Musical Magic: At Home with Carmen and Cezar Mateiescu

By Linda Arntzenius 

Photography by Andrew Wilkinson

“Music for a while, shall all your care’s beguile.” – Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

If the life story of accomplished musicians Carmen and Cezar Mateiescu was presented as an opera it would surely be styled as an Elizabethan romance, complete with cruel tyrant, divided and re-united lovers, and a long sojourn in the Holy Land, where he works as a carpenter against a backdrop of monasteries and rose gardens, and she gives birth to their first son in Nazareth. Far-fetched? Not one bit.

Both the Mateiescus were born and raised in Communist Romania. Under President Nicolae Ceaușescu from 1967 until 1989, it was not a happy place to be. Shortly after Cezar graduated high school in the 1970s, he followed his sculptor father, Patrick Mateescu, to the United States where the renowned Bucharest artist had a commission for work in California. By this time, Cezar and Carmen had already formed a close attachment, having met at the Bucharest conservatory of music where Cezar took lessons from Carmen. They kept in touch but it was some years before they were re-united and married in Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church.

In Israel, while waiting for permission to make their journey to the United States, the couple volunteered to work in several monasteries including the Greek monastery on the Mount of Olives. There, Cezar honed his skills as a carpenter and repaired musical instruments. In Nazareth, he rebuilt monastery windows and tended the rosegarden of the Greek Patriarch, now a must-see on the tourist itinerary.

Having brought them together, music continues at the center of their lives. Carmen teaches and composes as adjunct professor at the Westminster Choir College of Rider University and head of the theory department at Westminster Conservatory of Music. Cezar makes instruments: lutes, early guitars, vihuelas (a Spanish lute/guitar hybrid) from the medieval through the Baroque periods. Her passion lies in the oral tradition of peasant music from central Europe and the Himalayas to Gregorian and Byzantine chant, and her compositions are performed in Princeton, Philadelphia and New York.

Transformed from lifeless blocks of wood, his hand-crafted instruments are prized by worldclass musicians like the Argentine-born lutenist Evangelina Mascardi and French composer Stephane Wrembel. You may have heard the latter’s music in two of Woody Allen’s most evocative movies, Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

And then there’s Sting. After being introduced to Cezar’s instruments by Bosnian-born lutenist Edin Karamazov, the former Police lead singer now owns no less than four. With Karamazov, who is acclaimed for thrilling solo recitals and performances with leading international early music groups, Sting demonstrated his love of the lute on a U.K. charttopping album Songs from the Labyrinth. To his fans, it seemed like quite a departure for the singer best known for the hit songs “Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take,” and “Fields of Gold.”

Featuring compositions from John Dowland (1563-1626), Songs from the Labyrinth started a lute Renaissance after it was released in 2006. Check it out on YouTube or on the live concert DVD documentary, a showcase for several of Cezar’s 13-string archlutes. They even play “Message in a Bottle.”

Sting’s breathy tenor suits Dowland’s haunting melodies and love lyrics. He brings a freshness to the work of the Elizabethan master he describes as “the first English singer/songwriter.” Calling them “pop songs written around 1600,” he said, “I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, and great accompaniments.” Sting clearly relishes these works as is evident in multiple YouTube videos.

For the first lute that Sting commissioned of Cezar, the couple traveled to New York to meet him in his Manhattan apartment. Subsequently, a chauffeured limousine was sent to the Mateiescus’ Princeton Junction residence to collect an instrument that sat like a VIP on the back seat.

At Home in Princeton Junction

The Mateiescus’ remodeled ranch house has a peaceful ambiance. Cezars designed and built an additional music room and dining room to take what had been a simple ranch to a more personal residence. The house sits on 1.5 acres, guarded by half-century old maple trees, which inspired the name the couple chose for their home, “Maple Glade Cottage.”

