The Sensuous Cellist

on Alexei, Pinchas, karate and the sex appeal of the big bow

Ottawa Citizen

What with her out-on-a-limb fashion sense, her romance with conductor-boss Pinchas Zukerman, and her kick-ass karate chops, drop-dead blonde Amanda Forsyth is not your standard classical musician.

On stage, she stands out. Like a radiant in a dark orchestral sea, Amanda Forsyth glows in the front row of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Her hand flutters around the neck of her cello; her body sways ever so slightly, moved by the power of the music. At moments, a smile flickers across her face, reflecting the sheer thrill of making such a beautiful sound. With a growing solo career and a 1997 Juno Award, Forsyth is ranked by reviewers as one of the best Canadian cellists of her generation.

What’s more, she’s gorgeous.

The joined the NACO four years ago after she was invited for the summer to fill in for a cellist who had left. Since then, Forsyth has added more than a tighter sound to the cello section. Her rock-star fashion sense has punched a hole in the stuffy image of classical musicians; on stage, her provocative attire – spike heels, bustiers, and see-through fabrics – has pushed the limits of the orchestra dress code. I mean, how many other orchestras have a principal cellist who has made it to the city’s best-dressed list and is featured in fur coat ads?

Everything in Forsyth’s life is energetic and bold – her performances, her clothing, and even her choice of fitness activities. For the past three years, she has been studying combat karate with specialist Mark Slater, her personal trainer. Of course, she does not break boards with her priceless hands. Instead, she concentrates on the kicks. And kick she does. In a workout, she will do anywhere from 500 to 600. Today, as she practices, her strong musician’s hands are floating in front of her face, locked in fighting form. “She’s a natural,” says Slater. “If she hadn’t been a cellist, she would have made a great boxer.”

Forsyth says this is the first time in her life that she has allowed herself to pursue physical activities. The thirty-five year old musician began performing at three, trained in London and New York, played with the Toronto Symphony and, by twenty-four, was already holding the prestigious seat of principal cello with the Calgary Philharmonic. Although the demands on her as a cellist are soaring, she has reached a point where she is able to look beyond her beloved instrument. “When I was younger, I was so dedicated that I never had time to do the other stuff. I never had hobbies. Everything was about music. I never played volleyball, because I could sprain my hand. I never skied. I never did crafts. I never did swimming.” Now she wants to try a lot of those pursuits that she missed as a kid – and karate is the perfect outlet for her boundless energy. “After the Chamber Music Festival in Santa Fe, Mark comes down and I just train, train, train,” she says.

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She met her trainer through his controversial protege Alexei Yashin, one-time Senators star; one-time NAC patron – and according to the gossip columns, one-time Forsyth flame. Forsyth and Yashin did date briefly, and while the relationship was short-lived, the karate stuck. Forsyth now holds a red belt in the sport – halfway up the scale – and Slater says her determination will carry her further.

For most people, a jammed performance roster such as Forsyth’s would be more than a little stressful, but it just seems to fuel her momentum. In addition to her post with the orchestra, which entails over forty performances annually, she can have as many as forty other engagements booked in a year. It’s not unusual for her to fly off to Florida or Chicago one morning, practice in the afternoon, perform that evening, and fly home in time for her NACO practice the next morning. on top of that, she manages to offer private music lesson and teach classes at the University of Ottawa. “The orchestra is my job, but the cello has been my life,” she says.

With such an unrelenting schedule, Forsyth doesn’t have much time for cultivating friendships. Still, being part of the orchestra gives her a strong sense of connection. The atmosphere at rehearsal is relaxed and friendly; Forsyth, head of the cello section, is playful, chatting and laughing between pieces and conferring regularly. She revels in the cameraderie of colleagues and the joy of making music with the people she knows. “We are a fantastic family, and that’s really unusual,” she says of the typically competitive and bitchy world of professional orchestras. The other musicians seem to see her as a precocious child – outspoken, outrageously dressed, and sleeping with the boss, conductor Pinchas Zukerman. Yet she’s still, apparently, loved by all. Her fans are equally intrigued and forgiving. “Amanda is fun to watch,” says one regular concert-goer. “She’s always making someone in her section laugh during a recital. And people in the audience love to gossip about here – to keep tabs on what she’s up to now.”

