Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Cello Review, Part 2: Jonathan Li cello

The first review will be on the Jonathan Li cello.

The contenders were:

2011 Eastman Jonathan Li 503 (left with the lightest color)
2011 Calin Wultur Student (middle)
2010 Eastman Pietro Lombardi 502 (right in case)

A quick note: ALL cellos are different, so if you're looking at the same maker and model, the cello will most certainly have different characteristics, so none of this applies except to these specific cellos.

2011 Eastman Jonathan Li, Model 503, Stradivarius, Beijing, China

Evaluation: My favorite and will be my primary cello
  • Description: the Jonathan Li cello is Eastman's top cello in their 500 series line, which is described as:
    • A cello crafted from the most select, stunning flamed Maple back with a straight medium-grain spruce top. A refined, golden colored oil varnish enhances the tonal quality of this cello. Each cello is meticulously calibrated for optimum sound production.
    • This cello was made from one of Eastman's small workshops in Beijing where production isn't the primary incentive and only a few higher skilled makers in their shop get to produce the 500 series (Jean-Pierre Lupot 501, Pietro Lombardi 502 and the Jonathan Li 503 cellos). These celli are not mass produced and are only distributed to small violin shops. 
  • The 500 series is not listed on Eastman Strings website either...wish they would post information on these celli! Come on - we consumers want to know!
  • Some Eastman Info:
    • Eastman has quality, properly cured woods and the largest supply of tonewoods from all over the world and takes proper care and time to air dry their wood for a minimum of 5 years in a controlled environment, i.e. they store their wood inside large buildings to protect them from the elements. 
    • Eastman cellos are also backed by one of the best warranties in the industry, which covers any defects in material and construction for the lifetime of the product. 
    • Why so many Chinese made instruments, including these Eastman cellos? Chinese makers are consistently winning Gold at Violin Society of America (VSA) shows as well as other maker's competitions with their instruments. These instruments are no longer considered bottom of the market, nor cheap. Many Chinese luthiers are highly respected and are making professional level cellos costing as much as the best American instruments. These Eastman instruments are fully handmade without the use of power tools, whereas German instruments costing under $10,000 are all machine carved and then, on better instruments, hand finished.

This NOT an endorsement for Eastman Strings, although I did just purchase two Eastman cellos... ;). And certainly NOT a recommendation to go out and buy a Chinese cello from eBay!!  Please don't! This is just my observations, so take this all with a grain of salt and don't buy anything because what I posted...just saying...just in case...

Sound Quality:
  • The sound of this cello is very smooth and warm and sounds great under my ear. However, I haven't shown this cello to my teacher yet, so I don't know if it sounds good to other people or on a recording. I don't have an audio clip of it, but I'll post one as soon as I get my cello back (hopefully by the end of next week). 
    • Although I haven't shown my teacher or recorded it, this cello sounds absolutely beautiful under my ear and is very comfortable, and responsive to boot! :)
  • These three cellos were like The Story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears! The first cello (Pietro Lombardi) didn't have enough volume and wasn't as responsive, the second cello (Calin Wultur) was too responsive and had too much volume, and the third (Jonathan Li) was just right! I received those cellos in that order too, go figure! :).
    • The Li's volume is in between the Calin Wultur cello and the Pietro Lombardi cello, with the Lombardi being the quietest. The Li is not as loud as the Calin, but I don't need a cello with lots of volume since I'm not doing solos, recitals or playing in an orchestra yet. Not to say that the Li cello is a quiet cello -the volume is fairly close to the Wultur's volume and I'm sure the Li's volume will increase as soon as the varnish cures completely and the cello acclimates and settles into its new home. It also has a thicker, richer type of volume... if that makes sense...

