Interview by Tim Janof
Jeffrey Solow is currently Associate Professor of Music at the Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University. He is a renowned performer, cello pedagogue, and author. Two of his articles were recently voted to be in the top 10 of the last ten years in American String Teacher magazine.
TJ: How did you get started on the cello?
JS: It was from familial influence. There are three kids in my family, of which I am the youngest. When each of us reached about 7 years old, my parents asked us what instrument we wanted to play. My older brother had played cello for awhile and somehow that stuck with me when it was my turn to decide. So I emulated him and picked the cello. My first teacher was Gregory Aller, who was Leonard Slatkin’s grandfather.
TJ: At what point did you decide that music was going to be your life?
JS: It was a gradual process. I started moving towards it near the end of high school. I always liked playing the cello, but I was not a big practicer and had no intention of becoming a professional musician, having other interests besides music. When I was 12, I was very interested in paleontology, and when I was in high school, I was fascinated with protozoology. My closest friend at the time was Peter Rejto, the son of my teacher, Gabor Rejto. Peter and I would spend many hours together with our microscopes. I probably spent 3 to 5 hours every afternoon with my microscope and only about an hour practicing. On weekends, Peter and I would fly radio-controlled airplanes, or should I say crash them! We would also spend many evenings until 1 or 2 in the morning with our telescopes. Science was a much bigger part of my life than cello when I was young.
TJ: But somehow along the way your interests switched.
JS: When I went to UCLA, I was definitely leaning towards music. My parents didn’t want me to put all my eggs in one basket, so they encouraged me to get my education in something other than music. I enrolled in bacteriology, the closest thing to protozoology. But when I missed 14-2/3 out of a possible 15 points on a chemistry test, I figured bacteriology probably wasn’t going to work out. So I ended up being a psychology major for a year, and then, because of a wonderful philosophy professor, I switched to philosophy.
Majoring in philosophy was probably easier than being a music major, even though it may sound impressive. As a philosophy major, most classes, symbolic logic being the major exception, only required three papers, a midterm, and a final, with lots of reading. Whereas most classes you have to take as a music major, like theory and music history, have much more rigorous day-to-day assignments. So philosophy was actually a perfect choice for someone who was seriously working on an instrument. The classes didn’t interfere with playing, except when I had to go away for concerts.
TJ: Did you study with Piatigorsky at UCLA?
JS: I studied with Piatigorsky at USC while I was enrolled at UCLA.
TJ: What was he like? Judging from his autobiography, he must have been a fun person.
JS: He was very inspiring, very funny, and a wonderful storyteller. He taught in the traditional Russian way, which meant a long master class twice a week. Each student also worked closely with his assistant, who, when I joined the class, was Laurence Lesser, now head of the New England Conservatory. When I started to study with Piatigorsky, there were only three students in the class: Nathaniel Rosen, Myung-Wha Chung, and myself.
TJ: The master classes must have been wonderful!
JS: They were great! One of the best things about studying in his class was that, in a way, we got many more lessons because we heard everybody else’s lesson, too. This way we each learned a lot of repertoire we hadn’t studied yet. And when it came time for me to study the same piece I had heard someone else work on, I really knew the piece well.
TJ: Did Piatigorsky work on technical issues much?
JS: He didn’t talk a whole lot about mechanics, but he talked a lot about tone production. Piatigorsky’s main goal was for each of us to learn to express ourselves. He believed that if you had an idea of what you wanted to say, you would find a way to say it, and that’s how you develop technique. Once the basic mechanics are there, I agree with him, but if the basic mechanics aren’t there, some people will find a way and others won’t.
