Interview by Tim Janof
Hungarian-American cellist Laszlo Varga has an international reputation as soloist, recording artist, and master teacher. He served as the Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic for 11 years under Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Varga has appeared as soloist with orchestras across the USA, Europe, Japan, Australia, South America, and the former Soviet Union. He has been the featured soloist, chamber musician, and master teacher at the Aspen, Chautauqua, and Shreveport festivals, among others for over 40 years. He is highly praised for his numerous recordings on the Vox, RCA, Columbia, Decca, CRI, Period, and MusiCelli labels. Mr. Varga has premiered numerous pieces for solo cello and is eagerly sought after by composers to present their works.
As cellist with the Borodin Piano Trio and former Professor at the University of Houston (retired July 2000), he was a member of the Léner and Canadian String Quartets, Trio Concertante, and Crown Chamber Players. Mr. Varga received the distinguished title of “Chevalier du Violoncelle” from Indiana University for prestigious cellists who have dedicated their careers and teaching to the improvement of the art of cello playing. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Stanford, San Francisco State, University of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of Houston. Many of his former students hold positions in symphony orchestras and universities throughout the world.
As a conductor, he led the Budapest Symphony, San Leandro Symphony, and the Aspen and Shreveport Festivals. He was the founder and conductor of the “Virtuosi of New York” and “Virtuosi of San Francisco.” He formed the first cello quartet in America in the 1950’s and spawned a worldwide movement of cello ensembles. He frequently gives master classes and recitals and guest conducts mass cello ensembles at cello congresses around the world. His arrangements are available from MusiCelli Publications — the world’s largest collection of his editions. His editions have been recorded by the Yale Cellos, Saito Cello Ensemble, CELLO for Sony/Phillips, MusiCelli, the Los Angeles I Cellisti, and by his New York Philharmonic Cello Quartet on DECCA Records.
TJ: You grew up in Hungary. Did you know Janos Starker?
LV: Yes, we studied with the same cello teacher, Adolf Schiffer, at the Music Academy in Budapest. Starker was a true child prodigy, while I was a bit of a late bloomer. He was already performing the Kodály Solo Sonata when he was almost 15 years old! Starker left the Academy after Schiffer retired, while I stayed and continued my studies with Miklós Zsámboki and Eugene Kerpely, the latter to whom Kodály dedicated his Solo Sonata.
Starker started concertizing as a soloist very early, so our paths diverged for a few years, but then I started to catch up with him. In fact, our paths were fairly parallel for many years. For example, at the end of World War II, I was the principal cellist in the Budapest Symphony at the same time he was the principal cellist in the Budapest Opera. Then I was the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic while he was the principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera.
TJ: You studied chamber music with Leó Weiner at the Budapest Academy. He must have been a great teacher. Starker pays tribute to him in his recent biography, From Budapest to Bloomington.
LV: Leó Weiner was my most profound influence at the Academy. He wasn’t much of an instrumentalist — he played piano — but he was an excellent composer and a great theorist. He was able to explain his ideas incredibly clearly, from what he wanted us to bring out in our playing musically to the nuances of technique. Even though he couldn’t play a string instrument, he was fully capable of telling a violinist or a cellist what to do, including giving fingerings and bowings. He was truly brilliant.
We attended his chamber music classes every weekday from 5pm to 7pm. There were always dozens of students at each session, so we were lucky if we played once every two weeks or so. Whether or not we played, we always had to be there to listen, discuss, and criticize each other. For example, if we failed to notice even the slightest out-of-tune notes or an unevenness in a pianist’s left hand, he would become very angry and kick us out for not paying attention. He was incredibly observant about every little detail of intonation, color, and ensemble, and he expected us to do the same. We trembled through each class, making sure that we were quick-witted and fully attentive, but we learned an incredible amount.
TJ: What were some of Weiner’s guiding musical principles?
LV: The one that I remember most is that he often asked us to urge a phrase forward instead of maintaining a strict pulse. By varying the speed within each phrase, even slightly, the flow, shape, and interest are increased. He often conducted while we played, subtly pushing and pulling the tempo. In other words, though he was very strict in his teaching style, he demanded a certain freedom in our musical approach, encouraging us to use rubato.
