Interview by Tim Janof
The second generation of a distinguished Russian musical family, Ms. Nelsova was born in Canada, educated in England, and is a citizen of the USA. She made her debut with the London Symphony at age 12, and since that time has regularly toured every continent, including her triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1966 as the first to be made by an American soloist.
Zara Nelsova has appeared with virtually every major orchestra in North America including those of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. She has appeared with numerous European orchestras including the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Royal, Berlin, and London Philharmonics, the BBC and London symphony orchestras, and in Warsaw and Poznan with the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. She has collaborated with such eminent conductors as Bernstein, Boulez, Barenboim, Mehta, Haitink, Solti, Boehm, Rostropovich, Ozawa, and Steinberg. Her many international festival appearances have included Tanglewood, Hollywood Bowl, Aspen, Caramoor, Ann Arbor, Lucerne, Casals, Prague, Gstaad, and Bergen.
She has collaborated with many well-known twentieth century composers. Samuel Barber chose her for the recording of his Cello Concerto, as did Ernest Bloch for his “Schelomo.” She performed Sir William Walton’s Cello Concerto under the baton of the composer as well.
Ms. Nelsova is the recipient of Canada’s Centennial Medal of the Confederation “in recognition of valuable service to the nation,” and the Jubilee Medal from Canada in honor of the Silver Anniversary of the accession to the throne of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Ms. Nelsova is a fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, a member of the faculty of The Juilliard School, and chair on the Board of Governors as professor of music at Rutgers University. In 1992, she received an honorary degree from Smith College.
TJ: At what age did you begin playing the cello?
ZN: I was four years old when I first showed an interest, so my father converted an old viola into a cello and he became my first cello teacher. He was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia in flute, so he was a wonderful musician as well as a wonderful teacher, who taught me discipline and how to practice carefully. I owe much of my early progress to him.
TJ: You also studied with Dezsö Mahalek, a former student of David Popper. How did he happen to end up in Winnipeg, Canada, your hometown?
ZN: Many years ago European musicians were offered land in the province of Manitoba so that they could leave their homelands by obtaining visas to become farmers. My parents, who were Russian, took advantage of this opportunity, as did Mahalek, who came from Hungary. As a result of this policy, Winnipeg became a world-renowned cultural center.
In a sense, I had two cello teachers at the same time in Winnipeg, since my father continued to watch over me during my studies with Mahalek and he closely supervised my practicing. Between my father and Mahalek I was given a solid technical foundation, for which I am very grateful. I ended up studying with Mahalek until I was 10 years old, when my family and I moved to London to further my and my two sisters’ musical education (my sisters and I were in a piano trio known as the Canadian Trio).
When we first arrived we were desperately poor. My father rented two rooms in a house for the five of us. Because there weren’t enough rooms for each of us to practice separately, I often practiced in the same room with my violinist sister, she in one corner and I in another, for six hours a day with five minute breaks at the end of each hour. As you might guess, I learned how to shut out the sound of someone else playing, and I developed intense powers of concentration. I have learned since that you cannot do anything well without concentration. Concentration is the key.
TJ: With whom did you study in London?
ZN: I studied with Herbert Walenn. I remember that my father wanted me to study at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone Road, but I was much too young to be admitted; I was only 10. So I studied privately with Herbert Walenn, whose house was across the street from the Academy. Walenn ran a cello school in his house called the London Violoncello School, where he had well over 100 students. Once a year he would put on a concert at Wigmore Hall with all of his students, singling out some to play solos, including me.
By the way, Jacqueline du Pré studied privately with an assistant of Herbert Walenn when she was a little girl. When I returned after World War II to play in England, the school asked me whether I would like to hear a very gifted little cellist. There I heard Jacqueline du Pré when she was 12 or 13 years old. I could tell back then that she was something extraordinary. She too played with great concentration and remarkable beauty.
TJ: What did Herbert Walenn have you work on?
