Paul Katz is known to concertgoers the world over as cellist of the Cleveland Quartet, which during an international career of 26 years, made more than 2,500 appearances on four continents. As a member of the celebrated ensemble from 1969-1995, Katz performed at the White House and on many television shows, including “CBS Sunday Morning,” NBC’s “Today Show,” “The Grammy Awards” (the first classical musicians to appear on that show,) and in “In The Mainstream: The Cleveland Quartet,” a one hour documentary televised across the U.S. and Canada. In collaboration with the country’s largest PBS station, WGBH Boston, and the New England Conservatory of Music, Katz has recently embarked on an extensive DVD/Website project on cello pedagogy, an endeavor that will occupy much of his next two years.
Katz has received many honors, the most recent including the “Chevalier du Violoncelle,” awarded by the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Center at Indiana University for distinguished achievements and contributions to the world of cello playing and teaching; The Richard M. Bogomolny National Service Award, Chamber Music America’s highest honor, awarded for a lifetime of distinguished service in the field of chamber music; an Honorary Doctorate of Musical Arts from Albright College; and the American String Teacher’s Association “Artist-Teacher of the Year 2003.” Katz is a passionate spokesperson for chamber music the world over and served for six years as President of Chamber Music America. As an author, he has appeared in numerous publications and wrote the liner notes for the Cleveland Quartet’s three-volume set of the complete Beethoven Quartets on RCA Red Seal.
Katz has appeared as soloist in New York, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities throughout North America. He was a student of Gregor Piatigorsky, Janos Starker, Bernard Greenhouse, Gabor Rejto and Leonard Rose. In 1962 he was selected nationally to play in the historic Pablo Casals Master Class in Berkeley, California. He was a prizewinner in the Munich and Geneva Competitions, and for three summers he was a participant at the Marlboro Music Festival. Of his many recordings, those of particular interest to cellists include Dohnanyi’s Cello Sonata for ProArte Records, and the Cleveland Quartet’s recording on Sony Classical of the Schubert two-cello quintet with Yo-Yo Ma. The Cleveland Quartet has nearly seventy recordings to its credit on RCA Victor, Telarc International, Sony, Philips and ProArte. These recording have earned many distinctions including the all-time best selling chamber music release of Japan, 11 Grammy nominations, Grammy Awards for Best Chamber Music Recording and Best Recorded Contemporary Composition in 1996, and “Best of the Year” awards from Time Magazine and Stereo Review.
In September of 2001, Mr. Katz joined the faculty of The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, following five years at Rice University in Houston, and twenty years of teaching at the Eastman School of Music. He has mentored many of the fine young string quartets on the world’s stages today including the Biava, Cavani, Chester, Jupiter, Kuss, Lafayette, Maia, Meliora, Parker, T’ang and Ying Quartets. One of America’s most sought after cello teachers, his cello students, in addition to membership in many of the above quartets, have achieved international careers with solo CDs on Decca, EMI, Channel Classics and Sony Classical, have occupied positions in many of the world’s major orchestras including principal chairs in Oslo, Norway, Osaka, Japan, and the St Louis Symphony, and are members of many American symphony orchestras such as Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, National Symphony, Pittsburgh, Rochester and St. Louis. Katz has taught at many of the major summer music programs including twenty years at the Aspen Festival, the Yale Summer School of Chamber Music, the Perlman Music Program, the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany, ProQuartet in France, Domaine Forget, Orford, and the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada, the Steans Institute of The Ravinia Festival, and is a Director of the Shouse Artist Institute of the Great Lakes Chamber Festival. His hundreds of master classes worldwide include many of the major music schools of North and South America, Europe, Israel, Japan and China. Mr. Katz frequently sits on the juries of international cello and chamber music competitions, most recently the Leonard Rose International Cello Competition and the international string quartet competitions of Banff, London, Munich, Graz and Geneva.
Mr. Katz plays an Andrea Guarneri cello dated 1669.
TJ: Who was your first cello teacher?
PK: My first music lessons were on the piano, which I began at age 5. By accident, my parents found a wonderful woman who had me transpose every little piece I learned into different keys. I learned to think harmonically and learned key signatures, intervals, and chords as a mother tongue. I switched to cello at age 8 and began with Louis Miller, a local cello teacher in Long Beach, CA. He was a student of Joseph Schuster and earned his living as a CPA. Perhaps it was his profession that made him naturally fussy, but from the beginning I learned that little things mattered. I worked with him a good number of years. My first chamber music experience wasn’t until age 13 in a summer music camp in Idyllwild, CA, where I was placed in a quartet that played Beethoven Op. 18, #1. I remember how overwhelmed I was at first trying to listen to so many notes around me played not by me! In the end though, it was an inspiring experience, thanks to my coach, Eleonore Schoenfeld.
