Interview by Tim Janof
Long acknowledged as one of the world’s master cellists, Aldo Parisot has led the career of a complete artist —as concert soloist, chamber musician, recitalist, and teacher. He has been heard with the major orchestras of the world, including Berlin, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Rio, Munich, Warsaw, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, etc. under the batons of such eminent conductors as Stokowski, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Mehta, Monteux, Paray, Carvalho, Sawallisch, Hindemith, and Villa-Lobos. As an artist seeking to expand his instrument’s repertoire, Mr. Parisot has premiered numerous works for the cello, written especially for him by such composers as Carmago Guarnieri, Quincy Porter, Alvin Etler, Claudio Santoro, Joan Panetti, Yehudi Wyner, and Villa-Lobos, whose Cello Concerto No. 2 (written for and dedicated to him) was premiered by Mr. Parisot in his New York Philharmonic debut. Since then, he has appeared with the Philharmonic on nearly a dozen occasions.
Born in Natal, Brazil, Mr. Parisot began studying the cello at age seven with his stepfather, Tomazzo Babini, and made his professional debut at age twelve. He came to the United States in 1946 and made his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, followed by extensive touring in the United States, Canada, and South America. His first European tour was in 1957, and since then he has toured annually as a solo cellist throughout the world. Mr. Parisot’s recital activities have been equally international since his Town Hall debut in 1950, and appearances have included London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, and both Tully Hall and Fisher Hall in New York. Washington D.C. was the scene of another coup by Mr. Parisot when he played the difficult and rarely performed Schoenberg Cello Concerto in the Kennedy Center. In the Spring of 1976, Mr. Parisot made a five-week tour of Poland, which included concerts with orchestras and recitals. He created a sensation when he introduced Donald Martino’s composition for solo cello, entitled “Parisonatina Al’Dodecafonia” at the Tanglewood Festival. The “New York Times” remarked: “Those at this performance are not going to forget [Parisot’s] feat overnight,” and the Boston Globe wrote “ there is probably no cellist that can equal Parisot’s dazzling achievement.” Harold Schoenberg of the “New York Times” has said of him: ‘A very strong technician with a sweet tone and impeccable intonation, he is altogether a superior instrumentalist and musician.” Articles have appeared about him in a number of magazines, including the “New York Herald Tribune Magazine,” “Music and Artists,” “Musical America,” “Music Journal,” “New York Magazine,” “U.S. Camera,” “They Talk About Music,” “Reader’s Digest,” “The Strad,” and “Instrumentalist;” as well as innumerable articles in newspapers around the globe.
Mr. Parisot has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors over the years, including gold medals from Lebanon and Brazil, and honorary citizenships. In 1980, Mr. Parisot received the Eva Janzer “Chevalier du Violoncelle,” an award given by Indiana University. In September 1982, he was awarded the “United Nations Peace Medal” following his performance at its Staff Day ceremonies, and, in 1983, he received the “Artist/Teacher Award” presented by the American String Teachers Association. In May 1997, Mr. Parisot received the “Governor’s Arts Award” from the State of Connecticut for outstanding achievement as a musician and teacher.
The Yale Cellos and Mr. Parisot performed at the May 2001 International Manchester Festival, where he also gave master classes and was given the “Award of Distinction.” As conductor of the Grammy nominated Yale Cellos, he has recorded two CD’s for Delos, and a CD of Ezra Laderman’s—three works written for Aldo Parisot and the Yale cellos — is about to be released. The ensemble, which also performed in the Beauvais Festival in France in 1999, and again in 2001, gave its Carnegie Hall debut in April 1998. A Yale School of Music faculty member since 1958, Mr. Parisot was named the “Samuel Sanford Professor of Music” in 1994—the first recipient of this honor. In 1999 Mr. Parisot received the Yale School of Music’s “Ian Mininberg Distinguished Service Award” and an honorary Doctorate of Music from Shenandoah University in Virginia.
TJ: You’ve only had one cello teacher, your stepfather, an Italian cellist named Thomazzo Babini.
AP: That’s correct, thank God. I don’t agree with students who bounce around from teacher to teacher.
I studied with my stepfather for eleven years, starting when I was 7 years old. Everything I know and teach today comes from him, and it was he who taught me about the importance of playing without unnecessary tension. Under his guidance I learned how to be a very relaxed player, which helped me to progress very rapidly. This enabled me, as a child, to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the cello with little problem, and, at age 12, to play the Paganini Moto Perpetuo with my eyes closed. It was easy for me, like drinking a glass of milk. I am very grateful to my step-father.