For Forsyth, though, it’s her solo performances that truly unleash her creative spirit. “The’re really much more emotional, because you’re creating on the spot. I sometimes give myself goosebumps,” she says.

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Born in South Africa, Forsyth moved to Edmonton as a child. As with most famous musicians, her talent emerged early. Photos of her as a toddler show her performing her first recital – her father, well-known Canadian new-music composer Malcolm Forsyth, launched his daughter’s career when he enrolled her in a Suzuki cello program offered by a colleague at the University of Alberta. (She began on the viola, the starter instrument for tiny cellists.) “I remember she refused to get off the stage after her first concert. She just stayed up there and kept playing,” recalls her mother, Lesley Forsyth. “Maybe we should have known then that she was a born performer, but we just thought she was a talented little girl.”

Although she gave up the instrument for a short time to play the piano, by thirteen, she knew for certain that she was born to be a cellist. And when she speaks of the cello, she is clearly still in love. “It’s the way I can say the things I want to say. It’s such a big instrument pressed up against you, and I feel the resonance against my heart and through my knees. And it’s so close in sound to the human voice that it feels like I’m yelling and screaming. It’s a purely emotional thing,” she says.

At twelve, she moved to London, England, to study, and by fifteen, she was honing her craft at the Vancouver Conservatory of Music. Her next stop was New York City’s famous Julliard School of Music. By the time she was twenty-two, she had already secured a seat with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Despite their divorce when Forsyth was thirteen, both parents are still actively involved in her musical career. Forsyth’s father was her first mentor, and over the years, they’ve collaborated professionally. The senior Forsyth intimately appreciates the cello’s potential in the hands of his virtuoso daughter and composes concertos for her to play. In 1997, their partnership proved so successful that Forsyth won a Juno award for her recording of Electra Rising, a cello concerto her father had written for her.

As for her mother, when you meet her, it’s easy to see where Forsyth got her flamboyance. Lesley Forsyth wears her long red hair in a tight knot. Her purple geometric glasses look like art pieces, her makeup is perfect, and her fingers are stacked with rings. She also has that same driving energy that engulfs you when you meet her daughter.

After living in Australia for fifteen years, Lesley moved back to Canada two years ago. She’d had little involvement in her daughter’s career while gone. But that has changed. “I don’t want anyone to think that I’m one of those pushy stage mums, because I’m not,” says Lesley, who lives a few blocks away from her daughter. “Amanda’s career started slowly and has built up over the years. I just realized she had gotten to the point where she needed a full-time agent.”. Since she was no stranger to promoting artistic talent, Lesley took on the task. A former ballet dancer who once managed the Alberta Ballet Company, Lesley also worked as an agent, managing her husband’s musical career when they first moved to Canada in 1968. She says managing her daughter’s career requires diplomacy – but her daughter has no complaints. “Whom can you trust more than your mum?” the younger Forsyth says.

Forsyth’s exuberant brand of beauty emerges once she is freed from the orchestra dress code. She strides into rehearsal packed into a funky pair of jeans patched with bronze suede and lace. A suede hip belt, dangling its fringe to her knees, matches the mushroom colour of her suede spike-heeled boots. As principal cello, she sits directly in front of Zukerman, the world-famous violinist who conducts the NACO and who became her live-in lover one year after she joined the orchestra. on stage during performances, you can pick up the sparks flying between the two, but at practice, you wouldn’t know they had anything but a professional relationship.

I’m her boss, but it has never really been a problem because of the way she handles herself as a player,” Zukerman says. “She’s very out there – an in-your-face kind of person with great passion for so many elements. And she’s a born leader in the chair. Amanda and I will argue in front of the section, but I treat her like everyone else. Music has to be give and take. Amanda’s personality, in the orchestra sense, is such that she doesn’t take shit from anyone – including me. If she thinks i’ve done something wrong, she tells me.”

Zukerman first met Forsyth when she was playing in Calgary and was immediately struck by the poignant sound of the cello section. “She plays with determination, she doesn’t hold back, and she has the ability to be perfect,” he says.

At first, the blossoming romance between the two churned up the celebrity gossip machine. It had local columnists all atwitter, since Zukerman was still legally married to his second wife, actor Tuesday Weld. “The fact that she became an item with the most famous violinist in the world has a fairy-tale, glamorous aspect,” suggests Richard Todd, a classical-music critic for The Ottawa Citizen. Forsyth says she felt the pressure when the two first became a couple. “You get distracted by everyone thinking, “Oh, look. New love,” she confesses. “All I wanted to say was ‘Listen to the music!’.”. At any rate, says critic Todd, the fuss has since died down.