I also briefly studied with Victor Sazer, author of the recent New Directions in Cello Playing. Sazer lived down the street from my home when I was in high school. He and his wife were friends of my parents, and I first met him when I did some babysitting for them.
Was Sazer experimenting with notions of “following the body’s natural impulses” at that time?
Not that I specifically remember, though he was an original thinker and was not shy about challenging traditional approaches that to him just didn’t make sense. He was an extremely good teacher and a kind, warm human being. Sazer had studied with Leonard Rose and he had some great bow arm and shifting suggestions. He gave me a lot of Popper etudes and got me moving around the instrument. He also had me consider long versus short endpins. Sazer was an entirely different class of teacher from what I had been exposed up to that point. He gave me some eye-opening lessons.
Then you went to Gabor Rejto at USC.
I started there as a freshman cello major at age 16 and stayed with him for the next three years.
Would you say that Rejto was technically oriented in his teaching?
I recall wishing he taught more technique than he did. He was extremely inspiring when it came to music, however. Music always came first for him and he instilled those values in me.
Did he advocate something similar to William Pleeth, who, according to his former students, believed that the necessary technique would somehow emerge from a clear musical concept?
I don’t know if that statement is fair to Pleeth, but no, Rejto was more detailed than that. He gave me scales, arpeggios, octaves, and a Popper or Piatti etude every week and he talked about bowing and shifting principles and so on. He definitely taught technique but I think I needed a different type of help at that time. He taught a “squared off” left hand position which some great cellists use but wasn’t right for me. A few years later Greenhouse changed me to a slant position which I have used ever since. In the bow arm, Rejto’s high wrist, still fingers approach also felt unnatural to me and I was never able to get comfortable in my right arm. It’s not that he didn’t teach technique, it’s just that it didn’t follow my own particular physical instincts. But he was a devoted teacher and a poetic player and I feel fortunate to have had his artistic inspiration and guidance.
How did you end up studying with Piatigorsky?
Rejto took a sabbatical in my senior year, which was just as Piatigorsky, Primrose, and Heifetz joined the USC faculty. I auditioned for Piatigorky and became one of the students in his very first class at USC.
I studied twice with Piatigorsky, actually. I studied with him in my senior year when Rejto went on sabbatical. Though I loved Piatigorsky and the classes, I had never yet been away from home and I dreamt of going to New York. So I left for two years to study with Greenhouse and got a Masters degree, and then returned to Piatigorsky for a second time.
Weren’t you in the class with Nathaniel Rosen? I thought he came later.
I believe Nick joined the class in the middle of the first year. If I remember our ages correctly, he was only 13 at the time, while I was 19. He was in junior high school and he impressed us all with his instrumental gift and seriousness. Piatigorsky used to call him the ‘Little Professor.’
May I assume Laurence Lesser and Stephen Kates were in your class with Piatigorsky?
Lesser wasn’t there at the beginning, though Stephen Kates was. Steve had a great sense of humor, was wonderfully uninhibited, and was a Piatigorsky favorite — his early passing was tragic. Larry Lesser was away from Los Angeles as a math major at Harvard at that point. He came back to study with Piatigorsky a couple of years later, just a few months before I left. I remember an astounding performance of the Schoenberg-Monn Concerto that he played at that time. It’s fortunate that we overlapped briefly. In later years, we both established reputations as teachers, and each invited the other to teach the studio class in our sabbatical year. We are now friends and colleagues at the New England Conservatory of Music where we have a formidable cello program together.
Were Piatigorsky’s students fairly competitive with each other?
I don’t recall it being particularly competitive. We were all good cellists, and Piatigorsky, consciously or not, seemed to appreciate each of us for our own uniqueness. The atmosphere was supportive and Piatigorsky was a father figure to us all.
Having said this, I must admit that those years were extraordinarily stressful for me because I found it difficult to please Piatigorsky. All lessons were in a master class format as he made a point of almost never teaching privately, which meant that all criticism, even that which most teachers would save for private moments, was done publicly. The classes were held every Monday and Thursday from ten in the morning to three in the afternoon, which could be a long five hours.