When I was 18 years old I became the principal cellist of the orchestra in Rio de Janeiro. Carleton Sprague Smith, the attaché to the American embassy, came to one of our concerts and heard me play the Brahms Double Concerto with violinist Ricardo Odnoposoff. Smith was so impressed with my playing that he came backstage and invited me to a party that was being thrown for Yehudi Menuhin, who was also in town for a concert. At the party, Smith took me aside and said, “Why don’t you go abroad?”
I replied, “But where would I go? Besides, I don’t have any money.”
He said that he would arrange for me to go wherever I wanted, so I told him that I wanted to study with Emanuel Feuermann in the United States. He kept his promise and it was arranged for me to study with Feuermann at the Curtis Institute. Unfortunately, Feuermann died three months before I was to leave Brazil, in 1942. This was extremely disappointing, since he was the only person I was interested in studying with.
Later Smith approached me again, saying that I still should go to the United States, and that he would obtain a scholarship for me to study at Yale University. He would arrange it so that I didn’t have to take cello lessons, and that I would have a “Special Student” status. One couldn’t decline this incredible offer, so I agreed to go, which was in 1946.
At Yale I studied music theory and chamber music. My music theory professor was Paul Hindemith and we became good friends. He was a phenomenal musician and teacher; he could talk for hours without stopping, often sitting at the piano playing symphonic excerpts from memory to illustrate a certain point. His mind was like a computer! He would also invite his students to his house on the weekends to play chamber music with him, which I participated in many times.
Unfortunately, I had a fight with Hindemith. At the time I was already concertizing quite a bit, and I won the Koussevitsky Prize at Tanglewood for ‘Best Soloist of the Year’ with the Boccherini B-flat Concerto. The prize was $200, a hug from Koussevitsky on stage, and an appearance with the Springfield Symphony in Massachusetts. Unfortunately my concert in Springfield conflicted with a rehearsal with Hindemith and the New Haven Symphony on his Four Temperaments, for which I was the principal cellist. During one rehearsal, Hindemith was furious with the musicians’ sporadic attendance, since the work is very complicated and needs lots of preparation. He said that if one more person missed a rehearsal he would cancel the concert. It was after his tirade that I realized I needed to talk to him about my missing the next rehearsal for my solo concert, which was doubly bad because the piece has a very important string quartet part and I would be very much missed. I barely got through, “Mr. Hindemith, I cannot” when he virtually jumped on top of me, he was so angry. I just stood there looking at him as he screamed at me, not enjoying being insulted. I finally said, “Are you finished?” He just stopped and looked at me, shocked that a lowly student could show him such disrespect, given that he was a god at Yale. Then I said, “You and your orchestra can go to hell!” and I went to my room. An hour later, the student union paid me a visit, warning me that I could be deported. I said, “If they want to deport me, that’s fine with me. He was very rude to me and I responded accordingly.”
A few days later, I was walking down the street with my laundry when I saw Hindemith with Howard Boatwright, a violinist and his best composition student. Howard must have explained to Hindemith why I had to miss the rehearsal because, as I walked by with my head down to avoid him, Hindemith put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That’s ok, Parisot. You can go play your concert since you know my piece very well already.” I looked at him and said, “Why didn’t you let me explain it to you? You forced me to do what I did not want to do!” Hindemith could only say, “That’s ok, that’s ok.” But he never forgave me. He got his revenge years later when I played his concerto with the New York Philharmonic with him conducting; his orchestra was so damn loud I practically had to bow on my bridge in order to be heard.
I had been at Yale for two years when I saw an ad in the newspaper announcing auditions for the Pittsburgh Symphony. I needed to earn money somehow, and I couldn’t stay in the United States without a job, so I decided to audition, despite repeated warnings from my friends about the temperamental conductor, Fritz Reiner. I went to the audition, and, after I was made to sit on stage quietly for five minutes while Reiner talked with his manager, I got fed up and just started playing various concertos. He stopped to listen to me and then brought me the cello part from Don Quixote, which I had performed many times in Brazil, asking me if I had ever played it? I lied, “No, sir.”
He said, “Are you sure?”
I said, “Of course! I’ve never played this piece.”