Though I could navigate around the cello rather well, I had a lot of technical problems. The way I produced sound before studying with Piatigorsky was mostly through torque of my right arm, extending my right first finger along the bow toward the tip, and actively pronating my arm so that I was rotating onto my first finger. To fix this problem, Larry Lesser had me use more of a vertical gravity-oriented approach to getting into the string. I remember two things he had me do: the first was rubber-banding my first and second fingers together, and the second was playing without my first finger on the bow. He advocated the idea that the power flows through the arm to the bow via the second finger, which is something I don’t quite agree with anymore. One of the things that his approach led me to do was to have a flat hand on the bow, which is something that I have since changed, but it got me away from rotating my arm into the string.
When I started the cello, Gregory Aller told me that the ball of the left thumb should go on the back of the neck. I have very short thumbs so I had to bend my wrist a lot to get my thumb underneath. This immediately drew me away from feeling that my left hand had weight balancing on my fingers and led to my left hand technique being very disorganized. I had three different hand positions in three different regions of the fingerboard. When I was in the lower positions, my wrist was quite low, which means I must have used a lot of muscular effort in my forearm to press down the strings. When I went up to 5th position, I had a very low elbow and a high wrist, because I was curving around the cello. And then when I would go up higher, I would straighten out more. Neither Piatigorsky nor Lesser ever really addressed this problem.
TJ: Your hand positions shouldn’t change. This is a fairly common ailment amongst young cellists.
JS: Yes. I remember Mr. Piatigorsky asking me, “Why is your wrist so concave when you play?” But whenever I tried to straighten it out, I made it completely flat across the back of my hand and my forearm and I ended up playing on the very tips of my fingers, which I knew wasn’t right. So I just figured this is how I play and everyone plays in their own way. Unfortunately, I played this way for another 10 years. And with the bow, too, I felt that as long as one had a concept of what it should sound like, you could do it in any way. To a certain extent, I still agree with this attitude, but to a larger extent, I don’t.
TJ: Yes. That attitude is potentially dangerous.
JS: Yes. I think it’s quite dangerous. I now have two important rules for playing: the first is “Make it sound good,” and the second rule is “Don’t injure yourself.” You can do awkward things for a short period of time, but if you play for too long in some bizarre personal way that is not very efficient, you might run into physical trouble.
TJ: I can relate to that. I remember practicing Popper Etude #13 (the octave etude) for hours every day with a bent left wrist, which gave me carpal tunnel syndrome, immobilizing my arm for weeks.
JS: Since I’m generally a very relaxed person, I am fortunate to have never run into any physical difficulties. Another problem I had that stemmed from my earliest studies was how I held the cello. I started on a 1/2 size cello, but I was just barely big enough for it. So, Mr. Aller had me put my left knee behind the cello. As I got bigger, my knee, instead of reaching up to grab the corner of the cello, migrated into the C-bout. When I look at pictures of myself from then I can see the cello at an extreme sideways angle because of this.
It wasn’t until I was in the Piatigorsky class, when I was watching Nathaniel Rosen, that I realized, “Hey, he doesn’t hold the cello like I do.” No one had ever said anything to me; no one seemed to notice that I didn’t hold my cello like every one else. But when I saw Nick Rosen, I decided to hold the corner with my knee. Immediately it made a lot of sense because the cello was much less angled to the side. When I shifted up to B on the A string, instead of falling off the fingerboard because the fingerboard was slanting off to the right, I started staying on the string.
TJ: Cello technique always makes sense. I hate that.
JS: After I stopped studying with Mr. Piatigorsky, even though I had fixed many things, I still felt that there was something wrong with my playing. When I was filmed or videotaped, I saw that I didn’t look like other people, but I couldn’t figure out why. Also, I didn’t feel real secure technically. I felt like luck played a very important part of my playing, which I didn’t like. I would ask my colleagues about it and they would say, “Ah, everybody feels that way. You’re fine.” Many years later, my dissatisfaction with my technique came to a head. I was playing in a chamber music group with a violinist who had studied with David Nadian. He told me that Nadian was the first teacher who had ever talked to him about balance when he was playing. When he said that to me, that was the first time I had ever heard the word “balance” in relation to playing the cello. I didn’t exactly know what he meant, but I knew it was important.