Piatigorsky was a larger-than-life personality and he had an enormous sense of humor, but the way I remember it was that his students were often the butt of his jokes. It was all in good fun and most of the stories and the jokes that he told had a pedagogical purpose, but he was tough, and he liked being the center of attention. Making fun of the person in the hot seat was part of the arrangement. Actually, I doubt that everyone in the class would characterize it in this same way — probably at 19, I was just a little too fragile. Some of us seemed traumatized, but others, particularly Steve and Larry, at least on the outside, appeared unbothered.
What was Piatigorsky trying to teach that you found so difficult?
He wanted to help everybody find their own personality and to be strong communicators. I thought of myself as being musically communicative at the time, but I was still shy as a person and he was such an immense extrovert that he could intimidate me. It wasn’t easy, but in the end he was very helpful in getting me to throw off my inhibitions and to absolutely go for the jugular when I performed.
Piatigorsky was interested in everything that had to do with performance, including things that we might laugh at now. I remember when I first joined Piatigorsky’s class. I was excited that I was going to be studying with the ‘Great Grisha,’ so like a good Californian, I went out and bought a new orange short-sleeved shirt. The shirt was made from a material called Ban-Lon, which is like a golf shirt. When I entered the room for our very first class, he immediately threw me out, telling me to come back in a suit and tie. He didn’t act angry or offended, he just ridiculed me for not knowing how to present myself. This was the first of many times when being the butt of his humor wasn’t fun. I was humiliated, actually.
I returned three days later and he threw me out again, this time because my suit was not properly tailored! The sleeves were a bit long for high fashion and hung slightly over my hands. He gave me a lesson in how the shirt cuffs needed to be 2″ longer than the jacket sleeves, so that the cuff (and the cuff links) were visible when in playing position. Then he told me to go have my suit properly tailored. That is actually the very first thing Piatigorsky taught me! But this was an important pedagogical lesson as far as he was concerned, because how we walk and how we bow, how we sit at the instrument, how we dress, and how we carry ourselves on stage was an important part of what he taught us. And while some of this seems outdated and extreme, I think that the visual side of performing does count, and what he taught me in principle helped me in my performing career.
Today, I actually ask my NEC students to wear concert dress for masterclasses (whatever they want-whatever they call concert dress) as everyone needs experience in the clothes one performs in. Jackets, ties, high heels, hair-dos, etc., all have the potential to cause problems if not tested. Also, putting on concert clothes psychologically heightens the sense that what is about to take place is importantvery casual dress can be a psychological copout, a way of coping by minimizing the occasion.
I can imagine Piatigorsky’s public criticism being a tortuous experience for a student, especially if he or she were a bit shy.
People who know me today find it hard to believe that I was extraordinarily shy back then. Those classes could be very trying and some suffered more than others. Some of the more extroverted students seemed to thrive in that environment, but I certainly struggled. It was hard to be the butt of his jokes, though it was all done in a warm, friendly manner. I think we all enjoyed it when somebody else was up there.
Do you recall any sort of general musical principles that he was trying to convey or was it more about “communication” than anything else?
He would try to stimulate our imagination in every way possible and was more interested in hearing a statement of conviction than whether what was being done was interpretively good or bad. It could feel quite liberating. Imagination also meant writing our own cadenzas and even improvising in class. Being on the shy side, I found it extremely difficult to improvise in front of anyone, not to mention Piatigorsky and all my exceptionally talented colleagues.
He also focused on expanding our dynamic range. He talked about playing softer and softer and softer, or louder and louder and louder, which he said was the equivalent of “a painter with more colors on his palette.” He was brilliant when it came to playing and teaching bow distribution and painting colors with bow speed.
By bow distribution, do you mean, for example, that he had you mathematically divide the bow such that an eighth note took twice as much bow as a sixteenth note?
Oh no, he was too instinctive for that sort of thing. He gave us lots of exercises, like 3+1 bowings, where we might play a rapid three-octave scale at the frog, three notes slurred, one note separate, and then repeat it, three notes slurred, one note separate, but over the course of the scale, gradually and evenly move the bow out to the tip. Then we’d do the same thing while staying at the tip, and repeat 3+1 one more time while moving back to the frog. We would then repeat the whole three octaves x3 again with the same patterns, but starting upbow.
You also had contact with Primrose and Heifetz. I assume Primrose was a perfect gentleman.
Perfect. And he drove a Bentley that had a full wood-grain dashboard. When I returned to study a second time with Piatigorsky, I brought an incredible violist and my wife to be, Martha Strongin, from New York to California with me. I arranged that we would play together in USC’s graduate quartet, The Trojan Quartet, and she studied viola with Primrose. As a result, the quartet was able to play for him from time to time. He was colorful, animated, enormously experienced in chamber music, and a helpful and supportive coach.
