assuming postures that aligned with their level of interest. David Roth sat in the front row.
“I like classical music,” said Roth, 101.
Rich Lander poured some Dunkin’ Donuts coffee into a paper cup, took a seat in the back row, and pulled a pair of wraparound sunglasses down over his eyes.
“I’m a rock-'n-roll guy,” said Lander, 66. “But I’m retired. So I come here.”
Next to Lander sat Lanny Paykin, a cellist who first saw Hassman play Carnegie Hall in the 1980s.
“Her technique is wonderful,” said Paykin, who has played with Hassman on Broadway and in orchestras since the 1980s. “The quickness of her hands, her musicality, her beautiful phrasing and beautiful vibrato. Plus, she has great stage presence.”
At 10:30 a.m. she laid her instrument on the floor, took the cordless microphone, and addressed the small crowd.
“Good morning, everybody!” she said. “You are more important than I am in this project. You enrich me. So, if you have any questions, just ask away.”
No one raised a hand. So Hassman picked up the cello and began to play an arrangement by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, an 18th-century Italian composer.
The auditorium of Johnson Public Library is a basement room with concrete walls and a beige linoleum floor. Into this squared-off space swept the rounded and sonorous music of horsehair over strings. Hassman’s left hand fingered the notes, and her right arm bowed long sustained legatos and hammered short pizzicato bursts.
David Roth leaned forward toward the music, resting his arms on his walker. Rich Lander tilted back in his chair, dropped his head, and went to sleep.
After the first two movements, Hassman paused to turn a page in her sheet music. A few people clapped hesitantly. In a symphony music hall, clapping between movements would be verboten.
In the Johnson Public Library, enthusiasm is encouraged.
“Feel free to clap!” Hassman said. “I never turn down applause.”
Hassman played on, with short selections from the British cellist William Henry Squire, and one from Charlie Chaplin’s album “Oh! That Cello.”
The concert was organized by the Professional Music Teachers' Guild of New Jersey. About two-thirds of the way through, in the middle of a piece by the 17th-century composer Domenico Gabrielli, a cellphone started to ring.
Then it kept ringing.
“Oh! That’s me!” said Patti Hendrix, the guild’s president, who walked into the hallway and took the call.
Hassman played 12 arrangements in 70 minutes. Her final song was Disney’s “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
“I want this to be accessible and audience-friendly,” she said. “Any comments? Questions?”
In the back row, Tom Biggins raised his hand.
“I’m curious: Did you improvise the harmonics, ponticello and glissando, or were those written into the music by the composer?” Biggins said, referring respectively to the cello techniques of using light fingers on the strings, bowing near the bridge, and gliding the fingers up and down the strings.
“Those are all written into the music,” Hassman said. “Are you a musician?
Biggins nodded yes. He has taught piano in Norwood for 42 years.
As they talked, Lander walked over to the table of coffee and snacks. He popped a doughnut into his mouth, and wiped the white powder off his chin.
“The doughnuts seem to be a hit,” Hendrix said, laughing. “It’s hard to push music, especially classical music.”
The audience left, and Hassman packed her cello into the case. She coughed ― she’d been fighting a cold all weekend. Hassman rode the elevator to the first floor, walked outside, and started down Main Street. She carried her cello on her back, and pulled a rolling suitcase that seemed nearly as heavy as she is.
“This is what passion does for you!” she said, smiling at the bulk and weight of her load. “If you ask me what I want to do with my life, it’s to connect with others. The cello is my tool to do that.”
It took some wandering, but eventually Hassman found the right bus stop, at the corner of State Street and Trinity Place. She waited for the No. 165 to the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
When it arrived, the driver stepped down and loaded her big bag into the undercarriage of the bus. He offered to throw the cello inside, too, but Hassman insisted on keeping it.
“No, sorry,” she said. “It’s fragile.”
And then Hassman, who is Barbra Streisand’s cellist, who seems as small and fragile as her cello, climbed the stairs into the idling bus.