TJ: You were in a Hungarian-Nazi labor camp during World War II.
LV: Yes. The Hungarian Nazis were just as bad or worse than the German Nazis. The German armies took over Hungary on March 19, 1944, turning the Hungarian government into a puppet of the Germans. That was the worst time of all, and that’s when I was sent to a hard labor camp. Fortunately, I was taken to northern Hungary very late in the war, in April of 1944, where I remained until November of 1944, when I escaped and made my way back to Budapest. I then lived in the Jewish ghetto — November through January — until the Russians overran Budapest. The fighting in Budapest’s streets went on for three or four months. There were aerial bombardments every day and night from all sides — Germans, British, French, Americans, and Russians. The house in which I lived — if you can call it “living” — took sixteen direct hits. We stayed in the basement the entire time.
TJ: You were in the Léner Quartet, which was one of the Hungarian quartets that had an international reputation.
LV: The Léner Quartet was started in 1921 by Jenó Léner, the first violinist, and consisted of its original members until 1941. The quartet moved to the USA during World War II, where they continued to concertize.
Léner only played with the graduates of the Music Academy in Budapest that had studied in Leo Weiner’s class. He himself was one of Weiner’s students, so he felt most comfortable playing with people who grew up with the same musical principles and goals. When his last cellist left in 1946, Léner contacted Weiner. Weiner recommended me highly, so they were willing to take me without an audition, which really speaks volumes for the respect they had for him.
I was supposed to join the Quartet in Switzerland on September 1, 1946, so that we could rehearse for a major European tour that was to start in November. Unfortunately, I had great difficulty obtaining the necessary papers, such as a passport and Russian exit visas. I was finally able to obtain the documents only nine days before the first advertised concert in Switzerland. I then took a train to Zurich, having never been out of Hungary and with a very limited German vocabulary.
When I arrived at the Zurich railroad station, the first thing I noticed was an advertisement for the Léner Quartet’s concert … with my name on it! They didn’t even know whether I could hold a bow! I eventually met with the Quartet in Lausanne, and after seven days of intense rehearsals, we played 27 concerts in Switzerland in 35 days. We had to work up at least thirty quartets because the cities were so close together that we couldn’t repeat the same program in neighboring cities. As I was the new member of the quartet, they asked me which quartets I already knew so that rehearsal time could be minimized.
There was one huge panic when we had to play a live radio broadcast in Lausanne during the third week. The day before I asked Léner what the program was. He replied, “Haydn and Ravel.”
I said, “Ravel? I’ve never played the Ravel in my life!”
Léner replied, “ but you said you played it!”
“No, I said I’ve played the Debussy, not the Ravel!” The program had already been announced, so I had no choice but to learn it in 24 hours. I worked on it so hard that to this day I know it by heart.
I played with the Léner Quartet for two years, until 1948, during which time we concertized all over Europe. We also toured South America in 1948, where we played Beethoven cycles in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paolo. Sometimes we played the entire Beethoven cycle twice in the same city because the membership of the chamber music society had twice as many people as the halls could hold, and those halls held 3000 people! Audiences were hungry for music after the war, so we played as many concerts as we could. We ended up staying in South America for three months before we finally had to leave for our tour in the United States.
During our time in South America, Léner became increasingly ill. He had cancer at the age of 54. The doctors in South America wanted to operate on him because he was already in a dangerous condition, but he chose to wait until he could go to the Mayo Clinic in the United States. This ended up being his downfall. He immediately had an operation when we arrived in New York, but it was too late. He died six weeks later, and that was the end of the Léner Quartet.
TJ: You ended up staying in New York.
LV: After I arrived in New York, I wasn’t allowed to play anywhere because I had to join the union first, and there was a six-month waiting period in order to establish residency. While I waited, I was called to play weekly chamber music sessions at a rich patron’s home. He was an amateur violinist who typically played the second violin part in these sessions. As I didn’t have much else to do, I accepted. This turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done because I got to play with some of the greatest musicians in history. He was a patron of Isaac Stern’s, so I played with Stern frequently. Through Stern, I met Heifetz, Milstein, Leonard Bernstein, Lillian and Joseph Fuchs, Piatigorsky, and Primrose, and a great many others. And to think that I got paid $10 per session! I would have been glad to pay ten times that for the pleasure of making music with these giants.