Did you find Heifetz to be intimidating?
Very much so. He was like a stone during chamber music sessions, very much in his own world. What came out of his instrument was remarkable, but as a chamber musician he showed little outward interest in musical interaction. Everybody was expected to follow him.
Heifetz could be abrupt and insensitive with anybody, including Primrose and even Piatigorsky, who acted uncharacteristically meek and unassertive with Heifetz. To me, these moments seemed embarrassing for Piatigorsky and he would sometimes later apologize for Heifetz’s behavior. I remember him saying something like, “There are very few authentic geniuses in this world and Jascha is one of them. So we have to forgive him when he behaves in a bad way.”
You played for Casals in master classes in Berkeley.
Yes, but these weren’t the classes that are now commercially available on DVD. I participated in classes that were held two years later. I was studying with Piatigorsky at that time. I sent in a tape and was accepted, but I was afraid to tell Piatigorsky about it because I had noticed that Piatigorsky was a bit jealous of Casals’ even greater stature. In essence I called in sick and snuck up to Berkeley to play in the Casals master classes.
Piatigorsky’s feelings about Casals taught me an important lesson about a potentially destructive side of competitiveness. Piatigorsky was a musical giant, adored and admired by the whole world, with a career that none of us could even imagine approximating. Despite this, Piatigorsky’s envy of the great master was clearly evident and I thought a cause of some unhappiness.
I think Casals’ star shone even brighter mainly because his political outspokenness and human rights activities had gained the attention and admiration of much of the world outside of music. The Berkeley master classes and his performance at the White House for JFK, whom he personally admired, marked a softening of a position he had held since the 1930’s, when he vowed never to perform in any country that recognized the Spanish dictator, Franco. Also, being in his 80’s, he was venerated on the basis of age alone. I learned from watching Piatigorsky suffer that it is foolish and counter-productive to worry about someone else’s success. If a Piatigorsky is bothered by a Casals, I told myself, what chance do the rest of us have of happiness if we are possessed by such thoughts? I am fortunate that by nature I have never been competitive in that sense. I have always driven myself hard to satisfy myself that I have done my best and achieved all that I can, and I admire rather than resent others that do the same.
What did you play for Casals?
I played for him twice in those classes and again in 1968 and 1969 at the Marlboro Festival where he gave classes in the dining room. In Berkeley, I played the Beethoven g minor Sonata and the Bach E flat Suite.
After I played the Bach I got a flat tire and while I was changing the car tire, the jack slipped and the car fell on my left hand. Six fraternity guys came out and lifted the car off my hand and I was taken to the emergency room. The doctor, who needed to work on his bedside manner, cried, “Oh my God, it looks like every bone in your hand is gone!” My hand had been totally flattened to literally the height of a pancake. I said, “Please don’t say that. I’m a cellist.” The doctor told me that I would probably never play again. I am fortunate to have an extremely soft hand, and incredibly, I didn’t break anything. Some ligaments and tendons were torn and my hand had to be bandaged for a few months, but I fully recovered. Of course, my time with Casals in those masterclasses came to an abrupt halt that day.
Were you aware of just how important Casals was when you played for him?
Absolutely. I had grown up on his recordings from the Prades Festival and, as I said, in addition to being a giant in the music world, Casals was a political hero in my family because of his anti-Franco stance. He was admired by many for his human rights activities, even by people who didn’t know much about music. Of course, my parents admired him both as a musician and a human being.
It must have been nerve racking to play for him.
Generally speaking, I was quite nervous in those early years. Of course, anyone would feel pressure playing for a living legend in front of hundreds of people, including other cellists, with TV cameras rolling. My second performance, the E-flat Suite, went quite well as I remember and he was complimentary. For reasons I have forgotten, my rehearsal with the pianist for the Beethoven was cancelled and I was forced to read the g minor Sonata, with its long and difficult-to-pace Adagio, totally unrehearsed with the pianist. On stage in a completely full Hertz Hall, this was not a recipe for inner calm.
What are some things Casals said to you or others that were particularly memorable?
He talked a lot about expressive intonation: raising leading tones, widening augmented seconds, lowering minor thirds, and so on. An important life lesson I took from this was that intonation is somewhat subjective. I had just studied the E-flat Suite with Piatigorsky and he had me raise certain notes while Casals had me lower them. Casals wanted all the flats very, very low; some I couldn’t play low enough for him. I realized at that point that intonation is an art, not a science, since two great artists can hear the same piece very differently.
I remember Casals demonstrating the C Major Prelude. He talked about the b natural in the first measure being lower because the scale was going down. Later, the same b natural would be higher when the scale went up because it was acting as a leading tone. It was interesting the way he heard intonation.