Right before I went to teach at the University of Michigan, I was living in New York. I had a student who had come over from Switzerland to study with me. After I played a recital in New York, she said, “You know. It was interesting watching you play.” She told me that she had studied with a French woman who had a textbook left hand position and had great accuracy throughout the fingerboard, but had no sound. And the way I played, with lots of fleshy contact with my fingers, I had a really rich sound but I had different arm and hand positions all the time. Since my playing was very disorganized, I needed a lot of concentration and effort to make sure I was in tune.
Right at that instant, something told me that my technique wasn’t right. There had to be a way to put “textbook” hand position and a rich, “fleshy” sound together, and somehow I knew that Nadian’s concept of balance was the key. So the next day, I went home to figure out what balance was. Obviously it had something to do with weight. With a little experimentation, I discovered the weight of my arm, and as soon as I felt the weight of my arm on my fingers, I realized my wrist was not low like it used to be, the way Piatigorsky had complained about. Likewise, I was not on the tips of my fingers either. I realized that straight is not flat across the top; there is actually still a little concavity. I also realized that I suddenly started looking much more like everybody else. And I quickly discovered that the different parts of the fingerboard started to feel alike; instead of three completely different areas, there was one continuous one. I recognized that this was absolutely the right way to play. Incidentally, this experiential approach has become the cornerstone of my playing and teaching. I frequently tell my students that, while you can use physical form as a guide to help you look for the right feeling, ultimately feeling determines form. If you feel right you will look right, and it will work right.
Anyway, just after that, I went to teach at the University of Michigan. I happen to own a copy of the Feuermann film and I wanted to watch it, so I borrowed a 16 millimeter projector from the school. The projector’s sound system turned out to be broken, but I decided to watch the film silently anyway. It turned out to be extremely interesting, because all of a sudden I wasn’t distracted by the beauty of Feuermann’s playing. I was able to just look at him and try to figure out what he was doing when he played.
One of the things I noticed was that he didn’t hold his cello flat, he had it tilted up on the A-string side. I realized that this made tremendous sense, because it effectively straightens out the curve of the fingerboard. When you’re on the A-string, you are playing on more of a horizontal surface, instead of on more of a falling away surface. Also, you don’t have to raise your right arm as much to bow on the A-string.
I had other realizations from this film that varied from my prior training. Gabor Rejto, my main teacher for 8 years after Gregory Aller, had told me that the function of the thumb in thumb position was to hold the strings down for the other fingers. So when I would go into thumb position, I would focus my arm weight on my thumb and would radiate out from my thumb to my other fingers. This meant that I generally avoided long shifts to my 3rd finger; I would rather land with my thumb on A and shift up by opening my hand. But with Feuermann, as his third finger came down on D, his thumb went up in the air for a moment. This clearly showed me that the weight was not focused on his thumb, but was focused on his 3rd finger, which is something I had never really thought about. That opened a very large door, and made me reevaluate what was going on when I played.
The thing that made this all difficult for me was that in three weeks I had to play the Shostakovich Concerto for the first time. Here I was revamping my left hand technique in a major way while I was preparing to perform the Shostakovich Concerto! But it actually worked out perfectly. I decided that I was going to change “cold-turkey” because my new idea was clearly right and I wasn’t going to play my old way anymore. But everyday, when I’d sit down to practice, I’d discover that, after about a half hour into my practicing, I was playing my old way again. I realized that the first step in making a major change like this was to take the cello out of the case, sit down with it, and not play a note — I would just sit there and think about what I was going to do when I put my hands to the strings for the very first time. Then I made sure I did it right from the very first note I played. I would think about every single note I practiced, which meant practicing with great care and with tremendous concentration. But it worked! By the end of those three weeks, I didn’t automatically go back to the old way, I went to the new way. Of course, when I tried the old way, it was like slipping into an old shoe, but I didn’t automatically go to it. It took a long time to eradicate it completely, and there were times, when under pressure, that I would revert. But I basically changed over in three weeks to quite a new left hand approach. This led to a complete re-evaluation of everything that I thought about the cello, about playing, and about teaching.