ZN: We worked on technique very intensively in two lessons each week. I had to bring in two memorized etudes per week, difficult ones from books like Grützmacher’s second book. Needless to say, I worked many hours per day in order to keep up.
When I was 12, I made my debut with the London Symphony, playing the Lalo Concerto with Malcolm Sargent conducting. The following year I played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with orchestra, better then than I play now! My technique, in other words, was completely established by the time I was 12 years old.
TJ: Were you aware of how you accomplished these precocious technical feats, or did they just come naturally to you, with the help of a lot of practicing, of course?
ZN: I was forced to be aware of what I was doing by my teachers. Without the connection of thinking when you work you’re wasting your time. So many young players pick up the cello and their thoughts go in a million other directions besides their cello. I try to train my students to shut out all thoughts, except for those that relate to the cello, the instant they pick up their instruments. This is very difficult to do, but it can be done with practice.
TJ: Who was your next teacher?
ZN: I didn’t have any private tutoring for the next several years because I was concertizing a great deal. Then World War II broke out in 1939, so my family and I moved back to Toronto. It was not until 1942 that I first went to study with Piatigorsky. I had heard him as a very young child in London when he first came over from Germany; he absolutely overwhelmed everybody with his magnificent playing and his fabulous personality. But I didn’t meet him until years later, when I was in my early 20’s. When he performed in Toronto, I yearned to play for him, but I didn’t quite know how to arrange it. Finally, I found the courage to ask him if he would listen to me play. He said that he was terribly sorry, but that he had to leave the next morning at the crack of dawn to catch the train to the next city on his concert tour. His departure from the hotel was supposed to be at something like 8 o’clock, so I got myself up around five in the morning and quietly took my cello out of its case and tried to get my fingers moving. Then I packed up my cello and I went to his hotel room and knocked at the door. He opened the door, absolutely astonished to see me. I said, “Oh, Mr. Piatigorsky, I just happened to be passing by, and I hoped that you might be able to hear me.” He invited me in and I played for him. Then I went to study with him a year later, which was a wonderful experience. I studied three summers with him, going through the repertoire, concerto after concerto. We talked about musical, not technical, ideas since my technique was already well established.
He was always a tremendous inspiration to me. His sound in his early career was like nobody else’s — absolutely gorgeous and so alive. He had a tremendous facility as well; he could do anything on the cello.
TJ: Then you went to Emanuel Feuermann.
ZN: I was enormously taken with Feuermann’s musicianship, so I was anxious to study with him. He was a great musician, and I wanted to be in his presence. I didn’t go to him for technical help, but I was certainly awed by his seemingly effortless technique, which cannot be matched by any cellist of the past or present. He heard me play and invited me to study with him in Scarsdale, New York, where he lived. Unfortunately, my time with him was very short, about a month, because he died suddenly, at age 39. I regret that I didn’t have enough time with him to discuss his musical ideas in depth.
TJ: Then came Pablo Casals.
ZN: When I was 10 years old, John Barbirolli, who was one of Herbert Walenn’s students and a wonderful cellist in his day, offered to take me to play for Casals. Naturally I was thrilled, so he arranged a meeting with Casals at his hotel.
The night before there had been a concert with Casals as soloist playing the Schumann Concerto, conducted by Adrian Boult (before he was knighted). After the overture, we all waited for Casals, but he didn’t appear. After about 15 minutes the president of the Philharmonic Society walked onstage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am so sorry to tell you that Mr. Casals has made a mistake in the date of the performance this evening. He has retired for the night. He went to bed. With your indulgence, he will be here as soon as possible.” So they pulled Casals out of bed, got him dressed, and rushed him to the concert hall, which fortunately was just across the street. I’ll never forget that performance of the Schumann Concerto. He didn’t have time for anything, except to throw on some clothes and get over to the hall and play. He had no time to get nervous. And he played so beautifully.