I also remember listening to Casals demonstrate the penultimate note of the Brahms F Major Sonata‘s slow movement, that long E# that hangs in suspended tension before finally resolving to the final F# Major chord. Casals got very upset with whoever was playing and said, “No, no, no, you’re flat! The E# is a leading tone and you’re playing it in tune with the piano. The piano is an out-of-tune instrument, so you shouldn’t play in tune with it.” He then demonstrated it so sharp that everybody cringed. His whole point was that you want everybody to cringe so that when you finally play the F# there’s this tremendous sense of relief and resolution.
What do you think about expressive intonation now?
Solo intonation and quartet intonation are two very different creatures. This is easy to demonstrate with a group, but difficult to explain clearly with words alone. Expressive intonation is conceived as one note following another. It’s horizontally or melodically conceived and I believe beautifying and emotionally more satisfying in the right context. But this kind of intonation can create problems in string quartets in which different notes are played simultaneously, i.e. vertically aligned intonation. A raised F# in the key of G Major sounds great in a melodic line, but if the F# is the third of a D Major chord, a raised F# will sound out of tune in a slow tempo in a string quartet. I guess my answer to your question is, yes, I believe in it, I use it myself and I teach it and, no, I don’t believe in it for everything. Double stopping for example demands lower thirds than scales, and the vertical alignment of intonation in chamber music often means you cannot use close half-steps and wide major thirds. One’s intonation must vary according to the musical context.
Was it generally accepted that you were always right when it came to intonation because you were the cellist in the quartet?
If only that were true, but of course not! The cellist must also adjust up to an open string or pedal being played in another instrument, and of course, I was immensely capable of just misplacing a note! A good rule of thumb in quartet playing, however, is that everybody should listen down to the lowest note, which is usually played by the cellist. There are times of course when it is the viola or a violin on the bottom, so one needs to be aware of those moments.
Being aware of the lowest sounding note is important for a number of reasons. It prevents intonation chaos because everybody is using the same note as a reference. In the heat of battle, you don’t have to ask yourself to whom should you listen, you just automatically listen down. In inexperienced groups, everyone might be listening to a different place: the first violin, for example, might be tuning to the second violin, the second violin to the viola, and the viola to the cello, which wreaks havoc. Another common mistake is that groups try to tune to the person who has the melody. A lower voice can place a note to accommodate the melody, but as a general rule, it is the melody that should tune to the harmony.
Listening to whoever has the lowest note also works best because the human ear usually can match down easier than up. For example, it’s more difficult for a cellist to tune to a violin than for a violinist to tune to a cello. Of course, it’s always a two-way street in quartet playing. The cellist can’t just plant his fingers and say, “Here I am; find me.” Part of the cellist’s job is to ask the person with the melody, for example, “Does your passage feel more comfortable if I play this B flat a shade higher?” It’s important for the cellist to establish intonation in a way that makes it possible for others to play in tune.
Would you say that expressive intonation has a place if you have the melody in quartet?
The Cleveland Quartet used a lot of expressive intonation. In the beginning of the Opus 95 of Beethoven in f minor, where it’s in octaves, there’s nothing being harmonized and the melody is f minor scale-like, so it sounds much better if the a flat is low, the e natural‘s are high, d flats low, etc. In fact, in general, we used expressive intonation in fast playing, since the ear perceives the music more horizontally if the notes go by quickly. The listener’s ear doesn’t have time to hear the subtleties of a chord in fast playing, whereas in slow playing the chord is the principle thing one hears. That is why in a quartet, expressive intonation (melodically conceived intonation) becomes more problematic in slow playing.
In order for all chords in all keys to sound in tune, every note has to be movable. No fixed note will fit every musical situation. Equal tempered tuning for the keyboard evolved as the most successful method for fixing a pitch that works, not perfectly, but acceptably in all situations. This is the reason that quartet players often say that open strings can cause the most difficult intonation problems — five out of our twelve pitches, the four open strings of the violin plus the open c of the viola and cello, are immovable! So we tune the fifths the way a piano tuner tunes, tightening them a bit, and that makes it easier to tune everything around the open strings — this is the basis of equal temperament.
One of my personal “definitions” of a string quartet is “four string players who spend half of their time tuning, and the other half of their time playing out of tune!” The string quartet is the most transparent, difficult and demanding combination of instruments.
How should one play with piano? Should the cello try to match the piano as much as possible? Or is it okay to resist equal tempered tuning, like Casals did in the master class you mentioned?
