I knew Michael Grebanier in two periods of my life, and in both cases, he was both inspirational, and in many ways, instrumental to my career as a cellist. Additionally, he was my friend with whom I spent many happy hours.
Michael was four years older than me, and consequently, always showed me the way ahead. Naturally, I tried to follow in his footsteps. Some of those footsteps were impossible to follow when he won the Naumberg at age 19 and became principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony at age 25. To his great credit, he always acknowledged our first teacher, Carl Ziegler, in his biographies. Mr. Ziegler was a member of the NBC Symphony and would sometimes take Michael to rehearsals, which Michael told me were very inspiring to him.
Mr. Ziegler was a wonderful teacher and I’m sure that Michael’s experiences with him (at least early on) was similar to mine, although probably with better results.
At my first lesson, Mr. Ziegler assigned me a small section of the Frescobaldi Toccata and an easy Duport etude. I was at the very early stages of cello development and had not even advanced to thumb position, but both of these pieces had the thumb sitting on a harmonic D-natural. I could put my thumb down and wiggle my fingers without having to press the thumb down on the strings.
Mr. Ziegler never played for me. I cannot recall him ever actually picking up his cello to show me anything. What he did do was assign me repertoire that was very slightly more advanced than what I was playing. Each week I would come in and play it for him, and he would either tell me to bring it back next week or assign me another piece.
He did not show me how to sit properly at the cello, hold the bow, or do anything relating to correct cello playing. I never played one scale or arpeggio for Mr. Ziegler, but he took me through several Duport etudes and various Goltermann concertos, starting with the fourth (which was very easy), then going to the third (which was considerably harder), and finally on to Romberg No. 2. Along with this, he assigned me Beethoven sonatas No. 2 in G minor and No. 3 in A major and eventually the Brahms Sonata in E minor. I did not acquire good cello habits, but I did acquire a considerable amount of cellistic DNA, and a great love for music which was unabashedly romantic, fun to play, and which connected me with my expressive instincts. In a way, he enabled me to learn to play the cello from the masters that wrote the music that he assigned me to play.
When I was 14 years old, Mr. Ziegler caught me admiring myself in the mirror of his studio while I was playing the Boccherini Concerto. In a fury, he lashed out at me and said “I see you’re admiring yourself in the mirror, but if you opened your ears instead of your eyes you’d find a lot less to admire.” This comment shocked me out of my complacency, and I decided to go home and practice for four hours. Why four hours? Because it had been widely reported to me that my cousin Michael practiced four hours a day (something he denies, but considering the results he obtained, he may well have practiced for four hours a day). The next day, I practiced for another four hours, and in a very short time, my improvement was dramatic. Mr. Ziegler then assigned me much more difficult repertoire, including all of the Piatti Caprices, the Lalo and Saint-Saens Concertos, and the fiendishly difficult Locatelli Sonata.
The first of two events burned into my memory was at a family gathering where both Michael and I played our assembled uncles, aunts, and cousins. My mother, who was a wonderful pianist, accompanied both of us. I played the Julius Klangel C Major Concertino. Michael played the Dvorak Concerto with so much verve, style, and robustness, that with my mouth wide open in wonder, I kept saying to myself, “I wish it were me.” Our grandfather rewarded both of us with silver dollars (his favorite way of showing pleasure at his grandchildren’s accomplishments).
The second incident, much later, was when Michael came to play a recital at our high school. At this point, Michael was at Curtis. He played the Haydn Concerto, the Boccherini A Major Sonata, and the Brahms F Major with his future wife, the redoubtable pianist Patricia Parr. At that point in my life, I was not very familiar with either the Boccherini or the Brahms. Michael’s playing was so stentorian, that once again, I was open-mouthed, wishing it were me. Of course, I’m very familiar with his playing as a professional, and believe I have the largest collection of Michael Grebanier recordings of concertos, sonatas, trios, and quartets (outside of 10 Margaret Lane).
In both cases, his wonderful tone and great personality were as evident to me as they were at any other time in his life.
At that time, Michael was not always kind, and I certainly remember two comments that he made: one to me, and one he instructed me to convey to Leonard Rose.
The first incident, I played the Boccherini Concerto with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as a result of having won their concerto competition. I was not exactly happy with the way that I played, and mentioned it to Michael, who said (most realistically), “If you get up in front of an orchestra to play a concerto, you are asking to be criticized.”
The second incident occurred when I told Mr. Rose that Michael was going to audition for the Naumberg. Mr. Rose told me that he didn’t think that Michael had “a ghost of a chance”. When I told Michael what Mr. Rose had said, he said, “Go back to Mr. Rose and tell him to stick his ghost up his ass.” Of course, the rest is history, since Michael won the Naumberg over very formidable competition and played a wonderful recital in Town Hall. It was right after that recital that life threw a real hard ball at Michael, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and forced to spend at least a year in a sanatorium. I’m enclosing a letter that Leonard Rose wrote to Michael when he was in the sanatorium and despairing about his future:
The thing that everyone in my family admired most about Michael was not only the brilliant way in which he overcame his handicaps, but the stoicism with which he bore his cross. Over the many years that I was not in contact with Michael, he made a legendary career, particularly as a soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, and later on with the San Francisco Symphony.
50 odd years later, my former assistant, Patrick Jee was auditioning for the first chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. When I played Michael’s recording of Don Quixote, Patrick said he never heard playing like that, and insisted that I arrange for him to play for Michael, which he did.
Michael was always very helpful to me in proofreading my various editions for International Music, and letting me know whether any of my strange fingerings seemed too strange to put in print. I dedicated both my editions of the Schumann and the Elgar Concertos to Michael, because nobody, in my opinion, could play them better. I made mention of his performances of the Haydn D Major Concerto and the Rococo Variations, which was so inspirational to me. I spent many happy hours with Michael talking cello, books, and politics, and there will always be an empty place in my heart when I think about him.