  • The audios for Jonathan Li with different strings and bows are posted below. The first half of each recording uses a cheap carbon fiber bow and the second half of the recording uses a pernambuco Paesold bow
    • Evah A and Permanents D, G, C:  
    • Jargar Fortes on A&D and Permanents on G&C:

Response, Comfort & Playability:
  • The Li's response is in between the Wultur and Lombardi celli and is perfect for me. The Wultur is waaaay too forgiving, i.e. when I play the Wultur first I can't get a good sound if I play other cellos afterwards because I've gotten sloppy with my bowing playing the Wultur. Although I'm sure the Wultur would be great for a cellist who has their technique under control and wants an easy response - not me though, my technique needs lots of work! :). Whereas, the Lombardi is more particular in producing a good sound, and won't make a good sound unless I bow correctly. It was a bit frustrating at first playing the Lombardi, but it definitely has helped me improve my bowing and playing any other cello is a piece of cake! The Li cello is in-between both of these - an easier response than the Lombardi, but not overly easy like the Wultur
  • The finger spacing is also just right on the Li cello. The Wultur string length was too long (27 1/8") and was making my hand tense up trying to spread my fingers wide enough, making my hand hurt. It's also the bigger pattern of the three cellos even though they're all Strad models. The Lombardi string length was too small at 26 3/4" which gave my hand too much "wiggle" room and made it harder to get my fingers in the right position moving from one string to another because my hand wasn't stretched enough and would collapse.  The Li at 27" is just right, and my fingers fall perfectly into place naturally and feels great! I didn't think I would notice any difference in string lengths, but I definitely can feel it in my hands! See...just like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears!
    • Being a beginner, the string length affects me a lot, but I'm sure I'll get used to it eventually. More experienced cellists probably don't have this issue
    • I've learned that knowing the measurements of my current cello is a good idea so I have an idea whether the cello will feel good and to minimize surprises when ordering online. I liked my rental cellos measurements and discovered that it was actually a 7/8 cello! After testing larger patterns I learned not to look at larger patterned or larger measurement celli because they don't feel as comfortable to me. I'm 5'6 so I'm right between small and large patterns, but I definitely prefer small
      • Example: I tested a 4/4 Montagana pattern and a 4/4 Giovanni Baptist Gabrielli pattern and found that they were too big for me. For the Montagnana it was due to the upper bouts being so large (I like upper bouts below 14") and the Gabrielli pattern is just a large pattern in general. I think a 7/8 Gabrielli pattern would have worked for me, but the local shop I tried it at only had a full size. 
      • However, once I get more experienced and my fingers and hands stretch out from playing the cello for awhile, I think I want to try out a Montagnana or Gofriller pattern because I LOVE how those patterns sound in general! That will be in 5+ years though - I don't want to go through the experience of looking for another cello again! It took me 3-4 months to decide on a cello! It was fun at first, then reality sunk in...

      • Measurements: The Jonathan Li's string length is right in the middle of the two and feels just right! The string length made all the difference in the world to me, even though all the measurements are fairly similar
        • Pietro Lombardi cello (Strad):
          • Length of body: 30"
          • Width of upper bout: 13.375"
          • Width of c-bout: 9.375"
          • Width of lower bout: 17.375"
          • String length 26.75 - too short
        • Wultur Calin cello (Piatti Strad):
          • Length of body: 29.875"
          • Width of upper bout: 13.5"
          • Width of c-bout: 9.25"
          • Width of lower bout: 17.5"
          • String length: 27.125" - too long
        • Jonathan Li cello (Strad):
          • Length of body: 29.875"
          • Width of upper bout: 13.5"
          • Width of c-bout: 9.5"
          • Width of lower bout: 17.5"
          • String length: 27" - just right!! :).
    • No wolf tone on this cello!! Well, a very, very small one, which gets stronger with certain strings, but has disappeared with the current string selection I put on! 