Intonation is never easy, but for players who spend the majority of their time in a string quartet, the pressure lessens when playing with piano. The difference in the timbre of the two instruments gives the player a little more room for subjective, personal decisions, as does the fact that the piano itself is an out of tune compromise. There is definitely more room for “expressive,” melodically oriented intonation. I try to be diligent about playing octaves, fifths, and unison notes dead in tune with whatever the piano hands me, and then fit in other notes as pleases my ear.
You also studied with Bernard Greenhouse. I would imagine you found Greenhouse’s ideas familiar after watching Casals teach, since he studied with Casals.
Absolutely. Greenhouse talked about expressive intonation, phrasing, and rubato in much the same way as Casals.
In addition to musical inspiration and an appreciation of his amazing color palette, I also benefited from Greenhouse’s left hand organization, which he says he got from Feuermann. I recall that Casals played with a kind of squared off left hand while Greenhouse teaches a slant, just like Feuermann and Starker. Of course, there are great cellists who play with a squared hand too, so I don’t mean to imply that an angled hand is the only correct way. Both positions have advantages and disadvantages and I actually teach both, depending on what I think is best for a particular student. And no matter which approach one uses as their foundation, one needs to be ready to change for a particular passage or chord.
Do you know of players today that play with the kind of rubato and arched phrases that one hears in recordings of Casals and Greenhouse? If not, why don’t we play like these great artists?
It’s difficult to explain why a person plays a certain way. So much of it has to do with his or her own personality. Casals was such a charismatic influence that some of his students, some highly gifted ones, spent their life imitating him and never found their own voice. Bernie was able to take Casals’ interpretive approach and internalize it so that it became him — the total sincerity of expression that we feel from Greenhouse is because he has transcended imitation. Of course, both men are from past eras — musical tastes inevitably change and one can’t help but be affected by the preferences of the time in which one lives and the music we hear around us. Today’s musical values are more along the lines of continuity within a movement, holding a piece together, not playing the second theme much slower than the first theme, and so on. This was probably less of an issue with Casals and Greenhouse who were more “in the moment.”
I must say, however, that Casals had an extraordinarily strong rhythmic sense. His rubato was very much within a rhythmic structure. Casals used to talk about taking a rubato, for example going forward and then back over a four bar phrase, but making sure that he landed perfectly at the end of the phrase so that the duration of the phrase was the same as if there had been no rubato. I suspect that much of his enormous power as a performer came from his rock solid rhythmic grounding. This, along with his strength of conviction, gave his playing a certain inevitability.
What other things Greenhouse emphasize?
I’ve known him for several decades now and it’s difficult to remember which insights were shared when I studied with him versus which were gleaned during the many rehearsals and concerts he played with the Cleveland Quartet. He joined us in recordings of the Brahms Sextets with Pinchas Zukerman and we performed them in Carnegie Hall. He also performed the Schubert Quintet with us many, many times. We’ve also traded students over the years and returning students often shared with me what he taught them.
One thing he did emphasize with me when I was his student were the ways one can vary vibrato. He taught me to use vibrato that had different widths, different speeds, and different sources, i.e. arm vs. wrist vs. finger vibrato. He talked a lot about shaping phrases and how to create different densities of sound by varying the contact point, arm weight, and bow speed.
He helped my left hand facility too. He showed me how to convert a series of small shifts, such as what one encounters in a scale, into one motion. For example, let’s say you are using the fingering 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 for the third or fourth octave of a scale. Instead of thinking of three quick shifts, you turn them into one continuous motion so that they flow into one another. It all has to do with anticipating the required motion instead of doing a bunch of stops and starts. Greenhouse gave me a fluidity that I didn’t have before.
Perhaps most important of all was Greenhouse’s artistic impact on me. The warmth of his sound and the way he colored notes has influenced me over a lifetime. When I came to him I was very much concentrating on being a big player and I was obsessive about always sustaining, never dropping a long note, and hugging one contact point as close to the bridge as possible. Greenhouse was an inspirational example of how all those vibrato and bow speed variables could be put to use. Today, forty years later, I like to think of myself as a colorist and I am preoccupied by what I can paint inside a single sound. For a sound to stay alive, something interesting should happen within it. I now generally find straight sounds boring, no matter how beautiful.
Did you ever record the Schubert with Greenhouse?
No, we recorded it with Yo-Yo. Greenhouse recorded it with the Juilliard String Quartet.
Would you be willing to compare and contrast your experiences with these two cellists?