After I obtained my union membership, I played an audition and won the solo cello position of the New York City Opera, a post I held for two years. Then I heard that Leonard Rose was leaving his post as Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic and I decided to audition for it.
I also heard that Paul Olefsky was suddenly leaving his post in mid-season as Principal Cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra because he was called into the Navy. I decided to audition for his position as well. The audition in Philadelphia was five days before the New York Philharmonic audition, so I assumed that I’d find out about Philadelphia before my New York audition. I didn’t hear from Philadelphia, so I auditioned for Mitropoulos, Leonard Rose, and the other string section leaders for the position in New York. I had to play for an hour and a half, playing everything under the sun, including Kodály’s Unaccompanied Sonata and various concertos and orchestral solos, often with Mitropoulos conducting. Three days later I was offered the position. Of course I was thrilled and accepted immediately. I ended up staying for eleven years. (As of today, I have yet to hear from Philadelphia.)
I frequently soloed with the orchestra and played fourteen different concertos, several of them more than once, including Don Quixote.
TJ: Did you find it difficult to follow in Leonard Rose’s footsteps?
LV: He was a highly respected cellist, so I felt a little pressure, but I knew I could do a good job. I had plenty of professional experience before New York, including serving as the Principal Cellist in the Budapest Symphony, so I felt that I was up to the task.
TJ: What was it like playing under Mitropoulos?
LV: I greatly respected him, both personally and professionally. He was a wonderful interpreter, especially in Romantic and Contemporary music. He conducted everything from memory, both in rehearsal and in concert; he knew every rehearsal number and every single note in the score by heart. He also had a fabulous ear and a very unique sense of expression. He was a free soul. Unfortunately, his tremendous talents have not received much attention since his death.
He was extremely kind, perhaps too much for his own good. He allowed some members of the orchestra to openly criticize him in rehearsals, and many took advantage of him. Mitropoulos seemed very unhappy near the end of his tenure. He died soon afterwards, probably brokenhearted.
TJ: After Mitropoulos came Leonard Bernstein.
LV: Bernstein came on the scene like a comet. When he stepped on the podium, there was magic in the air. He was a brilliant conductor, pianist, and composer, and he was incredibly charismatic. The concertmaster and I performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto with him over twenty times, with him playing and conducting from the piano. Bernstein was a truly great artist and he was great fun to work with.
TJ: Were you ever turned off by his mannerisms on the podium?
LV: To some extent, yes, but he was a larger-than-life character. His excesses were part of the overall package. He also had incredible energy and he had great insight into the music we performed. We couldn’t help but get caught up in his spirited approach to the music.
TJ: Was Bernstein difficult to work for?
LV: No, but he was very demanding. He knew what he wanted and he wouldn’t stop until he got it. I remember once, while working on Mahler 5, that he spent three of the four full rehearsals on the first movement alone! There was barely enough time for the rest!
TJ: Did you find it difficult to follow Bernstein’s beat?
LV: It was difficult to follow both Bernstein and Mitropoulos. Their hand motions were more descriptive of the shape of phrases than an indication of the pulse, especially Mitropoulos’. Their beats were more like Furtwangler’s.
TJ: Did the orchestra lag behind the conductor’s beat back then? If so, why?
LV: That was the established European style then. It still exists with many conductors and orchestras are used to it.
TJ: I hear you have an interesting story about the time you first played the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto [also known as the “Sinfonia Concertante”]?
LV: Mitropoulos came to me in 1956 and said that he had found out that Prokofiev wrote a cello concerto shortly before he died. He wanted me to perform it. The Leeds Corporation, publishers of Russian music, promised Mitropoulos the first New York performance of this new work. We waited for the music to arrive but it never came. Upon further questioning, Leeds said that it would come, but then they kept putting us off. Finally they admitted that they didn’t know which work we were talking about. Were we talking about the Concerto, the Concertino, or the Concertante? Nobody in New York knew what Prokofiev wrote during his last year. Though we eventually gave up all hope of getting the music, I still had a performance date set in March 1957, so I decided to play the earlier concerto, Opus 58, that Prokofiev had written during his Paris days in the 1930’s.
