Marta’s Mission

EL VENDRELL, Spain (2001) – In an instant, it is apparent that Marta Casals Istomin, widow of the venerated Catalan cellist Pau Casals, is a determined woman.

You know this because just as quickly she has tactfully postponed an interview with a television crew in Catalan, asked an assistant to look for another in Spanish, swiftly dispatched another assistant in English to get a copy of a museum brochure, boisterously greeted a small group of visitors in French, and walked the length of the immense garden of the Pau Casals Museum to note that all the sculptures flanking it are by Catalans.

Not 10 seconds pass before the next wave of requests, comments and questions surges from another wall of assistants. Dozens of last-minute details must still be resolved before King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia officially reopen the museum the next day.
Lights have to be installed, flower beds planted, video monitors set, pictures hung, furniture arranged, the guest checked by the king’s security personnel. And gaffes corrected.

A huge chronological chart of Casals’ life states that in 1957 he suffered a “heart crisis,” a small error of translation. That World War II broke out in 1914, a whopper.
One of her assistants tries in vain to tell her about these blunders but Casals Istomin has been caught in the undertow of well-wishers who have pulled her in another direction.
“I’ll take care of it,” her friend Jose Alfaro calls after her, as Casals Istomin falls from view like a sunset into the next room.

She is the leading force behind the two-year, $2.6 million renovation of the Pau Casals Museum in the Sant Salvador coastal neighborhood El Vendrell, some 40 miles south of Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital.

She has final say about each object on display. The curator Nuria Ballester, who dwindled to 3,000 the photographs and 7,000 the documents on view, showed every item to Casals Istomin before taking each out of the Catalonia General Archives. Thousands more are still in the archives, to be tapped for temporary exhibits from time to time.
It is Casals Istomin who insisted that the museum be a dynamic display of film footage, his own instruments, original compositions, photographs, music, and a hall for conferences, temporary exhibits and master classes for students of the cello.
“This has to be a living museum,” she prevailed upon financial backers, designers, the architect and organizers each step of the way.

To a measurable extent, she succeeded. Through the engaging might of multi-media, Pau Casals, as is his name in Catalan, comes alive.
In the enormous Music Studio, where a high ceiling, pinewood floors and burgundy cloth walls lend an air of another, classical era, three rows of plush seating point toward a large screen. A black and white film of Casals playing a short Bach fugue begins to roll.
With his right hand, Casals’ bow drifts back and forth over the strings and unleashes the haunting sounds his fingers seize. Rapture registers on his face. His eyes are closed, Casals is on an interpretive journey of his favorite composer. His body is absolutely still with the cello resting firmly against his thigh. The audience is drawn into the music. When he finishes, they applaud the Maestro.

Every room denotes an aspect of Casals’ life and provokes an emotional response.
His passion for music began unfolding with a homespun instrument made from a vegetable. It is the shell of a long thin gourd with a string attached that a town shoemaker made for the then 4-year-old Casals.

But Casals was more than a virtuoso musician, composer and conductor. His sense of social justice played a widely recognized important role in his life. It is on this point that the museum captures what many world leaders and admirers term Casals’ humanity and social responsibility.

“Dear Friend,” begins one of hundreds of letters Casals addressed on behalf of the Spanish Refugee Aid, “I write to you in the hope that you will join me in aiding the thousands of Spanish refugees in France whose losing battle for freedom and subsequent exile from their homeland has been forgotten.” In the Civil War Room, footage of soldiers dropping dead and masses fleeing from Spain ricochet off two darkened walls. The screams in stereo prove particularly jolting after so much splendor from previous rooms.

“Any war is terrible, but a civil war is worse,” reads one of his writings projected on a third wall, “It is neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother.”
On the fourth wall, large pictures of Casals before an orchestra are backlit. “This was his last concert in Catalonia,” Casals Istomin tells her visitors, at the Liceo Opera Theater in Barcelona, above the din of machine guns firing. “It was a rehearsal. People came in running, saying, “Go, go, go, the troops are coming!” He asked the musicians if they wanted to leave. They said no. So they continued with the rehearsal. It was Beethoven’s Ninth. It was the last time they all saw each other.”
The museum was his home until 1939, when he left Spain forever, first to live in Prades, France, then to Puerto Rico. It holds many objects and documents never seen before by the public.

“All this he renounced and never saw it again,” said Eugene Istomin, the formidable pianist and one-time disciple of Casals who married his widow in 1976. As his wife attended to one group of special guests in the pre-opening, Istomin led another.
Both Casals Istomin and Istomin are devoted to the Maestro. Asked how she dedicates her life to two husbands, one alive and the other dead, Casals Istomin says, “I was very fortunate to marry someone who adored El Maestro. It was a matter of deciding, Now what do we do with the legacy El Maestro left?”
Casals Istomin oversees the three Casals museums: in Prades, where he lived from 1939 until 1956; Puerto Rico, where he met and married Marta Montanez in 1957 and lived until 1973, when he died at 96; and El Vendrell, his birthplace and hometown. His remains were buried here in 1979, shortly after democracy was restored in Spain.
When they married, the Humacao, P.R.- born cellist was 20 and he 80. She gave up the cello to attend to “his music and his life,” she says.

“I gave up playing gradually and naturally,” she says. ” It was my decision and I have not regretted it. Had I married a lawyer, it would have been different, but I lived surrounded by music. And still do.”

As president of the Manhattan School of Music, Casals Istomin is overseeing the opening of another building for that school this year. The former artistic director of the Kennedy Arts Center (1980-1990) also wants to create a stronger partnership between the three Casals museums. The museum here, however, is the flagship.

“Here are 60 years of his life,” she says, “until he left in 1939.”