    Maintenance & Health:
    • Adjustment: Having the cello adjusted to the cellist once it's purchased should be part of the buying procedure as the preferred setups are unique to each individual cellist. Some shops will adjust a cello for for free when the cello is purchased. However, since the shop I purchased this cello at is out of state and the difference in climate, I took it to my favorite violin shop instead. The luthier lowered the nut, adjusted the soundpost and did some work on the bridge. 
    • Acclimatization to drier climates: Since this cello was made in 2011 and shipped from a more humid climate to a dry climate, it's having some acclimatization issues.
      • What I've learned: Cellos from China may have wood with a high moisture percentage when assembled there and can have shrinkage issues with coming to drier climates of the US. Often times, shops will hold the cello for a time period in their shop and monitor the cello as it gets acclimated.  There really is no way to prevent shrinkage from happening, especially if the cello is traveling from one state to another, or from one country to another. It's just part of the finicky nature of cellos and the process of a new cello settling.
        • Since Eastman creates these celli in a temperature and humidity controlled environments, the shrinking issues were most likely from the result of the cello traveling from the more humid climate of California to the much drier climate of Colorado. Also, the seasonal change from Summer to Fall could have affected it as well. There is no way to tell for certain what caused the issue unless I was able to watch the cello's production from start to finish.
      • The seams opened up a few days after I got the cello back for the adjustments. The ribs also started to bulge at different sections along the seam and the neck started to curve as well, so I took it back to my luthier who opened the seams and cleaned out some of the stain/varnish that had leaked into the seam closing (which may attributed to the open seam). He then let it sit for a few days to help the cello get acclimated and then reshaped and glued the bulging areas. 
      • Currently the neck/fingerboard is being straightened because the neck and fingerboard was starting to "back bow" which happens in dry climates quite often. It's been two weeks since I dropped off the cello but the wood hasn't straightened yet - I'm having Li cello withdrawals... blah! :(. Anyway, the luthier removed the fingerboard from the neck, which is a glued-together unit, to see if the neck will flatten on its own. However, the longer it was back-bowed, the more difficult it'll be to flatten it out. Therefore, if its been back-bowed for awhile, he'll need to use different techniques to straighten the warping, which will of course cost more. He may also need to re-plane the fingerboard playing surface as it is beginning to develop bumps from shrinkage!
    • I'll be taking the cello to the shop in another 6 months just for a checkup to make sure that it doesn't have any further settling issues. Even with all of these acclimatization "issues" I still believe this is the cello for me!

      Resale value:
      • I'll be holding on to this cello for a very long time! I'm not letting go of this puppy! :). However, the shop provides a generous 100% trade in value for an instrument of a higher price.


      •  ....oooo...soooo...Pur-Tay! :). High flaming on the back! 
      • What's the deal with flaming anyway? 
        • Historically, highly flamed pieces were reserved for more expensive cellos, so it became a quick indicator of the quality of wood being used. Although this is no longer true today, there are many modern violin makers creating expensive cellos without highly flamed pieces. I just lucked out and came across a cello that had high flaming! :). Also, cheap knockoffs will paint artificial flaming so they can state it has high flaming to increase the price.
        • Instruments should be made with spruce tops and maple ribs and bottoms. 
          • In my opinion, they're really is no need to rent or purchase laminate wood cellos, as I've come across cellos in the same price range using spruce and maple. Even though they're more durable (my first rental cello was laminate wood), its not conducive to sound. In retrospect, for me it was less enjoyable playing on a laminate cello. There really is nothing better than hearing the ringing tones of a cello and then realizing the sound is coming from YOUR cello! Okay, I have to admit that sounded a bit conceited, but its totally true! However, it definitely motivated me to get better sounds out of my cello!
      • I'm not too fond of the lighter varnish, I prefer darker varnish, but its still a very beautiful instrument! I saw this olive/chocolately colored cello that was absolutely beautiful. My least favorite varnish color - the reddish-orange varnish...
      • This came with all of the fittings that I requested on my first cello (Lombardi) with beautiful ebony Pegheads (all my cellos have Pegheds!) and ebony Les Bois d'Harmonie tailpiece which makes this lovely cello that much more beautiful..IMHO.

      I purchased this cello and will be using this as my primary cello.

      Wow, that was a long post... hopefully, my review on the two other cellos aren't so long. Next review: the Pietro Lombardi cello...


        1. your comment for Li's cello is very useful!
          I am thinking whether I should buy a 503 cello model too lol

          1. Hi Kirsty, glad it was helpful!!!

            I'd love to hear about it if you decide to get one and what strings you choose! ;)

        2. The first reason given is an uncertainty on obtaining the correct pitch. The second reason is a fear of popping a string. violin app

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