Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Who’s and What’s What

Leon Fleisher said that the two greatest American piano talents of the twentieth century were William Kapell and Leonard Shure. Rosina Lhévinne considered herself the embodiment of the Russian School of piano playing, and she respected Shure as the embodiment of the German School of piano playing. Needless to say, the lessons I had with Leonard Shure were of great value.  

When I was twenty-one, I attended the Aspen Festival, where I managed to convince people to pay me $5 for a lesson on any instrument. Edith Oppens, a pianist who was Leonard Shure’s associate, decided she was going to bring me down a peg or two (or three, four, or five), so she invited me to play the Beethoven A major Cello Sonata with one of her piano students. When I arrived with my cello in hand, who should be sitting there, ready to listen, but Walter Süskind, Zara Nelsova, and several other people. After I finished the Beethoven, Walter Süskind asked me if I knew the Brahms E minor; “Of course,” I said, “by memory.” “So do I,” he said, “Let’s play it,” which we did. Because of this, I earned Edith Oppens respect, and when Leonard Shure’s stepson needed a cello teacher, she recommended me.  After we met he offered to teach me in return for the lessons I gave to his stepson, a lopsided arrangement to say the least. 

I learned a great deal from the lessons I had with Leonard Shure. Once I played the Gigue of the Second Bach Suite, and Mr. Shure then played it on the piano with verve and panache, enough to make me want to get up and start dancing. He then asked, “Do you know why I sound so good and you sound so bad?” to which I replied, “If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t need to be here.” He told me that it was because he sees the keyboard as a point of resistance, and he always comes from the point of resistance. If you go to the point of resistance, as soon as you hit the note it’s all over. If you come from the point of resistance, there’s an infinite variety that can be drawn out of the instrument. 

I played the Beethoven Cello Sonatas with Mr. Shure, and he didn’t seem to think that the Beethoven A major Cello Sonata was that different from any one of the middle-period piano sonatas like the Appassionata or the Waldstein. He brought out the left hand piano part of the cello sonata with a degree of authority I never imagined possible, making it sound almost orchestral, and forcing the cello to be an active participant in the counterpoint.  From that point forward I started to see everything that I played as being part of a context, and learned to relate whatever I happened to be playing in a piece to the entire score. 

When I asked Mr. Shure why he lavished so much time and attention on me (particularly since I wasn’t paying him his usual $30-an-hour fee) he said, “I believe someday you will carry my work into the future.” 

The most important thing I learned from Leonard Shure was that it was possible to have an absolute conception of the way a phrase was going to go. That sense of what any phrase of music could be has remained in the marrow of my bones for my entire career life.

More About Who’s Who and What’s What

I was very fortunate right after my graduation from Juilliard to encounter two superb musicians who gave me the skill and confidence I needed to move forward with my career.  

Paul Olefsky spent four years as the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and left when he was drafted into the Navy during the Korean War. Immediately after his discharge from the Navy, he spent six years as the principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony, and left that position to pursue career as a soloist. 

During my last year at Juilliard I heard Paul play two stunning recitals in Carnegie Recital Hall. The first was an unaccompanied cello recital on which he played the Bach Sixth Suite, the Kodaly Unaccompanied Sonata, and the George Crumb Sonata. I went to this recital because I had gotten a recording of the Tchaikovsky Trio, which he made in Detroit, from my soon-to-be wife June. The number of listeners present at this recital were not enough to count on the fingers of both hands. It included me and June, Jesse Ceci (later, concertmaster of the Denver Symphony), Marianne Nemic, an old girlfriend of Paul’s (who gave June the recording of the Tchaikovsky Trio), Paul’s third wife, and the critic from the New York Times.  

The New York Times review was so laudatory that the next concert, scheduled one week later sold out, and people were clamoring to get in. On that recital he and a wonderful pianist played the BrahmsF Major and the Beethoven A Major, two of the greatest cello sonatas. This concert received one more equally enthusiastic review and, as a result, Paul Olefsky was offered a contract with a major New York manager.  

I was given the opportunity to work with Paul at Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill, Maine, during the summer after my graduation from Juilliard. Paul took me under his wing and gave me very good advice. He advised me to buy a fine Italian cello,  learn Don Quixote and Don Juan by memory, and get a first chair job. He recommended me for my first job touring with Mantovani because, as he told me, “You have to start someplace.”  

Of all the possible employment opportunities, the most déclassé were bus tours, and it was in this ignominious world that I started my career as the fourth of four cellos on a nine-week tour with the Mantovani Orchestra. In spite of its low standing in the world of music, I found Mantovani to be a fabulous musician and a great showman. His arrangements were elegant and always had a light touch that was totally engaging. At the end of every performance he would address the audience saying, “To have played for an audience this appreciative has made our journey of ten thousand miles a privilege and a pleasure,” which would be followed by an encore of his signature piece “Charmaine” and yet another standing ovation.  

