Ed Edelman's Other Life : When Not Performing With the County Supervisors, He Unwinds With His Cello

Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer.

From his eighth-floor office, two blocks away, he wields a command presence over a county the size of Lebanon. But here, in Rehearsal Room 2 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Honorable Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman is only another supplicant at the altar of music. Here, it is one man, one note.

Mirrored walls reflect him front and back, perched on an orange Naugahyde straight-backed chair--a majority of Edelmans in two dimensions, all of them neck to neck with the well-seasoned 19th-Century French cello he discovered in 1985 in Paris, cello-shopping near the Opera while one of his daughters was stuck in a hotel room with the chicken pox.

The man who votes on $7-billion county budgets is drawing a bow surely across the cello's strings. The argyle-stockinged feet that walk the corridors of local power are angled on the hardwood floor, in a creditable balletic turnout on either side of the cello spike.

And Ed Edelman is counting the beats of a Mozart trio, moving his lips intently through the piano and violin parts, as he awaits the moment to add his cello's sweetly melancholy voice. Never mind his furrowed brow, reflected to infinity in the mirrors. This is hard, but it is not work.

"It's the relaxation, the joy of it--feeling you're somehow participating in the great beauties of music. It provides a break from what I'm doing every day--speaking, reading, meeting with people. You're completely absorbed by it. The demands it makes come from within me rather than from others, and it's cut off from daily distractions."

The performing arts were not always this elegant for Edelman.

He took up the cello eight years ago, after being persuaded diplomatically by his wife, Mari, a psychologist, to give up his childhood musical legacy, the accordion. Actually, " Stop playing that instrument, " is how she put it, or at least how he recalls it.

"It is awful," his wife says today, with the shudder of someone who has grown up on classical piano. "What was that piece you played?" she muses, trilling her hands elaborately in the air like a Vegas stage organist. " 'Easy Fingers'? Or 'Quick Fingers'?" " ' Dizzy Fingers,' " he remembers.

"Flashy," he pronounces. "The accordion is a flashy instrument."

It was his parents' idea; those contestants on Ted Mack did so well with the accordion. Edelman practiced dutifully, except for the afternoon he switched on the radio to cover his tracks and climbed out the window to play football.

At a parents' night talent show, he stood on stage in his blue and yellow Cub Scout uniform--his first public solo. "I forgot what I was supposed to be playing, but I kept playing anyway, and people applauded. That was sort of a lesson," one with political and musical applications.

As a college boy, he tutored accordion to help pay his way through UCLA, not far from his present Brentwood home, where Haydn euphonies tumble down the terraced front yard from the French doors of the living room, where his cello and her Steinway sit. Once they agree on what piece to play for a guest, the Edelmans perform a lovely Francoeur pavane; even Moxie, the family mutt, listens respectfully.

The accordion has been banished, sentimentally, to a basement closet these 10 years. "If someone were ever to tempt me," Edelman says, "I'd try the accordion again, just to play 'Happy Birthday.' "

But there have been no requests--not for a tune, not even for a look at the thing. What people want to hear is his cello. Edelman has played sound checks at the John Anson Ford Theatre and entertained at office Christmas parties--far more requests than he ever got for the accordion.

"You've got to have something to do for yourself," he says. "You know, I won't be in politics for the rest of my life. I can't imagine not having something like this."

Seated in a Windsor chair in his living room, Edelman places one hand on his cello's spruce-wood case, but carefully, the way one handles a new baby or an old vase. The cello is a demanding instrument, but it has resonance, subtlety--"and dignity. I have a great reverence for it."

In 1978, when he began with a rented cello, he called in Mari and their two daughters to hear him play one note--D--"over and over" until he got the true bell-like ring. "It's not a loud instrument but it can be annoying, especially if you're first learning and you hit a lot of wrong notes." Then it was "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," recorded on some disc stashed somewhere in the house. "Now I think, 'Gee, I think I've progressed a little from that.' "

He tries to take a lesson once a week and practices every day, if only for 15 minutes in the morning, sometimes still in his pajamas. He likes to spend Monday nights with the chamber group at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, and he gets together at noon Thursdays for brown-bag practices with his piano-playing senior deputy, Jim Petzke, and composer-musician Toni Marcus, who answered their ad in a downtown paper for a violinist interested in "sophisticated but playable" music. Edelman's press deputy, John Stodder, had been their violinist, but he left to join the staff of the regrettably less musical Tom Bradley.

At the Thursday sessions, Edelman may be the junior musician, but he's still the boss; the Bach stops there. "Let's take that one again from the top," he says, frowning. A few measures later: "I think we're off," Petzke says politely. "Yeah," Edelman says, sounding severe. " I'm off."

"There's a difference between playing for yourself and when someone listens," he says later. "If someone's listening, I think I hear myself more critically."

Edelman's is not a soloist's soul: "I like playing in trio rather than solo, much better. I enjoy having the opportunity to join with other people to make music--hearing the music they're making and you're adding to it. Soloists, they stand out."

The soloist who stands out for Edelman is the virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, whom he met backstage at the Hollywood Bowl one night. They shook hands and Ma stepped out of the dressing room, leaving Edelman to play his cello--a kid alone with Babe Ruth's bat. He played scales, carefully. He was too intimidated to play anything else, his wife says. "His eyes were so big--it was so cute. "

Edelman has played the Bowl himself--humbly, not as the supervisor whose district the Bowl is in, but as the tyro in the orchestra. It was July, 1981, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Toy Symphony, and Edelman was not so accomplished then. He played only the first note of every measure, "and sometimes I didn't do that. I thought people could tell I wasn't playing every note; I was frightened to death."

He survived it with an insight--"I think the great artists can rise above and go out there, and not get shook that there are a thousand people out there listening"--and a cherished souvenir: an autographed program from Leinsdorf, reading, "From one supervisor to another."

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