He said, “Read it,” and he put it on my music stand. I stared at the music for awhile, pretending that I had never seen it, and, just to seem more convincing as I played, I intentionally threw in a few wrong notes. It may have been unfair for me to do that, but I was quite a rebel in my younger years. So when I finished a variation, he asked, “So, you’ve never played this piece?”
I replied, “No, I’m sight-reading.”
He asked me if I wanted the job, and I replied, “Why do you think I’m here? Of course I want the job.”
I ended up staying for two years, but it wasn’t my dream job. I didn’t want to play in an orchestra for the rest of my life and have some conductor tell me how to play. So I saved up some money, rented Town Hall in New York, and gave my recital debut, which received wonderful reviews. Columbia Management noticed the reviews and signed me up. The orchestra in Pittsburgh also noticed and offered to double my salary if I stayed, which I didn’t because I wanted a solo career.
My childhood dream was to tour all over the world as a soloist, play with great conductors and orchestras, buy a Stradivarius, and teach in a big university, all of which eventually came true. My solo career enabled me to buy the ‘Feuermann’ Stradivarius, which I owned for 40 years. Then I went to teach at Yale University in 1958, where I’ve been ever since. I’ve had a wonderful life.
I was invited to teach at Yale University, even though I didn’t have a degree. All I had was a diploma from my hometown conservatory in Brazil, which I explained to the Dean, but he didn’t care. He hired me because of my reputation as a soloist, and to correct the situation he gave me an honorary degree, which made me feel very uncomfortable. Just so you know, I don’t keep that honorary certificate on my wall. Instead I display the diploma I earned in my hometown. I have been given honorary degrees over the years, but they never meant much to me, other than my appreciating the kindness of the gesture. I appreciate my honorary degrees, but I treasure my diploma because I earned it.
TJ: You worked with another famous composer, Samuel Barber.
AP: Yes, I went to his house in Mt. Kisco three or four times because I had to play his cello sonata in New York. He was a very nice man and not at all dogmatic about how his music should be played. When I’d ask him how to play a certain passage, he’d say something like, “Let me hear you play it Okay, now do it the other way Now how about the third way you mentioned?” Then he might state his preference, but he didn’t insist upon it. He mostly pointed out areas where the balance was off between the cello and the piano.
TJ: Another composer, Hector Villa-Lobos, dedicated his second concerto to you. How did this come about?
AP: My manager suggested that I ask Villa-Lobos to write a concerto for me, which I would play in my debut with the New York Philharmonic. I wrote a letter to Villa-Lobos and he agreed to do it. In 1954 he came to New York and requested that I spend a week with him so that he could get an idea of how I played. So I’d go to his hotel and he’d ask me to play anything — scales, etudes, sonatas, concertos, etc. Then he’d write a phrase and ask me to play it. If he didn’t like how I played it, he would take the cello and demonstrate what he wanted. He was a cellist, after all, and he earned a living playing in a trio in a restaurant in Brazil. He was also a wonderful guitarist and could improvise on it for hours. Interestingly, while we worked together, he sat on the table with two scores, one was the cello concerto and one was a symphony, which he was working on at the same time.
Almost always sitting silently in the background each morning was guitarist André Segovia, who was a close friend of Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos and Segovia would tell jokes to each other in Portuguese, usually dirty. I often thought that the only reason Segovia came was for the lunches. Villa-Lobos’ wife, Arminda, would make feijoada for us, a very popular Brazilian dish, which he would devour.
In 1955 I performed Villa-Lobos’ concerto with the New York Philharmonic, with Walter Hendl conducting. After we finished I tried to acknowledge the composer, who was sitting in the audience, but he wouldn’t come up, which was typical of him.
I remember my last performance of his concerto with Villa-Lobos conducting. It was at an outdoor concert in Lewisohn Stadium in New York. Villa-Lobos had leukemia at the time, though he didn’t know it. Also on the program was his Bachianas Brasilieras for eight cellos and a soprano, for which Villa-Lobos requested that I play the solo cello part. The soprano was the legendary singer Bidu Sayao, and it happened to be her last concert before she retired. I still have a wonderful picture of that day when I played alongside Bidu Sayao in her final performance.
TJ: Let’s move on to your thoughts on cello technique. One thing that struck me while listening to your master class is how similar your ideas are to Janos Starker’s. How did this happen?
AP: It is purely a coincidence. Like Starker, my goal is to make my students technically free. Throughout my life people have said that the cello looks like it is a part of me, which is because I am so free of tension when I play. I am tired of teachers who say that music is more important when one can plainly see that their students are so tight. How can students play music when they are blocking themselves?
