Cellists always speak about a special relationship with their instrument, and young US-based Israeli Amit Peled (31), home to serve as one of the judges in this week's Aviv competitions, is no different: "For me, it was love at first sight - and I am not that kind of guy. Even with my wife, whom I love dearly, it was different. But the moment I touched it, I knew this was my voice," says Amit in a phone interview from his Baltimore apartment. Peled plays an Andreas Guarneri cello (ca. 1689), one of only 14 still in existence. "It's very much like a marriage, when you let your partner flourish by showing that you understand him/her; it takes time to learn each other," explains Amit. Dubbed "Jacqueline Du Pre in a peasant's body" by local composer Oded Zehavi, sturdy two-meter tall Peled appears throughout the world. He does not agree that classical music is going through a popularity crisis. "A lot of people are eager to perform and listen, but there's not enough funding. The audiences' hair has always been mostly grey; I just try to make it darker. I do not play rock on my cello: I just try to show young people that we're not nerds." Kibbutz born and raised, Peled is a professor at the Peabody Music School in Baltimore. Only four years older than his students, Peled asks them not to call him "mister," suggesting instead that he will try and win their respect through his music. He sees himself as a gardener cultivating flowers: "Most of the students' problems are psychological, and I am happy when I am able to help them solve them." As a Francois Shapira (now a part of the Aviv competitions) 1998 prizewinner, Peled says victory at this Israeli contest cannot catapult you to an international career. It does, however, endow the winners with a sense of self-confidence: "You are certified as the best young local musician, and that means a lot. For me, that was when things started to slowly happen." Peled will play with pianist Alon Goldstein at Saturday's gala opening concert of Beethoven, Bloch, Shulamit Ran and Brahms at the Tel Aviv Art Museum. He'll be touring throughout the country later. The Aviv competitions take place at the Tel Aviv Art Museum between December 25 and January 2. The competition is designed to identify young musicians and singers mature enough to start a professional career. Its two stages are open to the public for a modest fee. Each contestant offers a small recital. Some - such as pianist Boris Giltburg, cellist Adiel Shmit-Binur or vocalists Guy Mannheim, Anastassia Klevan and Claire Meghnagi - have already started their careers, appearing both at home and abroad, At the final concert, on January 3, the winners will be presented with their award, and on January 9 they will perform a free concert broadcast live at 5 from the Jerusalem Theater in the Voice of Israel's Etnachta series. For details and tickets, call (03) 607-7009.