In Tune

The Perleys are matchmakers between instrument and musician

by Mary Landon

perleylead4003crop_lightPaul and Melissa Perley, the owners of Paul Perley Cellos in Berlin, perform as a cello duo called Soavita. They are members of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, have played with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra, and work with the Green Mountain Youth Symphony.

From a distance, they all look pretty much the same leaning in the rack — just like bottles of red wine aging and waiting for the perfect meal. Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, the proof of these instruments at Paul Perley Cellos in Berlin is in the playing.

Along with Melissa, his wife and business partner, Paul Perley enjoys working with a variety of customers and stringed instruments from many parts of the world.

“Our goal, as musicians, is to find the right instrument for the player, regardless of price,” says Melissa. It may sound like an idealistic goal, but it is the driving force that gets them up every day and has shaped their business.

The Perleys’ home and workshop have been at the end of Brookfield Road in Berlin for about seven years. They rent, repair, restore, buy, and sell cellos.

Paul is a trained luthier — a craftsman who works on stringed instruments — and works primarily on old instruments from the violin family: violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

“Our niche market is buying old cellos and reselling them after restoration,” he says. “We have very low overhead here, so our prices are reasonable. We also sell instruments on consignment. We work on about a hundred instruments in a year.”

Inside the shop, cello bodies in various stages of repair rest on workbenches; clamps and tools hang neatly on walls; finished instruments wait for their special owners, their smooth surfaces gleaming in rich tones of caramel, sepia, and burnt umber. It’s a tidy and small space; everything here has a purpose.

Being a cellist himself, Paul has a trained ear, so he knows what to listen for when determining how to augment the sound of a particular instrument. It is, he says, “a lifetime of learning and listening and working with the instruments” that gives him this ability.

“Our mission is to be able to take a cello that doesn’t sound so good and make it sound great. This is a fascinating process, made possible by wood choices, the shape and thickness of various parts, and the time taken for careful craftsmanship. My passion is finding the particular sound of an instrument.”

Melissa adds, “Sometimes an old cello will come in, and it’s as though the sound is trapped within the body of the instrument. Paul’s gift is to release the sound and allow the cello to sing.”

Paul’s musical training began with piano lessons, then classical guitar, then cello. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he graduated with a degree in mathematics from St. John’s University in Minnesota. The next 14 years he spent teaching high school math, first in Minnesota, then in Spokane, Wash., then at U32 in Montpelier, having moved here to study with back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing.

Melissa was born in Littleton, N.H., and started piano lessons at age 6. She later studied flute and cello. By college age, she was living in Vermont, where her father’s work had brought the family. She graduated with a degree in science from the University of Vermont.

He left teaching to start a high-end cabinetry business called Hampshire Hill Woodworks in Worcester. The business did well during the ’80s when people had money to spend in what Paul calls the “beautiful kitchens wave.”

During this time, he became more serious about his cello studies, in particular what makes them sound the way they do. He took private cello lessons with Hélène Gagne of Montréal.

In 1986, he began studying restoration and repair with master luthier Hans Nebel at the University of New Hampshire. This study continued over 12 summers. In 1988, he established Paul Perley Cellos in Worcester.

Paul is a member of the Bartholdy Ensemble, and both he and Melissa have played with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra. They are members of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. They met there in the early ’90s when Melissa was hired as orchestra manager and Paul served on the board. She continues as manager. They married five years ago.

The Perleys perform as a cello duo, Soavita, which roughly translates from Italian as “smoothly.”

“We also work with the Green Mountain Youth Symphony, teaching the 6- to 12-year-olds,” says Melissa. “Paul conducts, while I run around playing accompaniment on as many instruments as possible.”

While she was home raising her four boys, now ages 16 to 25, Melissa had a business baking 10 to 15 cheesecakes a day for local restaurants. Vermont Cheesecakes gave her a creative outlet as well as extra income. She now devotes her time to the cello shop.

They advertise in Strings magazine; otherwise, their reputation is spread by word-of-mouth to a fairly specific audience. When Melissa joined the business, she took on the job of business and administrative manager. She was determined to bring Paul Perley Cellos into the 21st century by developing content for their website.

“Melissa understands instruments and she has great people skills,” says Paul. “She works very hard on the material for the site. Business has just skyrocketed because of this. We launched the website in 2003, and the nature of our business really changed.

“This has never been a high-traffic shop or a storefront. If people do want to visit us in person, they usually make an appointment and stay for two or three hours. The website has become our storefront.” About 80 percent of their business comes through the website.

Instruments are shipped all over the world, to both professional musicians and amateurs. They have shipped to 49 out of the 50 states and about 10 countries, says Paul. The instruments travel securely in high-tech cases to prevent damage. Potential customers may use a cello for a trial period before purchasing.

The economy has not hurt the business. “I don’t know if we’ve ever been as busy as we are right now,” says Paul.

“Musicians don’t consider instruments a luxury,” adds Melissa. “They have to have them. We understand the feelings behind this. During difficult times, musical expression and listening to music are more important than ever. Music is a form of communication, and this instrument is your other voice.

You need to treat a cello like a friend. People even name them, because it is such a personal relationship. A cello is a living thing: It’s made of wood that was living but is still a changing, aging, organic element. An instrument can be like someone’s heart and soul.”

Two luthiers do contract work for the company when needed: Bryan Byrne and Rob Morse. Morse is a bass player and apprenticed in the shop, where he now occasionally works.

“As a musician and a luthier, I am especially particular about my instrument and how it plays and works,” says Morse. “My love for the Perleys aside, I can safely say that if every community had a shop like Paul Perley Cellos, there would be that many more happy and productive musicians out there. I know, because we see them come every week — sometimes great distances — for the services and results the shop is known for.”

Prices of cellos in the shop begin at $1,500. A “pedigree” instrument made in the late 1700s by Thomas Smith of England is priced at $60,000.

“Only a few names meet the pedigree requirements,” says Paul. “Instruments usually have a label inside the body indicating the maker. Labels get switched all the time, so sometimes it’s hard to tell an original from an imposter. Fine instruments will come with certification papers. We also can tell a great deal about an instrument’s history and origins just by close inspection. Italian cellos tend to cost more.

“Italian varnish is famous for its glow, but they don’t necessarily play any better than any other cello,” he says.

The Perleys sell new instruments made in China and Europe, and cellos made by native Vermonter Zachary Taylor.

Both Melissa and Paul play on instruments that are at least 100 years old. “Maple takes at least 75 years to mature,” says Paul. “Many new instruments do have quality sound, but some players insist that the aging process is necessary to bring out an instrument’s best sound.”

The Perleys have created a life for themselves that allows time with Melissa’s sons and time for travel.

“We wanted to have a business that didn’t consume us,” says Melissa. “We wanted to have a choice in how we live. We have two common goals: sharing our passion for music, and maintaining the lifestyle we’ve created. We work well together. We enjoy canoeing, biking, and playing music. I ride horses at East Hill Farm, and take lessons weekly.”

Adds Paul, “Melissa might not tell you this herself, but she is wanting to grow as a solo performer, and she gave a great recital this last May.” This is a duo working in harmony. •