And if, as Shakespeare said, “music be the food of love,” it also appears that love is the food of music. Todd believes Forsyth’s playing has improved since she moved in with Zukerman – something the musician herself has noticed. “When I play with him, it takes me way up there and makes me better,” she says. “I am a damn lucky girl to be playing with Pinchas Zukerman – in love or not in love.”

But the love between them certainly doesn’t hurt. “For me, it’s unbelievable, says Zukerman. “I never thought I would ever have anything like this. We’re doing so much f the same thing so much of the time that you can become one in thought and feeling, and you can build together. I think that’s a unique thing as a couple.”

The home she shares with Zukerman and her Maltese dog, Geisha, is a modern cube of a structure tucked away in a corner of Rockcliffe Park. The exterior is imposing, but the inside is as open and airy as a birdcage. A modern white metal staircase runs through the core of the four-storey house, suspending large landings that feel like floating floors. The walls and carpets are white, interrupted by blasts of bright colours. Orange and green dishes sit on open metal shelves in the dining room. Bright reds and blues are used as accents and furnishings.

On the top floor, Forsyth has converted one bedroom into a studio and another in to a wardrobe room. Her studio, occupying a serene corner of the house with windows overlooking the treetops, is decorated with mementos from her career. Her Juno award sits in front of the window. The walls are plastered with posters from her concerts, shots from cd covers, media clippings, a photo of her first performance at three years old, a glam-shot advertisement of her and her mother in fur, and a seductive newspaper picture of her posing with her cello, dressed only in a man’s shirt. Mostly, she looks like a model. But in some photographs, she looks like the consummate musician she is.

A humidifier hums in the corner in deference to the fragile temperament of her favourite cello. The 300-year old instrument, built by Carlo Guiseppe Testore, is a wonder to play, but it doesn’t like bad weather and needs to be adjusted often. Old cellos have a richer, more powerful sound, but they are more sensitive than new cellos – so catering to their whims is more than a matter of tightening a few strings. Forsyth takes the cello to New York City on a regular basis to be adjusted by the world’s best master luthier, René Morel. Sometimes she’ll even fly down for the days before a special performance.

There are two other instruments in her studio – her modern cello, which hit the Ottawa news when it was stolen in 1999, and an electric Yamaha. (Although she doesn’t really consider the Yamaha a cello, she likes it because she can play it while on vacation and because it’s small enough to take on the plane without having to pay for an extra seat.) Her modern cello had been Forsyth’s musical companion for eighteen years. It was built to her specifications in 1981 by one of North America’s finest stringed-instrument craftsmen, David Wiebe, and was the only full-size cello she had ever played. Its theft during an Ottawa Chamber Music Festival devastated her and had people combing the streets in search of the instrument in its bright red case. CBC music producer Jill La Forty recalls seeing Zukerman during an intermission at one of the festival locations getting down on his hands and knees to look under each pew.

Although the cello was eventually recovered, its disappearance was a turning point in Forsyth’s musical life. “I had always avoided playing an old cello, because I didn’t want to hear myself on an instrument that I couldn’t afford,” she says. “But when [the theft] happened, I felt fate was telling me it was time to get an old cello.” Buying the Testore was a major investment. Rare stringed instruments can cost upwards of three-quarters of a million dollars, but it’s not unusual for musicians in a quality orchestra to own them. Todd says many NACO members have more money tied up in their instruments than they do in their homes. For her part, Forsyth says, it’s been worth the expense. “I am so lucky to have found this instrument, because you can search your whole life for the right one,” she says. “With my other cello, I never felt that my music sounded the way I heard it sound in my head. With this one, it does.”

Next to her cello, another major Forsyth passion is clothing – especially footwear. Across from her studio is her dressing room, a monument to her impressive collection. “I had this idea that I wanted to display my boots and shoes like other people display their china,” says Forsyth. Two shelving units stretching from floor to ceiling hold some forty pairs of shoes and boots. As with most collections, only her favourites are on display; others sit in storage. And some pieces are quite rare. “The purple lambskin boots from Italy are one of three pairs in the world,” she declares. Her coat collection, stuffed into two large closets in her entrance hall, is almost as impressive. The garments run the gamut from hot pink lambskin to a gala classic white mink.