In November of 1956, the news came that Rostropovich, who was relatively unknown outside of Europe, was coming to America for the first time. He gave a fabulous recital in New York that stunned us all with his amazing talent. Of course he was instantly offered a date with the New York Philharmonic, which was to be one week after my performance date. And what does he want to play? The new Prokofiev concerto! He had collaborated with Prokofiev on it because Prokofiev needed some help with writing certain passages for the cello. It turns out that Rostropovich not only made suggestions, but he may have written some of the passages himself.
We didn’t see the score until three or four weeks before the concert. When Mitropoulos looked at it for the first time, he came to me and said, “Look, my dear, this is the same work, same themes and the same material.” That’s when we found out that Prokofiev was dissatisfied with the early concerto that I was scheduled to play and he had decided to rewrite it. In the process of rewriting, he made some major changes, but the main thematic material remained very similar. He called it a “Symphony Concerto,” with a different number, Opus 125 instead of Opus 58. That’s how we ended up playing the same work in two different versions in successive weeks.
The critics had a heyday with the event. They compared the two works, stating that the second version was better, which is true. They also compared the two cellists, and I think I fared pretty well.
Right after Rostropovich’s concert, I asked him if he would send me a copy of the music as I intended to play it at the Chautauqua Festival. He sent me the full score. I wanted to practice it with a pianist, but there was no piano reduction at that time, so I spent two weeks creating my own piano reduction. When I returned to New York in late August, I happened to call Isaac Stern. He said, “Oh, Laszlo, I’m so glad you called because I have a present for you. I was in Russia back in May but I haven’t gotten around to calling you about your gift. Rostropovich sent me a copy of the newly published piano reduction of the Prokofiev and he wanted me to give it to you.” Stern had it in his possession while I was toiling away on my own version! At least I got to know the piece much better through my efforts. Interestingly, my version was almost note-for-note the same as Rostropovich’s. We both play piano, so we knew how to put it together in a piano-friendly way.
TJ: Some amazing soloists must have played with the New York Philharmonic during your time with the orchestra.
LV: Piatigorsky, Francescatti, Heifetz, Menuhin, Szeryng, Milstein, Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Horowitz, Richter, Oistrakh, Myra Hess, and Glenn Gould were some of the incredible musicians that soloed with the orchestra.
TJ: How did Heifetz behave during rehearsals?
LV: He was all business. I remember him playing just six feet in front of me when we were rehearsing the Sibelius Concerto. In the opening of the piece, the strings play a shimmering, barely audible accompaniment, so I expected a similar musical feeling from him. Instead I was shocked by how scratchy he sounded. He used incredibly energetic bow strokes that were anything but beautiful up close, but he had a beautifully centered tone once you were some distance from him. His performance technique could be compared to the use of stage paint that actors use, which has to be exaggerated in order for the desired effect to be visible at a distance. I imagine Heifetz used extra bow pressure so that his concentrated tone would carry to the last row in the balcony.
TJ: I would guess that Piatigorsky was pretty jovial in rehearsals.
LV: Oh yes, he was always joking around. He constantly behaved like Don Quixote, but he played with imagination, emotion, and a gorgeous, big tone.
TJ: Playing with Glenn Gould must have been an interesting experience.
LV. I well remember him playing the Brahms d minor Concerto with Bernstein conducting. Gould chose an eccentric, very slow tempo for most of the work that differed with Bernstein’s feelings. Before each of the four concerts, Bernstein gave a speech explaining that he and Gould had different ideas, but, respecting Gould’s artistry, he agreed to follow him. Gould did play very deliberately, and some of us thought he did this because he couldn’t play it faster. But at the last performance, he surprised us all by starting the last movement twice as fast, with a twinkle in his eye. He played it perfectly, spectacularly. For him it was just a game.
TJ: You started playing cello quartets while in the New York Philharmonic.