Art objects of personal significance and Orthodox Christian icons evoke more reverential times. Some of the icons were recently created by Carmen, a student iconographer under Maureen McCormick, with whom she continues to study and participate in yearly workshops led by Vladislav Andrejev (founder of the American Prosopon School of Iconology) at Trinity Church in Princeton. Artfully arranged stringed instruments stand ready to be picked up and played.

The house has been altered considerably since they bought it some 14 years ago. Inside, improvements can be seen in the expansive and light-filled music room and in Cezar’s climatecontrolled workshop. Outside, the garden has sculptural installations, some by Cezar, others by his father, Patrick, now retired and living with his wife Rodica in South Brunswick. Now 87, Patrick Mateescu’s body of work includes large pieces displayed on American campuses including the “Westminster Flower” in front of Westminster Choir College’s Talbott Library.

Now American citizens, the Mateiescus have two sons. Nicholas, 28, studied mechanical engineering at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and now works in White Plains. Matthew, 26, studied at the Pratt Institute and is now a graphic designer in Manhattan. This month, the Mateiescus celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

The couple attends services on the campus of Princeton University where the Orthodox Christian communities of Russia, Romania and Greek have met in Murray Dodge Hall for some two decades. “There’s a surprisingly large Romanian community here in New Jersey,” says Carmen. “It’s not as large as in Queens, where there are churches, shops and restaurants, but it is growing.”

Here in New Jersey, the Mateiescus now feel like locals. “I can reminisce about ‘the old times’ with my friend who grew up in New Brunswick,” laughs Carmen. For recreation, they walk along the Delaware and Raritan Canal near their home and take trips to the Delaware Water Gap area. They recently hiked in Vermont and in the European Alps, in Italy, Switzerland and the Tyrol.

Working with Wood

A musician since he first picked up the guitar at age 12, Cezar came to his life’s work by a circuitous route that took him from Romania to California to Paris, where a friend of his father introduced him to instrument-making. “The idea of taking a plank of wood and turning it into something that would make beautiful music was exciting and the old way of crafting an instrument by hand appealed to me,” he says.

There is nothing of the production line here. Each instrument has a personal sound and although representative of an earlier period, they are not replicas. As Cezar explains, his work is part of an ongoing tradition that is very much alive. “Even though there is an uninterrupted thread for building the lute, every generation of makers adds new techniques in response to the demands of musicians.” Composers drive those technical changes and Cezar follows a tried and tested tradition of employing techniques available to the contemporary artist. “I believe that tradition is perfected by innovation; for tradition to remain alive it has to adapt and to adopt contemporary technologies and materials, such as the glues that are available nowadays,” he says.

While some secrets of original makers may have gone unrecorded and lost to history—one oftcited example being the “Cremona varnish” used by Stradivarius—the main principle they followed was respect for the needs of the musicians. “That’s what drives change and advancement,” says Cezar, speaking as a musician as well as an instrument maker. “Without the composers’ and performers’ constant input reflecting the development of instrumental music, the evolution of the lute would not have reached the sophistication it came to possess during the baroque period (with composers such as Bach and Sylvius Leopold Weiss) and would have remained a five-course instrument closely resembling its ancestor, the Arabic oud.”

Cezar uses some of the same principles as the originals but without copying every detail. “When I build a Renaissance lute, the outside and inside are authentic but the sound is bound to be different, as it is for each maker.” Useful as a learning tool, imitation is just a beginning. “It’s an apprenticeship, if you like, to recreate and duplicate the master, but as you progress you find your own voice,” says Cezar, who admits that he is always in pursuit of an ideal sound. “That’s what keeps me going; I try to achieve that with every new instrument that I build. There is always an element of surprise to make the work interesting.” According to one lute enthusiast, Cezar’s instruments “have a soul that you can feel and hear.”

Using modern tools like electric band saws, sanders, and surgical grade scalpels, the lutenist listens to music as he works, always anticipating the moment when wood transforms to musical instrument. One can only imagine the excitement of plucking the strings for the first time after weeks of painstaking work.