Another thing that happened when I was reorganizing my left hand, was that, without even thinking about it, my right arm started to change. Since I was using my upper arm muscles a lot, I was supporting my arm much more than I had before. Because the two arms often mirror each other, I started doing that with my right arm, and everything floated up a little higher. I realized that my right arm was starting to look much more like Piatigorsky’s, not from imitation of him, but because I was playing with principles more similar to his.
TJ: What an amazing and inspirational transformation. But now for a change of pace. What do you think about competitions?
JS: They certainly have their negative aspects, but they are, in a way, a mirror of the real world. There’s no avoiding competition, especially in areas where one thinks that competition has the least place –like in art. But of course, music is not just art, it’s economics and competition in a professional way. There are more people wanting to play concerts and get jobs than there are jobs and concerts.
The two things that I think have affected playing more than competitions, both positively and negatively, are recordings and Urtext editions. In the 19th century, the only way that anyone could ever hear music was when one live human being played for another live human being. The main impulse in performing was communication. Once we started having recordings, there was a certain technical perfection aspect that started coming into performing that was never there before in quite the same way. People, of course, have always wanted to play accurately, but it’s different to play in a concert where the sounds will disappear and never be heard again. In contrast, today it’s almost impossible to play any concert without a microphone in front of you. It really makes you feel different when you perform if you know that what you play is going to be around for a long time.
Recordings are good in that they have raised the standards. Because you hear the best people in the world, you realize what it’s possible to sound like. But recordings have also tended to eliminate nationalistic schools of playing, since any person anywhere can hear people all over the world. Actually, recordings can be psychologically dangerous, because, when you have technology like we do, everyone gets put in the same pool and all of a sudden you’re in competition with the greatest players in the entire world, maybe not in head to head competition, but at least in your own mind. And that can be tremendously intimidating. Recordings have made people worry much more about not making mistakes.
Regarding Urtext editions, it’s certainly good to know what the composer wrote, but, largely because of them, people have started thinking that there is some kind of Platonic Ideal interpretation that exists somewhere in space, and the idea has evolved that your job as a performer is to recreate this Ideal Interpretation. The Urtext edition has become the Biblical gospel of the piece. You are forbidden to change one little dot, or, if something’s not there, you are forbidden to add it. Performers are trying to create this museum piece Ideal Interpretation instead of having one person communicate the music to another person.
TJ: Which can be rather boring.
JS: Yes. I feel that this attitude has unfortunately swept the world. This is what is known as “modern playing.” There is now this idea that there is a Correct Interpretation of every piece, and I think students grow up thinking that way.
TJ: You obviously teach a lot. What are some of your basic teaching principles.
JS: If you’re going to be a professional on your instrument, (ie. support yourself), the most important thing is that you become One With Your Instrument and have a good physical relationship with it. You’ve got your whole life to learn repertoire. I also think that, while you can say there is such a thing as “magic” in the artistic end of playing, there is no magic in learning to play the instrument. It’s biomechanics and information. I define talent as an inclination to do things in the right way. Certainly there are people who will get much farther in an hour of practice, who learn things faster. But if you are put together normally, physically and mentally, and you are given the right information and work carefully, you should be able to learn to play the cello at least competently — to be able to learn the basic repertoire. Beyond this is not really under your control.
TJ: You would say then that there is a certain musicality that cannot be taught?
JS: Genuine communication is what touches the listener. The instrumental technique of how you do that, how you shape notes with the bow or use vibrato, can be taught. But it’s the inspiration that comes from your personality that cannot ultimately be taught. You can certainly give the person the tools to express it if it’s in them, though.
TJ: What are some common problems you see in students?