The next morning I played for him, but I was much too young to leave the country and study with him (remember, I was 10 years old at the time). It wasn’t until after the war that I wrote to him in Prades, where he was living in exile. He remembered me very well from years before and invited me to study with him. So I went to Prades, which is where I first met Bernard Greenhouse, who was also studying with him at the time.
TJ: What did Casals emphasize with you?
ZN: He talked a great deal about the importance of having a logical interpretation, to never do anything that is illogical. Unfortunately, we hear too much incoherent music-making today — accelerandos and ritardandos that have nothing to do with the music. When one hears an illogical interpretation, it’s usually an indication that the player does not understand the music he or she is playing. Casals’ playing personified logic, though of course not in a mechanical way. He never exaggerated the music out of proportion.
TJ: Was he a strict teacher?
ZN: Not really. He simply wouldn’t work with students who didn’t interest him. People who came to him were serious students, so he didn’t need to use firm discipline.
The mistake that many players made who studied with him, not that he took many students, was that, when they didn’t understand what he was talking about, they would just try to imitate his playing. They tried to copy his fingerings and bowings, which was a waste of time, since he changed them from day to day. As a result, some of these people would leave, and, within a few weeks, would forget everything. They hadn’t absorbed his underlying concepts, they had only imitated him, which was meaningless and therefore quickly forgotten. Many players didn’t know how to take full advantage of what he had to offer.
I can look back in my life and recognize different plateaus at which I arrived. There was a definite change in my musical outlook after my time with him. He transformed me.
TJ: You’ve also worked with some famous composers, like Ernest Bloch. How did you get the privilege of playing Schelomo with him?
ZN: I often practiced Schelomo and the other pieces he wrote for us. One day I was talking to Colin Hampton, cellist of the Griller String Quartet, who knew Bloch very well and had performed his chamber works. He said, “You’ve got to meet Ernest Bloch. He is an extraordinary man, a great composer, and I know he would love your playing.” So Colin arranged our meeting and I went to Oregon, where Bloch lived with his wife and cats. I had been on the bus for about three hours when I arrived at the bus station at night in the pouring rain. A man waiting for my bus to arrive, with an umbrella over him and a little beret on his head, turned out to be Ernest Bloch.
He and his wife made me feel so welcome. They put me in a guest flat that they had built over their garage. Downstairs was the equipment that Bloch used for his agate polishing hobby, using agates that he collected from the beach. He used to stand in the garage and polish agates while listening to me practice upstairs. Very often I would hear the tramp of feet coming up the steps and he would suddenly appear wearing his hip rubber boots and his little beret, saying “No, no, no, not like this, like this!” And then he would sit down at the piano with those rubber boots and we would start to work together. We worked on Schelomo, The Voice in the Wilderness, and Three Pieces from Jewish Life.
Soon after that a Bloch festival was organized in London and he invited me to come as his soloist in Schelomo. Right after the performance we recorded it together, which was re-released about a year ago, with Bloch conducting, as well as our recording of the Three Pieces.
We developed a great friendship over the years. Once I asked him if he would write an unaccompanied cello sonata? “Oh,” he said, “I don’t know … how would I do that? Play me something.” So I sat down and played him a little of the Kodaly solo sonata. “No, no, that’s not my style.” Then I played some of the Reger Second Suite. “No, no, that’s not my style.” Nothing would please him.
Soon after — I think I was in Europe at the time — I received a letter from him saying that he was at work on an unaccompanied suite. He ended up sending me three suites, one at a time, the first two being dedicated to me. The third he meant to dedicate to me, but he sent it to me in Europe to edit and I didn’t get it in time. He didn’t hear from me so he assumed that I didn’t like it. The work remains undedicated. All three suites are very beautiful, but I play the first one more than the others.
TJ: It sounds like Bloch was very particular about how his music should be played. Did he ever talk about how much vibrato he wanted?
ZN: No, we never discussed vibrato. He certainly didn’t object to my use of it.