One day, some place in the middle of Iowa, Mantovani caught me backstage playing the last movement of Kodaly’s solo sonata. He came over to me and very gently said, “Young man, if only you realized that if you play with perfect intonation, a beautiful sound, and elegant phrasing, you wouldn’t have to play music like that.” Fifty years later I can say that he was absolutely right. I also learned, at twenty-two years old, how to function on a bus tour, interact with all kinds of people, and come home with a little bit of money and my playing basically intact. 

Paul recommend me as a replacement for Channing Robbins, a distinguished cello professor at Juilliard, as first chair cellist of the Congregation of the Arts at Dartmouth College.  Kodaly, Ginastera, and Lutosławski were some of the composers in residence at this festival. It made a tremendous difference in my future career to have been able to handle the responsibilities of that job.  

Among other pieces of really good advice, when I wanted to take off a season from ABT in NY in favor of practicing for an important competition Paul said, “Don’t do it. The Job you hav is very good and can be a stepping stone to a better one. There are PLENTY of competition winners without jobs.” 20 years later ,the very winner of that competition was asking me for a place in my ABT cello section, which I gave her. 

A funny story he told me was that he took on a very poor boy as a charity case for $5 a lesson. The boy did brilliantly undre Paul’s teaching. At the end of a year the Mother of the boy thanked him BUT said they needed a new teacher since he did so well with a five dollar teacher, imagine what he could do with a ten dollar teacher. 

When I gave my Alice Tully Hall debut, Paul brought all his students from Hartt College, and for my final recital, Paul came with his wife to cheer me on. As a mentor, friend, and example, he was second to none.  

At the time of my graduation from Juilliard, a comment that made an impression on me was at my wife’s graduation from the Manhattan School of Music. The guest speaker was the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. He said, “In Hollywood, there are many actors who are not great stars but nevertheless are always working. They excel in stereotyped roles that suit them perfectly. If you want to have a career in music, cast yourself well.” 

VALUE or Not

The other day, I received an inquiry from the Development Department of a major music school. The woman who reached out to me wondered whether I would be free for a bite to eat or a cup of coffee. Of course, what she was after was a provision in my will to support the school. This inquiry brought back many memories, most of them negative, about the time I spent as an undergraduate, so, no doubt, a bite to eat and a cup of coffee would have caused her severe indigestion.

Like all music schools, the tuition is $60,000 per year plus, which I find outrageous. First and foremost, how many jobs do you think there are that pay $60,000 a year playing the cello, or any instrument for that matter? And how many do you think there are going to be 20 years from now?

One of the big things that every music student hopes to achieve is getting a job in an orchestra. It seems that the getting of the job is the fire that impels unbelievable amounts of effort and a considerable amount of good luck. Most people don’t think beyond that point, but if you want a quick view of what a future will be like if you are lucky enough to be able to get one of those jobs, look around the different sections of major symphony orchestras, playing masterworks by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc., and see how much enthusiasm you see on the faces of those that are over 40. 

A colleague of mine inquired about an orchestral studies program at another major school. My response to this was, “Have your student go to Los Angeles and offer the principal cellist $300 a lesson if they’d give you ten lessons. Then go up to San Francisco and offer that principal cellist the same $300 a lesson for ten lessons, and finally, up to Seattle and ask that principal cellist whether he would give you ten lessons for $300 a lesson.” This investment would give the student the advantage of learning tips for preparing auditions from professionals who have worked as section leaders in major orchestras. It would also afford the student personal contact with important people in the profession.

I am not in the position to prognosticate anybody’s future in the profession. I have worked with students who have made it into the finals round in auditions for major symphony orchestras, but haven’t ever gotten a job. The Chicago Symphony once held an audition where 130 cellists played, and they didn’t give any of them the job.

One of the selling points of major institutions, since they have such low acceptance rates, is that the student will be rubbing elbows with the giants of the future and making connections that will last a lifetime. I can honestly say that I never earned a dime because I went to a major music school. Not only did I know these giants, but they also knew me, and even if they had used what influence they may or may not have had on my behalf, I can’t see how it would have ended me up in a better position than I eventually achieved.

For me, one of the great advantages of creating a career I eventually had was to create it myself. The requirements of any kind of a career are a sustainable income, recognition from important third-party sources, and the opportunity to keep on creating these opportunities year after year.

Even in my own case, the best I can say is that I was a good teacher, and my various students did well and have said so in print. During the 1980s I had a reputation for being able to help cellists sound good when playing under pressure, so young professionals, many who were graduates of the Juilliard, Manhattan, and Yale music schools, would come to me for lessons. I had the good fortune to play thousands of solos in big opera houses, and those solos gave me a laboratory in which to experiment. It has been a great privilege to be able to pass on some of the knowledge I learned from my experiments to some of my professional colleagues.

Although it didn’t cost $60,000 a year to study with me, I do feel I offered value at my $35 an hour rate. I think Sam Levenson said it best, “You don’t have to be in Who’s Who to Know What’s What.”