JS: They don’t use balance properly. In a nutshell, you are using your muscles to hold your body, primarily your arms, in such a position that you allow gravity to direct the weight to the places you need it. Mostly your muscles are holding things up, rather than pushing things down. The most common problem is that many students don’t do that. They use the wrong muscles to do lots of pushing and pressing.
I find another common problem, to get really technical, is that people use the wrong muscles to hold their arms up. The muscles you should primarily use to hold up each arm are the deltoid muscles, the ones that go across the top of your shoulders. People often use the trapezius muscle, which is the one that starts in the back of your neck, goes into your shoulders, and then into your back, like a big diamond, to hold their arms up. One of the ways you can see this is when the player’s shoulders are moving up.
TJ: Do you encourage students to listen to recordings when they are studying a piece?
JS: I don’t generally encourage them to listen to recordings when they’re studying a specific piece, but I encourage them to listen to recordings in general, to hear what good playing is like. I also think it’s important to be in touch with the general history of playing on your instrument and other instruments. It’s appalling when you meet a student, whether cellist or violinist, who has never heard Casals, not to mention Piatigorsky, Feuermann, Heifitz, Kreisler, etc. It’s certainly fine to listen to Yo-Yo Ma’s or Lynn Harrell’s recordings, but there is an entirely different world of things to listen for in the past generations.
TJ: The music business is very competitive today, making it extremely difficult to find a job in music. And yet music schools continue to pump out new musicians like factories. Do you think that there anything wrong with this?
JS: I’ve thought about this a lot, as a matter of fact. There certainly seem to be too many music schools, especially when I don’t know what the future of classical music will be in this country. If there isn’t a place for people to play or teach, what are they going to do? Many college and university administrations would, given the opportunity, downsize or close down music departments. To prevent this, teachers accept students who shouldn’t be in music They do this because, if they only accept students who have a very good chance of becoming successful professionals, they’ll have almost no students and the administration is going to wonder why they have a music department.
But whether or not a student becomes a professional musician, I believe that he or she will benefit from the experience. Learning to play the cello is in many ways Life in a microcosm. It teaches you discipline, focus, and analysis. Learning to do it is certainly not going to hurt you in other things. Besides, you don’t necessarily have to become a professional cellist. Music can be a valuable part of your life no matter what profession you go into. In terms of graduate students, you generally don’t want take a graduate student who is not up the standard. But I certainly will take students who seem to have something to offer but have problems on the instrument. I feel like this is their last chance to get it all together and, if they can get re-organized, I’ll take the risk. Sometimes you can be really surprised by a student who you thought wouldn’t make it but does ultimately make a career happen for himself. It’s something to think about. You can’t play God with the lives of your students. It’s their life and they have to live it.
Actually, a degree in musical performance has almost nothing to do with what you do in music. I certainly point this out to people when they are applying to school. Obviously, if you are trying to get into an orchestra, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you’ve got, it’s how you play. The only place a degree makes any difference is if you are going to teach.
TJ: Is there such a thing as a wrong interpretation?
JS: Yes. There is a wonderful quote from Steve Allen, “Truth is finite, but error is infinite.” This is obviously a sticky subject. You start getting into the composer’s intentions etc. In a way, I think that there is no such thing as a composer’s intention. When a composer plays a piece of music that he has written, he’s pretty much just one more player, an independent interpreter. You can see this happen when a composer changes his mind about a piece.
Take, for instance, the Shostakovich Cello Sonata. There are actually three versions. The second one is what most people know, the one published by International. In first version, published in 1934, the first movement is marked Moderato and the last movement Allegretto. In the second edition, the first movement is marked Allegro non troppo and the last movement Allegro. Rostropovich convinced Shostakovich, probably just by his playing of it, although they likely discussed it along the way, that the piece should go faster. In the third version, which is in The Complete Works of Shostakovich, there are differences yet again, in metronome markings and other things. So what’s the composer’s intention?