TJ: Steven Isserlis, who has also recorded Schelomo, often minimizes his use of vibrato in this piece, using bow expression instead.
TJ: You don’t seem agree with this approach. Why?
ZN: If you listen to my recordings of Schelomo, I think you’ll find your answer. Bloch and I worked together very closely. I understood what he wanted, and he seemed to be happy when we played together. He once said, “Zara Nelsova is my music.”
I recorded Schelomo three times, first with Bloch, second with Ansermet — the great conductor of l’Orchestra de la Suisse Romande — and third with Maurice Abravinel and the Utah Symphony. I must have been doing something right to be asked to record it again and again.
TJ: You also worked with Samuel Barber.
ZN: Yes, I recorded Barber’s concerto with him conducting. There is well-known story about what happened at the recording session. I had finished recording the work and it had gone very well — almost no takes. I was sitting on the stage of King’s Way Hall in London with the orchestra on the floor, which was how they recorded a soloist back then. Suddenly, a cellist from the orchestra jumped to his feet and began to scream at the top of his voice hysterically, “I can’t go on after this. How can you expect me to go on playing after .” Then he rushed up on stage with his cello and proceeded to smash it against the wall in front of me. I nearly passed out with shock. I hid my face in my hands, shaking. Then there was dead silence. Something seemed very odd to me and I took my hands away from my face. The orchestra was sitting on the edge of their chairs, realizing that they had gone a little too far. It turned out that they had all pitched in and bought a cheap cello, and this was their way of showing me how much they admired my playing. What a way to show appreciation!
TJ: Was Samuel Barber particular as to how his music was played?
ZN: No, he was very easy to work with. He was not an experienced conductor, but he seemed to be very happy with the result. We were in full agreement on tempi, for instance.
TJ: Did you try to follow the score as faithfully as possible?
ZN: For the most part, yes, though there were one or two parts that I changed because they were practically unplayable; he didn’t have an intimate knowledge of the cello. When I played these parts for him, he said, “I wish I’d known you before this was published. I would have made changes before it went to press.”
TJ: Let’s discuss some of the points you made in your master class at the last World Cello Congress. One of things you emphasized was the importance of establishing a solid technical foundation.
ZN: A solid foundation is important because with it a cellist, or any instrumentalist, can do anything. It’s like building a house. If you build a house with a poor foundation, when the first windstorm comes along, the house will fall to the ground. It’s the same thing with a musician; unless you have a solid foundation, you can’t build a superlative performance, which is why it’s important to practice scales and etudes diligently. The trouble is that many young players are impatient. They’re not prepared to wait until they truly have what they’re looking for.
I try to emphasize the importance of technical work with my own students. When I ask them if they have been practicing their scales and they get a shamefaced look, I tell them a story that I got from my pianist Brooks Smith, who was also the pianist of Jascha Heifetz for many years. Smith would rehearse with Jascha Heifetz everyday. Each morning, when he arrived at Heifetz’s house, Heifetz would be finishing up one hour of scale practice. If Heifetz needed to do this, then don’t we all?
TJ: You also said, “Maintaining continuity of sound is one of the hardest things in string playing.” How does one accomplish this?
ZN: Your degree of success with this depends on how you attend to the use of pressure with your bow, which is something that most people don’t pay attention to; they lose intensity as they approach the tip, resulting in an unintentional diminuendo. This could be prevented if they had a concept of what they wanted to do with the music. So it’s often a question of musical awareness, not necessarily a deficiency in technique, though maintaining a continuity of sound takes great technical control.
When I was a little girl, my father would have me sit with him and have me play very long bows, as loud as I could, and as close to the bridge as possible. We would practice long tones side-by-side, he on his flute, me on my cello. For a six-year-old this would have been terribly boring to do without any goal, so he turned it into a game, and it became a question of who could hold the tone the longest. Because of this daily drill, which we did until I was 12 or 13 years old, I developed the ability to maintain a continuity of sound, a sense of flowing lines.
