Through unguarded cracks silent layers of dust settle on bright dreams

Mildred Morganstern (c.1980)

I distinctly remember being around three years old and drifting off to sleep to the sound of my mother playing the slow movement of the Chopin E Minor Piano Concerto. My mother graduated from high school at the age of 15, received a Bachelor’s Degree from the Juilliard School of Music at the age of 18, and got her Master’s Degree from Columbia University at 21. She was a brilliant and extraordinarily talented woman. Leonard Rose told me that he had many students who had mothers who played the piano, but that my mother was the only real artist among them.

My mother always wanted to learn to play the cello well enough to be able to play the second cello part in the Schubert C Major Quintet. She didn’t realize, of course, that in order to play the second cello part you had to have real mastery of the instrument. Nevertheless, she bought a cello and tried to learn how to play it. When I was seven, it was time for me to learn an instrument. I wanted to play the violin, but my mother put a cello in my hands.

Dyslexia was a term first used in 1887 to describe a condition that makes reading difficult for people of otherwise normal intelligence. It is a condition that causes some people to unconsciously rotate two-dimensional images so that they become three-dimensional images. It is advantageous for sculptors and engineers, but before the condition was truly understood, it caused a great deal of strife for children who were learning to read.

I had a very poor self-image as a child because of my inability to read. One month into my fourth grade year, Mrs. Abigail Apt, my fourth grade teacher, had me stand up in front of the class. She told me that I had been on trial during the first month in order to see whether I could keep up with the class, and that I wasn’t able to keep up. I felt my heart go straight down to my feet. Then she told me that everybody deserves a second chance, and announced that she would give me another month. She added that during this next month everybody in the class would help me. It must have worked, because I was able to complete the fourth grade.

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Fagin, was an ardent Republican who railed against Harry Truman for firing General MacArthur. Our class presented a program to honor fallen soldiers. People wrote stories and songs, and my mother and I played the first movement of Ludwig Mendelssohn’s Cello Concerto. I had the honor of playing my older cousin Michael’s cello for the occasion. After we played Mrs. Fagin came up to me and told me that nobody who can play the cello like that could possibly be dumb. Her statement rang in my mind, and it helped upgrade my self-image and my schoolwork significantly.

When I was eleven my aunt Lilly Grebanier (my mother’s sister) encouraged my mother to send me to Carl Ziegler, my cousin Michael’s teacher, for lessons. I idolized Michael and hoped that one day I could play as well as he played. His footsteps were hard to follow: when he was 19 Michael won the Naumberg Competition. He spent four years with George Szell in the Cleveland Orchestra as assistant principal, and then at age 25 was appointed principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Carl Ziegler was a member of the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini, and a member of the New York City Ballet orchestra. He gave me pieces and etudes that were just a little harder than what I could do, and I managed to advance slowly. I learned the pieces he gave me, but I didn’t make any earth-shaking progress.

I remember one lesson when I was playing the Boccherini Concerto for him while watching myself in the mirror. Mr. Ziegler laced into me and said, “I see that you’re admiring yourself in the mirror.” He continued, “If you listen to what you’re doing, maybe you would find a lot less to admire, because at the rate you’re going, you will never amount to anything as a cellist.”

That comment shocked me out of my complacency, and I went home and I practiced 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.) The next day I practiced for another four hours, and the day after that another four hours. I was a four-hour-a-day man. My playing improved dramatically, and Mr. Ziegler gave me much more difficult repertoire to learn. In a very short time, he helped me get through the Saint-Saëns Concerto and Lalo Concerto, as well as some difficult etudes by Piatti and Duport. He decided to give me one extra free lesson a week to cover the material he assigned, because, as he said, “It’s good advertising for me.” The next school year I was appointed the principal cellist of the All-City High School Orchestra, and I started developing a reputation as a really good cellist.