I remember hearing Rostropovich in his earlier days of playing concerts in the US when he played the Brahms F Major Sonata. In the slow movement, where the theme for the cello comes the second time (measure 48) it is marked piano with a crescendo to forte and then a subito piano, but Rostropovich played it all pianissimo, just floating the bow, and spinning out the sound really beautifully. It was sure different from what Brahms wrote, though. Piatigorsky frequently used to say, “Read the music.” Coming out of that tradition, when I saw Rostropovich play something quite different than what was written by Brahms, I didn’t know what to think. The audience, which doesn’t know the piece, is thinking, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” Whereas I’m thinking, “That’s certainly beautiful, but it’s not what Brahms wrote.” And, of course, I have no idea how Brahms would react. Brahms might say, “What are you doing!?” Or he might say, “That’s beautiful!” But if I had a student come into my class and play that way, I would say, “Well, I think that’s wrong and you shouldn’t do that.”
TJ: The student should at least learn what the composer wrote first, and then make a choice.
JS: Yes. Piatigorsky would say that you have to earn the right to do something different. But he didn’t actually mean different from what the composer wrote. Sometimes he wanted you to do something a certain way. He wanted you to be convincing in the way he suggested, and then you could do it some other way. But he would still object to changing a dynamic marking. I find lots of times that I like it just fine when I listen to someone else vary from the composer’s text, but I would never do it myself in that place.
This is not exactly the same thing, but I was playing last summer with violist Atar Arad. He told me he had played with a quartet where the first violinist played a theme one way and the cellist did it another way. After the first rehearsal, Atar went up to the first violinist and said, “You’ve been playing together for years. How can you both do a completely different interpretation of the theme?” And the violinist said, “Ah, live and let live.” I’m moving towards that view as I get older, within reason.
TJ: Do you have any general principles when you play the Bach Suites?
JS: Yes. Bach is a particularly difficult and daunting project now because of the Authenticity Movement, some of which is quite convincing, and some of which drives me to distraction. I actually greatly enjoy Anner Bylsma’s recordings of them.
TJ: His “authenticity” is actually quite personal.
JS: I think that authentic authenticity was quite personal too. In his recording of the Sarabande of the Fourth Suite in the first measure, he played three double stop quarter notes with lots of space in between them. That’s not the way we usually hear it. And then I heard him do a lecture demonstration of the 4th Suite at one of the Cello Congresses. He didn’t do it that way at all. So that points out one of the dangers of recordings. One tends to think that the recording is the The Way someone plays something, when actually it was the way he played on the particular day he recorded it.
TJ: I also watched a lecture with Anner Bylsma when he said, “I don’t always like to play things the same all the time.”
JS: I’d bet that this is actually an extremely authentic way of looking at it. One of the things he once said to me, when we were at a Cello Congress in Arizona, was, “Those old guys would be so pleased that we are playing their music at all, they wouldn’t care how we play it.” I thought that was quite interesting coming from an “Authenticity” person! One wants to learn from the Authenticity Movement, but I really hate playing Bach on a modern cello and pretending that I am playing it on a Baroque cello. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that no one really knows how people played back then; we can only theorize about it.
One thing that we really do know about the way people played is how Bach sounded on the organ, because we still have organs that he played on. While we don’t know with what orchestration he played, we have an idea of what the notes sounded like. Certainly he wasn’t allergic to notes that start with a distinct beginning and don’t have a swell in the middle. And so on the modern cello, I hold as my goal to play the Suites as if I were playing them on the organ. But not, of course, forgetting that I am playing them on the cello.
TJ: So what do you think of Casals and his recording of the Suites. Did you read the article in the January ’95 “Strings” by Richard Taruskin. He basically said that Casals had such a strong personality and an air of consummate authority that he ruined the suites for generations.