TJ: You also talked about maintaining continuity of sound when doing string crossings. How do you accomplish this?
ZN: It depends what you’re playing and what you are trying to say musically, but it can be helpful to add a little extra pressure during string crossings. If you don’t, you leave the musical outcome to chance.
TJ: Does the idea of maintaining continuity of sound only apply to legato playing?
ZN: Not necessarily. If a passage requires rapid movement, it still has to be under control. So keeping larger phrases in mind helps to keep the notes connected to a larger whole. In order to do this, you should also have a clear idea of the overall piece before you pick up your instrument. You should have the whole work within you and not just put your bow on the string and hope for the best. But before you can do this, you need to have an excellent command of your instrument so that you don’t have to think about technique when you’re making music. There are no short cuts.
TJ: You talked a lot about the use of body weight. Does this include arm weight?
ZN: Cello playing is more about a relaxed, though controlled, body weight, not just arm weight. Many cellists, when they need additional force in their music making, will try to get it by squeezing the bow, which is counter-productive. But if they know how to use their body weight, there is no limit to what they can do. Subtle shifts of body weight can make a huge difference, so maintaining freedom of movement is essential. Never let your body get stuck in a fixed position.
TJ: Some stress the importance of keeping a bent thumb in the bow hand, while others prefer a straight thumb. In which camp do you fall?
ZN: I’m a great believer in the use of a straight thumb because, if you play with a bent thumb while trying to play fortissimo, you start to squeeze the fingers on the bow. This causes the muscles in the right arm to tighten up, which can lead to dreadful physical problems like tendonitis.
TJ: So how do you play fortissimo in a healthy manner?
ZN: I can explain it best with an example of another common activity. If you were to stick a thumbtack into something below you, you wouldn’t just push the thumbtack in with pure muscle power, you would use the weight of the arm and the body. The same thing should happen when playing fortissimo — you put your weight into it.
TJ: You discourage the use of independent fingers when playing with vibrato. Why?
ZN: It’s extremely difficult to control vibrato if you use only one finger at a time, which is what most people do. Unless you can control the speed of your vibrato, everything will sound exactly the same, having the same monotonous wobble. Vibrato should not be an unconscious motion, since it’s one of the things that we can vary to express what we feel in the music. I find that, if I support the finger I’m using with an adjacent finger, I can control the speed of my vibrato more readily and I have doubled my finger strength without any additional effort. Of course, you can’t always do this, like when you are moving up the fingerboard, but the moment you land on your note, you should support it, unless you have to leave immediately for another note.
TJ: You mentioned in your master class that your early teachers had you use a more percussive fingering technique.
ZN: My father came from the Russian school, which taught that perfect articulation comes from a very high finger action. I learned later that this isn’t the way to create perfect articulation. Not only is it tremendously taxing on the left hand, and can cause numerous physical problems later, but it also makes a tremendous amount of noise on the fingerboard, which can be very troublesome if you’re making recordings. Better articulation results when you have a feeling of placing the finger almost over the note, placing it on the fingerboard, and then feeling as though you were hanging from the fingerboard. Imagine going to a door, placing your hand on the top of the door, and hanging from your fingers. Don’t really do it, because you can hurt yourself! The feeling of hanging should be similar to the feeling you get when your left hand is on the fingerboard. You sink into the fingerboard. This results in clear articulation without extraneous noise.
TJ: When I watch you play, I can’t help but sense that you are showing the audience how much you love music and how much you love people. Am I on the right track?
ZN: Absolutely. For me, playing music is about sharing, sharing my love for music and sharing my love for what we are as human beings. The minute I start to play, I’m in a different world, and I’m so caught up in the music and in my desire to share it with the audience that all else fades away. The overwhelming feeling I get is a sense of connection with each person in the audience; I want the audience members to know how much I love what I am doing and how much I love them. And how do I do it? I do it by trying to communicate my love through beautiful music.