I wouldn’t want to that. We played the Schubert Quintet with most of the great artists of the time: Ma, Rose, Greenhouse, Rostropovich, Harrell, Nelsova, and Starker, to name a few. Why compare da Vinci to Michelangelo? Each was unique and compelling in their own way.
After studying with Piatigorsky the second time, you studied with Rose during a summer at Meadowmount.
Yes. Rose spent most of the summer trying to better organize my playing. He had me work on lots of bow grip exercises and helped me smooth out my bow changes. In the left hand, he gave me a daily regime of thirds, sixths, and octaves to practice.
Rose was exactly what my right hand had always yearned for. I had always had a natural finger motion in my bow changes that was so flexible it could be excessive and floppy and my teachers prior to Rose told me to stop using my fingers so much. I tried to stop it but I couldn’t; actually I think I was subconsciously resistant because I loved the feeling so much and that feeling helped me find the kind of sound I wanted. Rose harnessed and organized my natural tendencies by giving me all sorts of collé and Galamian exercises so that my finger motions became disciplined and proportional to the task and the dynamic. I now think of Rose as the person who gave me my bow arm.
How was Rose to work with?
He was always kind and calm, though I think of him as being tired. He was fully present in my lessons, but he was usually kvetching about something. He might have returned from a tour and feared that he wouldn’t be asked back, or he didn’t like the way he played Rococo the night before. There was always something that distressed him and, though basically a private person, he was open about these kind of issues.
You also studied with Janos Starker.
I like to say it took a lot of great people to teach me how to play the cello! In this case, I sort of fell into it . During my first year of study with Greenhouse, Greenhouse said that he was going to Indiana University for the summer to teach. He asked if I’d like to come along and be his teaching assistant, in addition to taking lessons. I jumped at the opportunity, of course. It turned out that Starker was going to teach too and that they were planning on joint master classes as well as exchanging two of their students. As a result, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, who was studying with Starker at the time, had a lesson every week with Greenhouse, and Bernie selected me from his class to study with Starker. Contrary to his popular image, Starker was warm and supportive and extremely helpful and I ended up going back to him for a second summer after I received my Master’s Degree with Greenhouse.
After I got my first job at age 22 at the University of Toledo, which is not far from Bloomington, I would drive down to play for him prior to my faculty recitals. My association with him therefore stretched out over a number of years as I continued to play for him from time to time. Our professional paths crossed on other occasions, including an exclusive two week Musical Cruise at Sea in the Caribbean, where we both were engaged as artists. We became even closer when Bill Preucil, Starker’s son-in-law, joined the Cleveland Quartet. From that point on, Starker was a frequent guest artist of the Quartet and I feel fortunate to have had many hours of food, drink and conversation with him. At the Cello Congress at Townsend University a few years back, I had a memorable evening into the wee hours of the morning with just Janos and Yo-Yo. I felt a little unworthy of the company, but will always remember their friendliness to each other and obvious respect for one another.
You must have already been quite an accomplished cellist at the time you studied with Starker. Did Starker still focus on technical issues with you, or did he say more about the music?
He always says his job is to give people the technical tools to play music the way they want. He’s much more interested in helping students achieve technical freedom than he is in teaching his own interpretation.
It would be interesting to learn more about his specific musical ideas about certain pieces.
He talks about music quite a bit, though he doesn’t usually discuss tempo and phrasing issues as specifically as some other teachers. Certain aspects of musical taste, however, are priorities; there are heavy shifts and slides that he can’t stand as well as certain thick, gooey sounds and overly emotive or insincere playing. He jumps all over students for their wide vibratos, for example. He definitely influences his students from a musical standpoint since his general principles of taste are always clear and present.
I hear you have some connection with Margaret Rowell.
Margaret was a Berkeley neighbor of Donald Weilerstein, first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet, and I first met her when the Cleveland Quartet had Bay Area concerts and I visited Don’s parents. I was already teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music. My conversations with her over the years always went immediately to cello technique, and we found great commonality in that we both thought so much about “body awareness” and what healthy technique “feels” like, about keeping muscles soft and unflexed and so on.
Let’s shift gears and talk some more about quartet playing. How does a quartet arrive at some sort of common conception of a piece? Does it come after much discussion and analysis, or does it just come from playing together constantly.
All of that. There are several factors, actually. Playing together a lot certainly has something to do with it. When one spends that many hours per day and years together, there is a meshing of taste, an unspoken unification of musical values, an intuitive understanding of each other’s timings and shapings, and even a merging of how one produces sounds, makes a bow change, or varies vibrato, that is deeper than words or conscious decision making. In the case of the Cleveland Quartet, it also had to do with our willingness to accept each other’s suggestions. We all love teaching, and we were able to help each other, actually to teach each other, because there was enormous respect all the way around. Even though I might have felt differently about how a phrase should go, for example, I knew that the other person was a wonderful artist and it just made sense to be open to their point of view.
