An $11 million cello visits Kelowna

The $11 million Bonjour Strad to be played in the latest Okanagan Symphony performance. - Doug Farrow
The $11 million Bonjour Strad to be played in the latest Okanagan Symphony performance.
— image credit: Doug Farrow

Calgarian Arnold Choi, a 27-year-old cellist living every musician’s dream by spending three years with the 320-year-old Bonjour Stradivari cello, says he wasn’t nervous playing his new instrument for the first time.

Valued at $11 million and carried in a black case of armour shinier than a car, the cello is likely worth more than the expansive Tantalus vineyard where he met with the Capital News to let the instrument’s unmatchable sound reverberate around the wine tasting room.

“I think it’s every musician’s dream to play on a Stradivarius cello. I’m just so lucky to have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Choi, who won first place in the Canada Council String Back competition to secure his new companion.

The Bonjour Cello, so-named for its first owner, amateur Parisian musician Abel Bonjour, is among a select few remaining instruments made by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari and his family, whose work has arguably produced the best string instruments ever made.

“It’s hard to describe it in words,” said Choi. “The best way I can explain the sound to you is even if you’re just holding the Strad against your body and playing it, you can immediately feel the difference right away. First of all, there’s the vibrations against your body. They’re just so strong. You can feel the sound going throughout your whole body and the actual projection of it.”

Listening to the Strad fill the room, it’s not difficult to imagine the audience members in the very back of a concert hall basking in its wall of sound, its vibrations punctuated only by Choi’s own breathing.

“There are a lot of cheap cellos that are extremely loud, but it’s also the warmth of it. The ability to hear so many different colours in the tone,” Choi explained.

Musician and instrument work together so seamlessly, Choi looks somewhat like he is dancing with the instrument, dipping and weaving with its rich red wood as he lives out each note of the music.

To play Elgar’s Cello Concerto, as he is in town to do with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra this weekend, requires the artist to find this perfect connection then pull from emotional experiences in his own life to breath the necessary emotion into the music.

Working on this instrument allows him to share his talents far and wide, but it also offers a new way to grow that talent; and yet, when he first stepped into the room with the Strad, there were no butterflies.

“It’s sort of like meeting somebody you’re going to need to be intimate with for a long period of time. It’s kind of like you’re just getting to know someone,” he said.

Travel is always a worry. German border officials seized a $1.5 million Stradivarius violin last month over paperwork abnormalities and a $26 million Strad cello was broken in Italy making international headlines this year. Nonetheless, the big question for Choi isn’t about logistics, so much as where this might take his career.

By the time he is 30 years old, he will be returning the Bonjour Cello and looking for new opportunities. “I think I’ll cry for like a year,” he said with a burst of giggles. “…There are foundations out there that loan really nice instruments, but, of course, none that have Strads.”

While in the Okanagan he will be giving a master class in Vernon and playing in all three communities.

“Arnold is such a delight to have on the stage and our musicians are thrilled to make music with him again, ” said Rosemary Thomson, music director of the OSO in a statement released to the press.

The OSO will also perform Marion Mozetich’s Romantic Rhapsody and Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony The Rhenish. The Rhenish is composed of five heartfelt tone paintings depicting scenes from Schumann’s beloved Rhine Valley.

Romantic Rhapsody opens Nov. 16 in Kelowna, Nov. 17 in Penticton and Nov. 18 in Vernon. Locally, tickets are available at Kelowna Actors Studio, 250-862-2867 or online via

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