On average it takes from three weeks to two months to complete pieces that will range in cost from $4,500 to $9,000, depending on the type of instrument, materials used, size and degree of ornamentation. Cezar’s somewhat utilitarian website, where he has simplified his name to “Mateus,” shows the gorgeous richness of his artistry and the fine and sometimes rare woods he uses. He doesn’t advertise and clients usually find him by word of mouth.

Like Sting, many clients have more than one of his instruments. In addition to building instruments, Cezar maintains a violin shop and retail store in partnership with his friend Joseph Melillo. The business caters to string players in the greater Princeton area and is well-known and appreciated by professionals and students alike.

Starting out as a guitarist, he studied guitar performance and composition while maintaining interests in sculpture and poetry along the way. His passion for the lute developed when he was a student at CalArts in Valencia, California, and then at Cal State Northridge. As he drove to class he listened to the talented lutenist Hopkinson Smith performing the work of Bach contemporary Sylvius Leopold Weiss. It wasn’t until he observed violins being made in France, however, that he tried his hand at instrument building. He served a threeyear apprenticeship with Master Luthier J. Gonthier there. Back in the States, he worked in violin restoration for a number of years, while he continued to study the lute with performers and teachers Pat O’Brien, Edin Karamazov, Hopkinson Smith, and Olav Chris Henriksen. When dissatisfi ed with his fi rst lute, he built his own and a found a whole new career.

Carmen began studying music as soon as she went to school. It was an enormous decision to leave Romania and the research she had done in ethnomusicology at the “Constantin Brailoiu” Institute for Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest, where she was immersed in the traditional music of her homeland.

In New Jersey, she furthered her studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and embarked on a teaching career.

“I love teaching passionately, I love my students, and the recognition and love I get from my present and former pupils melts my heart.”

“I am coming to a point at which I will be able to do more writing and more composing,” she says, adding that even while teaching, “research went on with the preparation for each course I taught or ethnomusicology student I coached—and my students have been the fi rst benefi ciaries of my new thoughts.”

“While preparing a course on counterpoint, for example, I realized that what I had been researching all those years ago in Romania had relevance to the transmission of music in the oral tradition—including the Gregorian Chant. Afterwards, I was able to extend the same observations to the vocal music of Bhutan, to the ‘classical’ music of various cultures, and found a striking resemblance with the composition techniques of the medieval poems that circulated unwritten for a long time.”

Having authored a number of articles on ethnomusicology as well as LPs and CDs with Romanian traditional music, theory and musicianship textbooks for children, and a “bridge” course in the theory of western art music for musicians educated in non-European traditions, Carmen now plans to put her entire body of work into a series of textbooks. “It’s a large project but I have all the materials I need.”

And then there’s the one composition that is close to her heart, an opera based on the Romanian folktale, Youth without Age, Life Without Death, that she hopes to hear performed in Princeton in the not too distant future.

In addition to the satisfaction of her professional accomplishments, Carmen is also proud of her role as a working mother. “I must admit to the joy of seeing how our two sons, Nick and Matt, turned out: honest, hard working, well-balanced, compassionate, and trustworthy men. Each found the profession that is right for his talents and aspirations and excels in it. Nick and his beautiful wife, Ivette (an architect and digital marketing specialist) have a 14-month old son, Aiden.

Raising children in New Jersey has rooted the Mateiecus here. “While during the fi rst few years my heart was still in Romania (often sighing with Robert Burns ‘My heart’s in the highlands, my heart is not here’) a subtle change took place over time and now I feel Romania is in my heart and my attachment to New Jersey and America has grown immensely,” says Carmen.

For more on Cezar Mateiescu’s period instruments, visit: www.mateuslutes. com; for more on his business for string players, visit: www.jcstrings.com. To hear Sting and Edin Karamazov performing on Cezar’s instruments, visit: http://bit.ly/1t6Tsj1; and for Sting singing the Dowland classic “In Darkness let me dwell,” see: http://bit.ly/ZOZB7o