JS: I have not seen the article, but that’s certainly an interesting point of view. We must not forget that Casals was also the person who brought the Suites out of the dust to the general public. So, while Mr. Taruskin may maintain that Casals might have “ruined them” for generations, Casals also, in a sense, created them. While I don’t like them all equally, I generally love Casals’ playing of the Suites. The most important aspect of his performance is the spirit and life of the music. I particularly love the Prelude of the 4th Suite. I am amazed at the architectural shape, height, and power it achieves. It’s hard to imagine that there’s anything wrong with it stylistically. If you were to play the Prelude on the organ, I don’t think it would sound particularly different. And what he does with the Sarabande is just magic. So that’s fine with me.
TJ: If you go the record store, you’ll find several recordings of the same piece. For instance, you find the Bach Suites recorded by Casals, Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, Rosen, Gendron, Fournier, etc. Do we need any more recordings?
JS: I would certainly enjoy recording them some time! You can’t decide if a new recording is needed until it comes out. It’s possible that a recording will come out that lives in a way that another doesn’t.
TJ: For myself, there are two landmark recordings, the Casals and the Bylsma recordings. And then we should all have a recording that is a happy medium between the two extremes. But after that, are the others REALLY needed?
JS: Performing is like composing something fresh. There are so many pieces written. The ones that aren’t immortal fall by the wayside. I suppose that that’s what’s going to happen to all these recordings. I certainly tell students to get the two recordings you just mentioned. I myself have acquired various performances of the suites recorded by different artists more out of curiosity.
Sometimes I listen to live performances and wish they were recorded. I heard Fritz Magg play a recital consisting of the d minor Suite, the Hindemith Solo Sonata, and the D Major Suite. It was one of the greatest concerts I have ever heard. I would leap to buy his recordings in a second. I heard Timothy Eddy play the 4th Suite, which was also absolutely great. I would leap to buy his. I think if you heard Fritz Magg play, you would answer your own question. He just never recorded them. I’m sure that there are other performances like that out there.
There was a review of the recently released Ralph Kirchbaum and Nathaniel Rosen recordings of the Suites, neither of which I have heard yet. The critic concluded that, though they were good, he would prefer to stick with his personal favorites, such as Yo-Yo Ma’s. I, however, might have a different choice of favorite recordings. I’m sure that there are some people that just love the ones that you think have little reason for being there.
TJ: You are a well-known cellist, writer, and pedagogue and have achieved so much. What are some of your current goals or projects? What are you still striving for?
JS: I’m always trying to discipline myself to play scales, arpeggios, and etudes. I’ve never performed the 4th or the 5th Bach Suites. I’m about to record all the Mendelssohn cello and piano works with Doris Stevenson. I’ve reworked the Variations Concertantes, Opus 17, a wonderful little piece Mendelssohn wrote for his brother Paul. Paul wasn’t a very advanced cellist so he made the piano part very hard and the cello part pretty easy, except for one variation. To make it a more interesting part for the cello, I’ve been taking lots of things up an octave and stealing things from the piano part. I’ve done the same for his first sonata, which was also written for his brother. I am making these alterations because, when I play these pieces in their original form, I feel like I’m playing in a piano trio and the violinist is missing.
TJ: So this could be considered a truly “authentic” performance.
JS: Truly original maybe. My rule of thumb for making such changes is, if the composer were here, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to play it for him. I think my version sounds just fine, and dare I say, an improvement. Nobody plays these pieces in recital because cellists don’t feel like they have anything to do. This is why no one used to play the Chopin Polonaise until Feuermann re-did it. Of course now you find a few people who play the original, but I don’t want play it in a cello recital, since it actually belongs in a piano recital.
Another piece that I’m currently working on is the Prokofiev Concerto, Opus 58, the earlier version that he eventually turned into the Sinfonia Concertante. I’ve always felt that, with the right cuts, particularly in the last movement, it could be effective. I’d like to learn the 2nd Saint-Saens Concerto and the Korngold Concerto. I’d also like to record a couple of Davidoff Concertos. So I certainly have a lot of projects ahead of me!