Classical musician Trey Lee’s 300-year-old antique cello requires its own seat on a flight

Melanie Chalil
Lee on board a flight with the 1703 Comte de Gabriac cello that belonged to a diplomat under Napoleon Bonaparte. — Picture from Instagram/Trey Lee

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 — As a sought-after cellist who performs all over the globe, there is no typical day for Trey Lee.

Born in Hong Kong, raised in North America and now based in Berlin, the classical musician said over the years, he’s learned to become a good traveller when he’s on tour.

And it’s not exactly a field day travelling with a 300-year-old cello with a story of its own.

Lee plays on the 1703 Comte de Gabriac cello, which was made by the Venetian master luthier Matteo Gofriller and used to belong to a 19th-century diplomat who worked for French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

The cello, which is owned by a private collector who lent it to Lee, is so fragile and priceless that the Harvard economics graduate has to buy an extra seat ticket on flights.



“It’s a museum piece so you’re certainly not allowed to check it in with the cargo or else the insurance company will kill me.

“Let’s just say its value can buy an apartment and then some in Hong Kong,” the 46-year-old Juilliard School Pre-College Division graduate said.

Lee spoke to Malay Mail ahead of the Reimagine Music Festival of which he co-founded and serves as artistic director.

He added that modern cellos can be good but they don’t sound the same as older ones due to the age of the wood.

Just like other classical musicians, Lee makes playing the cello look effortless on stage but there are things that the audience isn’t privy to.

Travelling with a bulky cello makes simple things like going to the restroom is a huge challenge. — Picture from Instagram/Trey Lee

“With the cello as a carry on, simple things like going to the restroom is a huge challenge because the cello is too big sometimes for the restroom,” he shared.



The one perk Lee gets for buying an extra seat for his cello is that he gets two meals on flights although he tries not to eat too much and rest instead.

Recalling a funny story, Lee once ordered two special meals — a vegetarian meal and a fruit platter — on a flight he was on.

“So they brought me my special meal and asked if I’d like my fruit platter as a dessert and I said yes please,” said Lee.

When the flight attendant brought him his fruit platter, other passengers got jealous and asked why Lee was given a fruit platter as a dessert.

“I was like ‘yeah you travel with this and you’ll get a fruit platter too’,” he said with a laugh.

“There are things that people never really think about but I embarrassingly have to deal with.”

On non-touring days, the self-confessed foodie enjoys staying at home accompanied by a glass of red wine and cheese when he’s not exploring Berlin’s restaurant scene.

Thanks to a whirlwind schedule, being at home is like going on vacation, said Lee.

He also loves hosting pop-up concerts at his apartment for friends.

The renowned cellist will be in Kuala Lumpur and Penang next week for the Reimagine Music Festival. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

To maintain a healthy posture, Lee spoke about the importance of getting enough exercise to be in the best of health.

“What we do is bad for our bodies, especially our backs and sitting under pressure, that cannot be good for you.

“Every musician has some sort of ailment, so I make sure I do weight training, stretching and go for swims,” Lee said.

Reimagine Music Festival is presented by OSEL Group and The Asquire, co-organised by DFP and the Centre for Research, Advisory and Technology (CREATE) and supported by Malaysia Airlines, GMBB and the National Building Institute (NBI).

The festival takes place in Kuala Lumpur on November 27 at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas and heads to Penang on November 29 at the Majestic Theatre in Georgetown.

Malay Mail is the official media partner for the festival.

For full details, visit

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