In 1956 I had a manager in London, Wilfred van Wyck, who was also Starker’s manager. Before my recital at Wigmore Hall, Wilfred said, “Guess who’s coming to your concert tonight Janos Starker.” I had been curious about Starker because a violin dealer had said that we should meet, since he felt that Starker and I had something in common in our technical approach to the cello. It turned out that Starker wanted to meet me too.
That night Starker attended my recital with cellist Edmund Kurtz, and they came backstage to see me afterwards. Starker shook my hand, saying how nice it was to meet me, not saying anything about my recital. He said, “What are you doing tomorrow?”
I replied, “I have to go to Holland for another concert.”
“Do you have to go tomorrow?”
“No, I play three days later, but I have to rehearse with the pianist.”
“Can you stay one more day? Maybe we can talk.” He had just made his incredibly successful debut in London, and he wanted me to listen to his recordings, including his (1956) EMI recording of the Kodaly Sonata. Of course I could delay my departure, and I called the pianist in Holland to postpone my arrival. The next day, Starker asked me, while walking to the studio, “Why do you play Bach so free?”
I answered, “Why do you play Bach so square?” That was the extent of our conversation on Bach that day. Then we started talking about our teachers, my stepfather and his teacher, Adolph Schiffer, the last pupil of David Popper. We had many things in common in that we both were taught to be virtuoso players at a young age, and that we both performed in the typical garb of young performers — short pants. We have been friends ever since.
TJ: You indicated that if one wants to become a virtuoso player one needs to work on lots of scales, arpeggios, and the virtuoso literature. Is it your experience that students don’t do enough of this?
AP: I would also like to add that one must learn all of the positions on the instrument, which includes all the octaves and every note-combination that is available within each octave. Janos Starker’s book, “An Organized Method of String Playing” is a perfect tool for this.
But you are correct, students don’t concentrate on technique like they should. Instead they are taught how to hold the bow, how to finger, and then all their teachers talk about is the music, as if that’s all that matters. Meanwhile their fingers continue to struggle and the years go by. Eventually they realize that they cannot get to the next level, no matter how much they practice.
Sometimes I worry about the kids that play for me. They are so tense that they stop progressing after they reach a certain point. When they reach the age of 25 it’s often too late and they may never be able to play fast pieces up to tempo. Music-making becomes a struggle and they become one of the many “Adagio Players,” who are only able to play music that is slow.
It’s incredibly important that students concentrate on the technical work while they are young. As we get older our musical vocabulary develops, but our technical progress slows down. Therefore your technique must be established early on so that you will be prepared as your musicianship catches up. Unfortunately, after a certain age it’s too late, since life is like a rainbow, where it goes down after a certain point. You don’t want to get stuck with mediocre technique for the rest of your life, so concentrate on technical improvement while you are young.
Why do you think Starker plays so well at the age of 77? It’s because he established his incredible technique when he was a child. The machine of Starker is like a Rolls-Royce. He is the perfect example of how to play the cello. The great thing is that he doesn’t have to think about cello playing when he performs. Instead he thinks about what he wants to say with the music, which is what we all should aim for. Technique has to be immaculate and in tune before one can quibble about interpretation. I admire Starker immensely.
Starker and I rode a taxi together the other day on our way to the Manchester Cello Festival and he seemed a little down. I asked him what was the matter. He said, “You’ll hear tonight. It’s not the way it used to be.”
I replied, “Come on! The way you play, you’ll be 100 years old and you’ll still be incredible!” And his Dohnanyi Konzertstuck was fantastic that night.
TJ: Let’s discuss your ideas on sitting. You told a student in your master class to put her feet back slightly. Why?
AP: You know you are sitting correctly if you can stand up readily. This is a good indicator that your body is completely free, and that you are letting the cello come to you instead you going to it. Your center of gravity must be between you and the cello, not back such that your body tends to fall backwards. Leaning forward very slightly accomplishes this, which naturally brings your feet backwards. One must sit such that one is balanced and free.
TJ: One objection I’ve heard about putting the feet back and leaning forward is that it takes more energy to keep the body upright, which puts a strain on your lower back. You don’t agree with this?
AP: Not at all, since the body is in a state of balance. Also, if I lean forward my feet tend to move back naturally, so where’s the tension? There’s only tension if I don’t allow my legs to move backwards.