LV: I started the first professional cello quartet in America with my colleagues in the New York Philharmonic. We played many concerts and we made recordings for Decca Records, mostly using my arrangements. I became interested in writing for the cello because the cello has the range of the human voice, from the lowest bass to the highest soprano. With this kind of range, cellists are perfectly capable of playing a string quartet or larger ensembles by themselves.
TJ: You’ve even arranged the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Bach solo violin partitas for cello.
LV: I’ve been trying to expand the cellists’ repertoire, so I look for any work that I think might work on the cello. While the cello literature is fairly extensive, there aren’t too many great works, especially when compared to the literature for the violin and piano. I now have over 40 published works for solo cello and cello ensembles, which are available through MusiCelli Publications.
I arranged the Bach Partitas for solo cello and I’ve also recorded them. I think they’re very suitable for the cello, but they require a different way of playing four-note chords on three strings. All four notes can’t be played at once, so one must account for a time lapse between certain notes in each chord.
My arrangement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto is intended for the violoncello piccolo, which has five strings — an e string above the a string. I started using the violoncello piccolo because I never liked playing the Bach Sixth Suite on a regular cello. It was written by Bach for a five-string cello. Certain chords can’t be played without changing or eliminating some notes. These altered chords have the same effect on me as when I look at a smiling beautiful woman with missing front teeth.
In 1965, I bought a three-quarter size Castagnieri, a very lovely cello from Jacques Françaix. I had a luthier retrofit it with a wider fingerboard and a fifth string. I now use it, and another modern piccolo, when playing the Bach Sixth Suite, the Bach Gamba Sonatas, the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, and the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Romances, which all lay quite nicely on a five-string cello. In fact, I just performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto last week!
TJ: You don’t feel sort of sheepish about “desecrating” transcendent works such as the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the Bach Chaconne?
LV: Not at all! If somebody doesn’t want to listen to these works on the cello, that’s fine with me. I’ve been told that the cello brings out aspects of the Beethoven Concerto that aren’t heard from violinists, which makes it an interesting project in itself. Once you get over the initial shock of hearing it an octave lower, the piece sounds as natural as the original.
TJ: Why did you leave the New York Philharmonic?
LV: After eleven years of intense orchestral playing, I began to miss solo playing, chamber music, and teaching. The full Philharmonic schedule did not allow for any of those endeavors. I asked to be released from my contract in the Fall of 1962 and accepted an invitation to play with the Canadian String Quartet and teach at the University of Toronto Conservatory of Music. After one year, I was invited to San Francisco State University as professor of cello and chamber music, and the director of their excellent symphony orchestra.
TJ: Gunther Schuller dedicated his Fantasy, Opus 19, to you, which is a piece for unaccompanied cello. What’s the story behind this?
LV: I was principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, while Janos Starker was the principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera. Gunther Schuller, who was the principal horn player in the Metropolitan Opera at that time, had written the piece for Starker. Starker had the music for awhile, but never got around to working on it. Later, a date was set for a radio broadcast for its world premiere. Only a week before the broadcast, Starker decided to bow out, so Gunther Schuller came to me hoping that I would agree to play it the following week. I said, “Are you crazy? This is an extremely difficult work. I can’t possibly put it together in one week.” But he was very persuasive and I’ve always liked a challenge, so I agreed to do it. But, rather than perform it live, I asked that we pre-record it the day before so that certain sections could be spliced in the event that there was a mishap. The performance went very well and Gunther Schuller decided to dedicate the piece to me. I’ve played it many times since. He also wrote a very interesting cello quartet for me.
I’ve done other last-minute bail-outs. Soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1962, I got an interesting phone call from George Barati, conductor of the Honolulu Symphony. He was one of my earliest cello teachers in Budapest. After a hiatus of 20-some years, he called on New Year’s Eve and asked me to give the world premiere of his complex cello concerto on January 4th, four days later, as the original cellist broke his arm in Paris and could not play. He heard that “I was the fastest cello in the West” and, if anyone, I could learn it in four days. He wired the full score over (the only cello part being in Paris with the cellist). I looked at it all afternoon and accepted. The next morning I was on the plane, copying the cello part from the score. Two hours after arriving we started rehearsing with his orchestra. The two performances were a great success and, subsequently, I enjoyed playing his concerto many more times.