Her wardrobe room also has one closet completely dedicated to black garments to serve the requirements of strict orchestra dress codes. It’s written right into the NACO collective agreement that women must wear long black garments with sleeves covering their arms below the elbow. “Playing with an orchestra is a pain in the neck,” she laments. “I don’t want to feel like I have to put on a uniform as though I were working at a coffee shop.” Although she often tries to test the code when performing, she doesn’t always succeed. Once she was sent backstage to change an outfit that showed too much elbow for NACO’s liking. Unlike many orchestra musicians, she sees her clothing as part of the performance. “Combining clothes [to make] outfits is like putting together a recipe – it’s a creative thing,” explains Forsyth. “For a pops concert, I might wear satin and some sequins – I think we are allowed sequins – but I wouldn’t wear that for Bach, because it would be too funky,” She used to make dresses to go with pieces of music she was performing, but she no longer has time for that. Fortunately, though, her worldwide performance schedule takes her to many of the globe’s hottest shopping spots. And she takes full advantage of it.

Although the collective agreement sets the rules, Forsyth has given herself the job of fashion police for the orchestra. After being appalled by a colleague who came to play a concer dressed in Mountain Equipment Co-op pants with the zip-off legs and a T-shirt, she actually created a list of appropriate fabrics for musicans to wear on stage. And she admits to being a blunt critic. “I’ll just say, ‘you can’t wear that – it’s ugly,’ or ‘Your socks are too short,’ or ‘Polish your shoes, will you?”

Despite her flashy public persona, she is never light and frivolous when it comes to her music. “I don’t take all the publicity seriously,” she says. “When you’re actually playing, it’s all about the music – and about using yourself to better it. It’s not about you.” She feels classical musicians really have to be careful to keep their celebrity shtick and their promotional stuff separate from their real work, if they want to preserve the integrity of their music. “When you see Yo-Yo Ma in an ad for Rolex, that’s promotion for the watch and also for Yo-Yo. I like that – that’s fun,” she says. “On the one hand, I’m thrilled that Yo-Yo is so popular, because he’s made everyone aware of what a cello is. But he is so commercialized that people are looking at him rather than listening,” she says. In her view, shifting attention away from the music to focus on the performer is almost a sin. “It’s not ‘Look at me – I’m playing Bach. Watch me fling my hair.’ No!” she says emphatically, her voice rising. “It should be ‘Listen to Bach and how I feel about Bach and how it makes you feel about Bach.”

It is this deep, almost devout connection to music that pushes her bond with Zukerman beyond the romantic and into the spiritual. “Pinchas believes his talent is a gift from God,” says Forsyth. “We’re not all that religious – we don’t do Hanukkah or anything. In a way, music is religion for us.” And she also believes that the gift should be used to help others. Two years ago, the May Court approached her to hold a private concert for sixty people to raise money for the hospice. In one evening, she managed to raise enough for the hospice to open ten new beds. “She was so thrilled to have done something so significant,” recalls Lesley Forsyth. “When you give something, you always get something back”.

Forsyth is a creature of polar opposites. The rarified civility of the world of chamber music lives in contrast with the deadly force of her karate kicks. And the cerebral atmosphere in her lofty music room is far removed from the physically charged intensity of her basement workout room, with its punching bag and weights. The link is her personality. She applies the same ferocious determination to karate that she does to her cello. “I love the feeling of physical power,” she says. “It’s so satisfying to hear the snap of the bag when I kick. I feel like a really tough girl,” adding that for most of her life, she was a wimp.

“Amanda is in the same boat as an elite athlete because she is so focused,” says Slater, who admits that at times he has trouble keeping up with her in workouts. Slater recognized early on that Forsyth’s pumped-up energy followed her performances and told her she should try to channel it. “In the last three years, she has gotten so fit that she’s more dangerous than ever,” he says with pride. “She’s got lightning in her legs.”

It’s an exhilarating experience for Forsyth, moving outside the realm of the orchestra – and she loves it. “Music is a huge part of me. But now I’m discovering that I’m also a person. I used to be ‘Amanda Cello’,” she elaborates, describing the way she had so completely fused with her instrument. “Now I like the idea of just being Amanda.”