While in high school and college, Gay Hagen Dunn played the cello for the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra in Nebraska. Possessing only a student instrument, she was still able to win a young artist competition. With that came the opportunity to play Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
“But I needed a better instrument for the piece made famous by Jacqueline du Pré,” she said.
She, her father and her teacher found a cello in Omaha. The price was $1,000, which was a “horribly difficult amount of money” for her parents to spend. But spend they did. The German cello came with papers verifying its pedigree: it was made in 1795 by Josef Klotz.
“It had been in a London violin shop for repairs in the 1900s,” she continued. “Then it traveled to Chicago, and somehow wound up in Omaha.”
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Dunn plays a lot of chamber music, and people specifically ask her to play for events, because they like the sound of her cello.
“It has a very soulful sound. Mellow – not brassy like some,” she said.
The cello spans the range of the human voice from low bass to high soprano and higher.
According to Dunn, the modern art of violin and cello-making has seen resurgence in the past 20 years. But there was a time when most musicians wanted old instruments.
She comes from a musical family. Her parents sang, and her father directed choirs. Her three older siblings were very good musicians. In her home, each child at age 8 was required to learn piano; then at age 10 they began lessons on another instrument.
“With four kids and two pianos, we practiced before school – half an hour on piano and half an hour on the other instrument,” she continued.
Her sister was thinking about majoring in music, and when suggesting Dunn learn the cello, that’s what she did. She has no regrets.
“I enjoy practicing the cello, but never liked practicing the piano,” she admitted.
Dunn prefers playing chamber music rather than concertos, because of the strength and confidence required. She does at times practice on concertos, though, to maintain her finger and hand flexibility.
“Orchestral music is really hard and really wonderful,” she said. “It’s a huge sound, but it’s not as personal. Chamber music is like a relationship between the musician, the music, and the group.”
Chamber music is typically performed by two to 10 musicians on similar or various instruments. She played with the Santa Barbara Chamber group, which included 16 to 20 musicians at the time and a conductor. She’s currently working with a pianist on a sonata written for cello and piano.
In Livermore she joined the faculty of a private Suzuki school. For many years she has taught private lessons and coached small groups (string quartets). She even conducted as an assistant for a youth orchestra.
Occasionally she picks up her mandolin to play. And sometimes her husband, Greg, joins her on his guitar. His sound is more folksy, as he didn’t have the classical training his wife had.
Since retiring and moving to Mariposa, Dunn joined the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra, and Greg sings in the Mariposa Community Chorus.
When she’s not practicing, she spends time with graphic design.
Their daughter Aminta is also musical and creative, and a senior at Mariposa County High School. The family will be musical guests at a retreat later this summer.
“I feel fortunate to be able to play all kinds of music,” Dunn said.
She enjoys opera, folk tunes and new age sounds, but loves playing ballet music.
“Especially in a theater where I can watch the dancers.”
Once she played a contemporary piece, in which five musicians and five dancers paired up. Each musician had to keep up with the dancer.
“A great experience,” she said.
Greg mentioned that Garrison Keiller, the host of the popular radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” believes God plays the cello.
“Of course he can play any and all instruments, but when it comes right down to it, he’s a cellist.”