Imagine you are swimming. When you swim your body moves from the left to the right as you alternate which arm is doing the stroke. Also notice that your strength comes from your back. The same concepts apply to playing the cello. Free up your body so that it can do what it wants to do naturally. The body’s natural tendencies are never wrong.
TJ: You encourage students to slightly rotate the cello depending on the string they’re playing on.
AP: You will be able to reach the strings much more easily if you do. If you have to play on the C string, rotate the cello to the left so that it’s at the G string level. If you have to play on the A string, rotate the cello to the right so that it’s at the D string level. Playing on these outer strings can be awkward otherwise. Why make life unnecessarily difficult by keeping your cello in a fixed position?
TJ: What should the head be doing as you play?
AP: The head should be allowed to move wherever it needs to in order to prevent the build-up of tension. Make sure you relax your jaw too. You can practice this by playing with your mouth open. If your jaw is tense, you don’t stand a chance of freeing up the rest of your body.
TJ: You object to people who bob their heads with the music as they play. Why?
AP: It’s usually a sign that they are having trouble with their sense of rhythm. The way to fix this is to be sure to feel the weak beats in addition to the strong beats. For example, instead of counting “1-2-3,” count “1-and-2-and-3-and.” I’m not saying that one has to have a machine-like accuracy; I prefer a beat that has some flexibility, which is what makes music so human.
TJ: How does one shift accurately?
AP: The secret is anticipation. When shifting upwards, you should, way ahead of time, do a little dip with your left elbow in a clockwise direction. When shifting backwards, you should make a little circle with your left elbow in the counter-clockwise direction. You won’t be able to do this, however, unless you plan ahead.
Anticipation is a normal function of the human body. If I were to ask you to pick up a cup, your body would be given a set of commands that results in you picking it up. Messages start in your brain and then go to your shoulder, upper arm, forearm, hand, and fingers, all in an orderly and graceful manner. Your arm doesn’t suddenly flail towards the cup with a spasmodic motion, which is how people often shift on the cello. As with all things in cello technique, it all boils down to anticipation, which requires a preparatory message from your brain.
You shouldn’t shift with the fingers or the hand, you should shift with the whole arm. However, there are times when, no matter how much you anticipate, you may not quite hit a note, so you sneak into the note with the fingers, which adjust at the last moment. In other words, the fingers act more like fine-tuners.
TJ: In the left hand, you believe in transferring arm weight from finger to finger, but you don’t like the practice of rocking the hand as you change fingers. Why?
AP: I believe that the motion should come from the knuckle — the third joint from the fingertip — not from rotating the wrist. Otherwise clarity is lost, particularly in the second and third fingers.
TJ: What tension do you commonly see in the bow hold?
AP: People often squeeze the thumb against the second finger. Instead of wasting energy doing this, the energy should be directed from the back through your arm and fingertips to the bow. I see a similar problem in the left hand, where people squeeze the cello’s neck with the thumb.
TJ: What about the bow arm? Do you lead with the elbow?
AP: No, everything starts with the back muscles, which is then followed by the upper arm, forearm, hand, and fingers, sort of like a whip, where the fingertips move the fastest. This is true of the left hand as well.
TJ: How do you recommend that one play loudly in a healthy manner?
AP: Most importantly, one shouldn’t press or squeeze the bow, which tightens the arm and shoulder muscles and blocks one’s power. Many students squeeze the bow more tightly, which makes the bow feel lighter, giving them the illusion of producing more sound. Instead of squeezing, one should pronate the arm in order to direct the weight — which comes from the back muscles — more into the bow, making sure that all joints are completely free to move as they need to. If you do this correctly, you will feel your back muscles being activated.
TJ: How do you play the fast movement of the Elgar Concerto without tiring out? All those fast separate notes can fatigue the right shoulder.
AP: Most people get tired because they are trying to force the bow to jump, which causes their thumb, hand, arm, and shoulder to tense up, thus eliminating any hope of a good spiccato. In order to prevent this, one needs to relieve the thumb pressure and the bow will bounce by itself.
A spiccato stroke is just a short piece of a relaxed legato stroke. The more you release the pressure, the more the bow will tend to bounce by itself, as long as you are playing at the right place on the bow, usually near the balance point. If you just remember that you are still playing legato, even in fast detaché notes, you won’t get tired.
TJ: How does one hide a bow change?