People often ask me about the difficulty of personnel changes, which over 26 years, we experienced just like most other groups. Playing with two different artistic temperaments is like having two friends with different personalities; you can feel close to both though they are very different people. One person might be an extrovert and the other might be an introvert. When conversing with each of them, different aspects of one’s own personality react, and one changes in a very natural way in terms of the way one speaks and interrelates. A similar thing happens in chamber music, which is really a musical conversation, where the interaction of the group affects its chemistry and ultimately how the music is felt and interpreted. One is reacting to a different personality who has a different sense of timing, sound, and so on. We always thought of quartet playing as interaction, cooperation, and teamwork between unique people.
Was vibrato discussed in the Cleveland Quartet?
We discussed vibrato all the time because if vibrato speeds and widths aren’t matched, intonation will suffer, not to mention that a unified musical message will not be conveyed. Generally speaking, soft sounds need a narrow vibrato and loud sounds need a wider vibrato. We also discussed whether a vibrato would be slower or faster, as it greatly affects the musical character. A slower vibrato projects a more tranquil or serene mood, while a fast vibrato is more dramatic and can heighten tension. We discussed these issues constantly so that by unifying a technical consideration, we put ourselves on the same page and we were able to project the same moods and characters with our instruments.
Did the Cleveland Quartet match bowings as much as possible? The Guarneri Quartet is less concerned about this.
We did, yes. The Guarneri Quartet doesn’t and it obviously works for them. They do what is most important; they match their strokes and note lengths with their ears, consciously and unconsciously. They were not as interested as we were in who’s going downbow and who’s going upbow.
What do you look for in a musician when he or she is trying to join a quartet?
Great ears! I have this surreal image of an ideal string quartet being comprised of four bugs on the stage with large ears and huge, long antennae. These antennae zero in on each other and interact on a chemical level with what the other members are feeling and how they sound. A good ensemble player can intuitively feel what his or her colleague is going to do because they are on the same wavelength. That kind of human and musical interaction comes from extraordinarily keen awareness and leads to the cohesiveness and unification we have been talking about. Some people play their instrument extremely well but can’t pick up on another’s intentions. Another related ability I often describe as the capacity to lead and follow at the same time. In a string quartet, everything is equality of give and take; interaction and feedback flows in all four directions.
You don’t want to just think about following well in a quartet audition because that is not how chamber music is played at a high level. Everyone understands that when they audition for a group they must listen and fit in, but not everyone realizes that they simultaneously need to show their own musical personality and conviction. If you think about it, it’s much easier to play with someone who is definite and compelling; your prospective new colleagues want to be able to follow and react to you. Almost everything in a string quartet is a two-way street, where opposites must be done simultaneously. Listening and leading in an interactive way is one of the basic principles of being a good chamber player.
How does one work on this skill?
The first step is to understand the role. Then you have to practice doing it with others. When there is an ensemble problem, when the boat starts to rock, the natural reaction is to try to find somebody to follow. This is a good first step, but you also have to be very clear where you are because somebody’s also trying to follow you! If things are falling apart, keep listening to the other voices, but also be clearer and be stronger. It’s a little like learning not to apply the brakes when your car goes into a skid on ice; it can at first feel counter-intuitive. This is something that simply has to be practiced. There is no substitute for experience, so if one dreams of a chamber music career, one must play lots of chamber music!
How important are interpersonal skills in quartet playing?
How important are they in a marriage? Of course, these are absolutely critical. I was blessed in that I don’t think there are many string quartets that have gotten along better than we did. With all the years we spent together we had our share of heated discussions, of course, but not many and seldom destructive. We basically had a very polite group. We looked at quartet playing very much in terms of musical conversation and we had friendship and mutual respect as a glue, a foundation.
It’s not enough to play your instrument, you also must be aware of the words you choose and perceptive as to how they affect those around you. And the right choice of words for one colleague might be a hot button for another. There are ways to say things in rehearsals that will be accepted and there are ways that will get people riled up. Some call it diplomacy, I just call it being tuned in to others.
You know the old cliché — “a string quartet is a four way marriage with none of the good stuff and all of the bad stuff!” Actually, it’s only partially true, because the “good stuff” in a quartet marriage is the music itself and the common goal of doing justice to a great work of art, of striving together for a memorable performance. It makes some rough times worth it all.