Another noteworthy event occurred later. I was director of the Morrison Chamber Music Series at San Francisco State University. I engaged the famous Borodin Quartet for the next event. Again, just four days before their appearance, their manager called with the news that their cellist had broken three fingers and couldn’t play. I asked her for a substitute quartet for that date. Instead, she asked me to join the Quartet and play with them THAT VERY EVENING in Los Angeles! I flew down, met the quartet at 7pm, having never met or played with them before. At first, we wanted to cancel that evening’s concert and rehearse instead. After a half hour of playing, we decided to play anyway, as it went swimmingly. The concert turned out to be a big public success with great reviews. Thus, four days later, I ended up playing with them on my own series and on a subsequent three week tour of the Northwest (USA). Rostislav Dubinsky, the original first violinist of the Quartet eventually quit the quartet and formed, with his wife as pianist, the Borodin Trio. Later, he invited me to be their last permanent cellist. I performed with them for seven years, until his untimely death in 1998.
TJ: I’ve heard that you don’t shy away from using your fourth finger in upper positions.
LV: Rather than shifting in the 5th, 6th, and 7th positions I’ll use my fourth finger when I can. This allows me to play certain passages with less difficulty since it eliminates some shifts. My fingers have to be more curved, however, so that the fourth finger can be used. I’ve made arrangements of pieces by Ravel, Kodaly, Stravinsky, Mozart, and Schubert that would be practically impossible to play without the use of the fourth finger.
I often used to say to my students, “God gave you a fourth finger, so use it!” One day, Barbara Hedlund, one of my students, presented me a button that said just that, which I sometimes wear in lessons to this day. Why let the fourth finger just dangle when it can be put to use?
TJ: Do you have any rules of thumb for shifting?
LV: When I’m trying to hide a shift, I shift on strong beats, on bow changes, and between half-steps. Of course the music ultimately determines what type of shift is needed, like when an audible slide is desired. But when I want a continuity of line or I want to hide a shift for some other musical reason, these rules serve me well.
TJ: What bowing principles do you emphasize in your teaching?
LV: I believe that there should be a continuous slope between the upper arm and the bow hand. The lower arm shouldn’t be horizontal, where the elbow seems to be sagging. The surface of the arm and the hand should be in one plane whenever possible.
During bow changes, the wrist should spring in the opposite direction of the bow’s travel, but not more than two inches prior to the change in direction. This technique should be used when one is striving for a continuous sound during the bow change. Of course, there are many times when one doesn’t want to hide the bow change, so this may be a special case.
TJ: This doesn’t sound like the paintbrush technique, in which the fingers are more involved in the bow change.
LV: That’s correct. The fingers may collaborate, but the wrist is what initiates the movement.
TJ: I’ve heard that you play the viola as well.
LV: Well, sort of. Once, when I was teaching at a summer chamber music festival at the University of Houston, one of the six student groups almost had to cancel their performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. They didn’t appear on stage when they were supposed to, so I went backstage to find out what was going on. I discovered that the violist had a sudden attack of carpal tunnel syndrome or some other strain in her wrist and she couldn’t play. To remedy the situation they sent for the viola teacher, who offered to sit in her place. When the teacher arrived, she looked at the music, and said, “I’ve never played this before. I don’t feel comfortable sight-reading this for a concert.” I then asked her, “Are you willing to lend me your viola?” Though bewildered by my offer, she handed it over and I walked out on stage and played the viola in my lap as if it were a little cello. I had no trouble at all because violists often missed classes when I was teaching and I often stood in for them. I’ve done the same with the second violin part too, but I’ve never tried first violin. It was such a strange sight that the cellist in the group had a hard time keeping his eyes on his own music. But I saved the group’s performance.
TJ: You seem to revel in being a bit of a rebel.
LV: I’ve always liked a challenge. If somebody tells me that something can’t or shouldn’t be done, that’s a surefire way to get me to try to do it anyway. Why else would I arrange the Beethoven Violin Concerto for the cello? Perhaps that’s why I love music so much. It provides a lifetime of challenges.