AP: Your hand should trace a slight figure-eight at the frog and clockwise or counter-clockwise motion at the tip. If you just go back and forth with the bow, you will hear a slight accent every time you change the direction of your bow. Of course this is only necessary if you wish to play a seamless legato.
TJ: You mentioned that students often bring their bow to the string with a vertical motion instead of a horizontal one. What’s wrong with this?
AP: You will hear an attack because you are pressing the string down instead of encouraging it to ring freely. Generally speaking, the bow should trace part of an imaginary arc during its travel. When the bow is on the string, it traces just a small segment of this arc. Therefore, when you approach the string, you should be “landing” on the string in basically a horizontal direction, not a vertical one. After all, bowing should be about pushing and pulling the strings to the side, not pressing them down.
Of course, there are several ways to attack a note, for musical reasons, so in rare cases you may actually want to hear the attack. Otherwise, there are plenty of other ways to start a note. You can articulate the note with the left hand and then begin the bow, you can put the bow on the string and then articulate the note with your left hand, or you can do both together. It depends on what you want to hear, whether a vowel or a consonant.
TJ: You talked a lot about breathing in your master class. How should one breathe when playing the cello?
AP: Breathing is so important that I often suggest to my students that they study voice as a secondary instrument. For the most part you should try to breathe normally. Many students will take in a sharp breath and then hold it, which is terrible, since they build up an incredible amount of tension in their bodies when they do this.
I do believe that your breathing should relate to the music you are playing. If you begin a phrase forte, you should quickly inflate your lungs to increase your energy level, as if you are going to shout. As the phrase continues, you then exhale and breathe more normally. If you then start a gentler phrase, your breathing should adjust accordingly. Breathing helps to punctuate the music.
As an aside, many hunch over when they play loudly high up in thumb position. This is counter-productive because it constricts your breathing, reduces your lung capacity, and builds up unnecessary tension throughout your body. One should make sure that one only slightly leans forward in order to keep the chest open and free so that one’s breathing remains uninhibited.
TJ: Let’s talk about some of the musical ideas you mentioned in your master class. First of all, you don’t like a wide vibrato. Why?
AP: Because it’s out of tune! Why do you think Starker plays so in tune? It’s because he doesn’t have a wide vibrato that goes “wow-wow-wow.” Vibrato should start at the pitch and then go either an eighth-tone above or below the pitch, but never both. A narrow vibrato is never offensive to the ear. Starker is a perfect model for this.
TJ: Is it a general rule of yours that, if you have a large interval, you should take more time with the shift?
AP: Naturally! Sing it! You can’t help but take a little more time when you sing a large interval. You should still have a sense of pulse, but you must allow yourself some flexibility so that you will have more of a vocal quality in your playing. After all, what we are doing is trying to sing through our instrument, not sound like machines. Of course, you don’t want to get carried away, since you can’t play so freely that others can’t follow you.
Someone who did this magnificently was Frank Sinatra. I often tell my students to listen to his recordings to learn about wonderfully free singing. While the orchestra establishes the rhythm he floats beautifully on top, always managing to land perfectly at the end of the phrase. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he was fabulous. Casals did it too, but of course he knew exactly what he was doing.
TJ: Starker says, “Create excitement, don’t get excited.” You disagree with this.
AP: What’s wrong with showing how you feel? If somebody in my family were to die, I would feel very sad, and tears would roll down my cheeks. If I were to win $10 million in a lottery, I’d run around the room, shouting, “I just won 10 million dollars!” What’s wrong with showing excitement? Nothing!
I’m not saying that I believe in blatant showmanship. For example, some people grow their hair so that they can shake their dandruff all over the audience. This is going a bit far.
TJ: You said, “Don’t make music happen, let it happen.” What does this mean?
AP: After a certain point, you should already know the music inside and out. When you’ve reached this point, you should be able to relax, feel the music before you play it, and then just come in a way that feels like you’re joining the piece as if it were already in progress. Anticipation is the key once again.
I remember Yo-Yo Ma telling me about his performance of the Elgar Concerto, “Mr. Parisot, before I walk on stage, I’m already concentrating on the Elgar Concerto. I already know what I’m going to do.” Become the music and let it flow through you.
TJ: You said “Worship God, not the composer.” Why?
AP: The great composers of the past were sinners just like the rest of us. Take Bach, for instance, I greatly respect the man and his work, but I don’t worship him. Too many people confuse respect with worship. I only worship God.
