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Great musicians play as if they were born with their instruments in hand. In the case of rising cellist Marcel Johannes Kits, that’s practically true. The sound of the cello captivated young Marcel. “I wanted to learn that, and I started playing when I was five.”

Marcel Johannes Kits © Kaupo Kikkas
Marcel Johannes Kits
© Kaupo Kikkas

Speaking with Kits over Zoom from Berlin, where he is currently continuing his studies with Jens Peter Maintz at the Berlin University of the Arts, I learn more. The son of an architect and a homemaker, Kits’ first exposure to classical music came through the radio as a toddler, and he was quickly hooked. “My parents would listen to the classical station, and I would say ‘what’s this, what’s that?’,” he tells me. By the age of four, he was set on a path that continues today, as he gains prominence in his native Estonia and across Europe.

Kits’ parents homeschooled him and his four siblings – including his twin sister, Katariina Maria Kits, an up-and-coming violinist in her own right – which allowed him plenty of time to focus on his musical education. He notes that in his early days of learning cello, “there were no computers, no phones…not like today,” which bolstered his concentration. 

Kits was seven when he was taken on by the esteemed Estonian pedagogue Laine Leichter at Tallinn Music High School. “She was the grand old lady of Estonian cellists,” he says. “She died last year, at 99, and I was her last student.” Kits also learned from Mart Laas, principal cellist of the Estonian National Opera, who was himself a former Leichter pupil. 

Kits’ teachers recognized his passion, ambition and drive. He made his debut as an orchestral soloist at age 11 and took top prizes in virtually every Estonian classical competition before he graduated high school. He was also drawn to chamber music, forming Trio ’95 with pianist Rasmus Andreas Raide and violinist Robert Traksmann in 2003. (The name refers to their collective birth year.)

“We were really, really lucky to find each other at Tallinn Music High School,” Kits says now. “We were in second grade! We played together for ten years, and then we all went to Germany for our studies. We had a great time working together, although we all have different personalities.”

Trio '95 perform Beethoven's Triple Concerto at the Ilmari Hannikainen Piano Chamber Music Competition

In our conversation, Kits frequently underlined the fact that he still views himself as a student, displaying a humility that would clash with the common preconception of a youthful prodigy. That seems evident in his choice, when initially leaving Estonia for Germany, not to go immediately to a world capital like Berlin or Munich. Instead, he landed in Trossingen, a city of 15,000 people, where he studied for four years at the University of Music.

“I found a teacher I wanted to study with, and he was in Trossingen,” he says, referring to Francis Gouton, with whom he worked from 2014 to 2018. “It’s a bit crazy that I went to the smallest city possible, but the teacher was amazing, and that’s why I wanted to go there. And I had three-and-a-half years of learning.

“You know, Estonia is small,” he continues. “It’s really nice, but I wanted to see the world, get new perspectives and ideas. In the beginning, of course, I thought just to learn to play the cello was good. But when I came to Germany, I discovered that there was huge work still to be done.”

That work included widening his repertoire. Kits doesn’t seem content to specialize in only one area of music. “I try to be really open and make myself like whatever I’m playing. I want to try everything,” he says. “One of my favorite composers is Beethoven, of course, but I also really love playing twentieth-century music. I also really love Baroque cello concerti. On the other hand, Bach is like a love-hate relationship. It takes a lot more time. I’m twenty-five, and I feel like I need twice as much time as I do with other pieces to fully understand it.” 

Despite his modesty, others have taken note of Kits’ already established talent, and he has continued to thrive on the competition circuit as an adult. Perhaps his most notable win to date was taking first place in the cello section at the 2018 George Enescu Competition in Romania.

“The experience was a little crazy,” Kits recalls. “The best part was that it felt like I was making huge progress as an artist given the repertoire I had to play. I’d never played so many pieces, difficult pieces, within the same week. Preparing for that kind of test was a huge lesson for me, and I think my level of preparation allowed me, during the competition, to forget that it was a competition. And maybe that is why it went so well. The whole process really influenced my way of thinking.”

Marcel Johannes Kits © Rasmus Kooskora
Marcel Johannes Kits
© Rasmus Kooskora

Kits won the Enescu Competition playing a cello made in 1674 by Francesco Ruggeri, which has been on loan to him since 2016 from Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben, a foundation that pairs promising German-based artists with legendary instruments to jumpstart their careers. 

Receiving this special cello was “the most surprising and happiest day of my whole life,” Kits says. “I was this nobody from Trossingen, so I felt really, really lucky. Still, the first years were difficult with it, and I wasn’t always happy with it. It took a long time, at least two years, for me to fully understand its value. Its sound is very unique and different.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted Kits’ ascent, of course, as musical life around the world has been largely paused for the better part of year, but it’s allowed him time to practice. He also says that he’s used the unexpected downtime to pursue other, non-musical interests and hobbies. He describes himself as “a crazy reader” and, like everyone else, he binges television. One surprising discovery: He loves to take long drives.

“The freedom is amazing,” he effuses. “It doesn’t matter if Corona is out there, or you can’t connect with other people. I can just go alone, go to nature, whatever, wherever. Estonia is small. I can get from one corner of the country to another in maybe three hours. I can think and clear my head.”

Kits has shuttled between Estonia and Germany during the past few months. I ask him what he would want the world to know about his home country. After ruminating on the “untouched nature” of the Estonian wilderness, he turns, instinctively, to music. 

“Estonia has 1.3 million people. But for such a small country, our musical life is quite special,” he tells me. “Our composers, musicians, orchestras, conductors, instrumentalists, singers. We have a song festival every four years, where 100,000 people – one-tenth of the country’s population – come together and sing. Although Estonians seem maybe a little reserved – we don’t say hello to strangers on the streets – we love to sing together.” He quickly cuts in to describe himself as a “horrible singer.” (Again with the modesty.) But he’s already on his way to joining his compatriots in supporting their rich cultural history. 

As we’re saying goodbye, I ask him what he thinks is the secret to learning and growing as a musician. “The secret is to be always curious,” he replies. “You can never be satisfied. You can feel good in the moment, but if you get to feeling that way all the time, the routine comes, and the passion dies. You always have to make your music life interesting. That’s why I love playing with orchestra [as a soloist], I love chamber music and I love playing as part of an orchestra. What keeps me alive is trying to do all these things, while always trying to find something new.”

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic. 

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