Let’s take the Bach Cello Suites, for example. What are we going to do with the notes that Bach wrote? First, it is our job to play them in tune and with clarity. But then what? Bach didn’t give us any instructions, except for the names of the movements, which I think was a brilliant thing to do, since it enriches our imagination. Part of our challenge is to try to figure out what Bach may have wanted, while also realizing that one must also be true to oneself. To try to be a carbon copy of somebody else is a waste of time. I wish more composers would refrain from giving us so many instructions.
In my teaching I am proud to say that I don’t try to produce carbon copies of myself. Pierre Fournier once gave a master class at Yale. Afterwards we had lunch together, and he asked, “Aldo, seven students played for me today. Are they all your students?” I said, “Of course!” He replied, “But they’re all so different.” I said, “Thank God! My job is to discover who they are.”
TJ: You said, “Nuances are not in the notes. They come from the player.”
AP: That’s right. When you see editions full of markings by somebody other than the composer, all you learn is how the editors may have played at a particular point in their lives. I don’t give a damn about editions. I consult the manuscript instead because I am more interested in what the composer may have wanted. Then I add my own “spices” to the music.
When a composer creates a masterpiece, my job is not to recreate it; it’s to try to create another masterpiece even greater than what the composer wrote. I experienced this many times when working with contemporary composers. For example, in 1959 I was asked to play the Hindemith Concerto in Carnegie Hall with Hindemith conducting the New York Philharmonic. I knew how dogmatic Hindemith could be so I made sure that I followed his score to the letter, including his metronome indications. When I was ready my manager told me that Hindemith wanted to hear me play his concerto well before the concert. So I went to Hindemith’s hotel room in New York and knocked on the door. When he opened the door I could tell by his expression that he remembered our fight back at Yale. Then he invited me in and said, “Parisot, play my concerto.” I then played the whole concerto, facing him while he conducted. When we finished, he kept his head down, still looking at the score. I waited a bit too long, and finally asked, “Mr. Hindemith, what did you think?” He said, “Parisot, you play my concerto very well. You even respect the fingerings and bowings of my brother, who was a cellist. But I’d like to ask you one question. Is that the way you feel my music?”
I replied, “Not at all! I was just trying to obey what you wrote.”
He said, “Okay, we still have ten days. Why don’t you come back in a few days and play it the way you really want to?” I couldn’t believe my ears! Fortunately, I had the habit of learning a piece in three or four different ways, so I didn’t panic. A few days later I returned and this time I turned away from him, letting him follow me this time, and I played the concerto how I really wanted to. I put in a rubato here and there, took a little more time in other places, and when I finished, he said, “Bravo, Parisot!”
So what I’m saying is that the written notes are just the beginning, because it’s impossible to transmit one’s artistic vision and feelings to another human being through notes on a page, or even person-to-person. I am reminded of the time I heard Fritz Kreisler play the Kreutzer Sonata two days in a row. One concert was in Carnegie Hall and the other was at the Brooklyn Academy. The interpretations were so different that it was as if two different people had played, and yet both were magnificent. I’m sure Kreisler respected Beethoven as much as anybody else, but he didn’t let his respect become an artistic prison. We must also honor our own uniqueness.
TJ: I guess you don’t have much regard for Urtext editions.
AP: No! These are gimmicks for making money. Take the Beethoven A Major Sonata, for example. Did you know that the manuscript of only the first movement exists and that the other movements are lost? How dare these Urtext people print the other movements, as if they know what Beethoven really wanted? (There are a few letters to the publisher from Beethoven on corrections to the very first edition, one of which I saw many years ago. It was from this letter that I discovered that he wanted us to play C# in measure 37 instead of C-natural. I was one of the first ever to play C#.).
I don’t like it when a student asks, “Mr. Parisot, which edition should I get for this piece?” I wish that they could use an edition without markings, because one doesn’t grow to understand music from any edition. The best way to learn about a Beethoven cello sonata, for example, is to become familiar with Beethoven’s other music, like his piano sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies, and to read books on what Beethoven was like as a person. Choosing the right edition is not the key to deepening one’s understanding of music.
Ultimately, my goal in teaching is give my students the tools to become well-informed musicians who are both true to the score and true to themselves. But they can only do this if they are first well-equipped technically, which can only be attained through a life-long dedication to eliminating points of tension. I want my students to be so technically free that they can express themselves completely in their own way. Their success means more to me than any honorary degree.