My mother was pleased with my progress, so she took it upon herself to contact Leonard Rose, who had heard me play in a little competition put on by WQXR. Maybe it wasn’t so little, because the roster of judges included, at one time or another, Arthur Rubinstein, Zino Francescatti, Rudolph Serkin, Jascha Heifetz, and Leonard Rose. I did not win the prize, so my mother wrote to Leonard Rose to ask why. He replied, explaining that for my level I was the best around, and that it would do me a lot of good to find myself among other young cellists so that I could aspire to a higher level. He also said that it wouldn’t hurt me to have a really first-class teacher (like him).

I was not happy to be carted off to Juilliard and away from Mr. Ziegler, whom I loved. I always understood that I would study with Leonard Rose after I graduated from high school, but my mother didn’t give me a choice in the matter.

Mr. Rose spent the first lesson showing me how to sit properly at the cello and how to hold the bow. Before that lesson I had no idea how to sit properly or hold the bow in an efficient manner. I also had no idea how important it was.

One week after my first lesson with him, Mr. Rose gave a recital at Washington Irving High School. He played the Beethoven D Major Sonata, the Bach C Major Suite, and the Tchaikovsky “Rococo” Variations. He performed with such technical perfection, beauty of sound, and emotional warmth, that hearing that recital became the turning point of my life as a cellist. Being able to play like Leonard Rose became my only worthwhile goal.

My mother was right. Good things began to happen for me within my first few months of studying with Mr. Rose. A cello solo I played during the All-City High School Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concert was mentioned in the newspaper, and I won the WQXR “Musical Talent in Our Schools” contest. I also won the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s first string competition, and made my debut as a soloist with the Brooklyn Philharmonic playing the Boccherini Concerto.

I was featured a large number of times on an educational television program called Tune-up Time. The main segments of the program were “blowing,” “bowing,” and “beating,” and I was the star of the “bowing” part. In 1957 and 1958, when television was someplace between its infancy and adolescence, we had to wear blue shirts because white shirts reflected the light into the cameras in an unflattering way. I missed so many days of school that my history teacher tried to prevent me from graduating. When my picture appeared with Van Cliburn in the centerfold of the Daily News during his ticker-tape parade after winning the Tchaikovsky competition, my principal thwarted my history teacher’s efforts. I also got a score of 89 on the Regents Exam and was legally prevented from failing by the state of New York.

Everything was going swimmingly, but I had a fall from grace when I played Faure’s Après un Reve and the first movement of the Brahms E Minor Sonata on “Musical Talent in Our Schools.” I was not unhappy with the way I played, and Abram Chasins (the director of the program) was ecstatic over my performance. Unfortunately Leonard Rose, who had heard the program, hated it. He read me the “riot act” in my next lesson, and all I could say in my defense was that I had listened to the acetate and thought it was pretty good. I still find it ironic that eighteen years later I got back into Leonard Rose’s good graces as the anonymous cellist playing the solo in the second act of the national broadcast of Swan Lake. Who can tell the twists and turns of fate?

My first year as a college student at Juilliard came on the heels of all this success. My very first class there was ear training, and my teacher was the redoubtable Peter Schickele, a composer who achieved fame and fortune by creating the pseudo-18th-century character of P.D.Q. Bach. He used to give two-part dictation by burping the bass-line and whistling the melody. The class was filled with extraordinary people: some of them even became world-famous.

Leo Brouwer, my first friend in my ear-training class, was a composition major and a guitarist. When I asked him whether he played the piano, he told me that the guitar was his instrument, and that he composed on the guitar. He and his wife were most adamant about the fact that they were Cubans and not Puerto Ricans, and they often came visit me in Brooklyn where my mother was happy to feed them.

Leo and I played a recital together as a benefit for the Natalie Joan Chancy Foundation. I was impressed with the way he would strum his guitar until he was comfortable, and then launch into whatever it was he was going to play. He had a great career as a guitar virtuoso (his manager was Sol Hurok), and Leo became the most important and best-known composer in Cuba. He wrote for other instruments, but he is best known for his guitar music.

The soprano Shirley Verrett Carter (known professionally as Shirley Verrett) was fantastic when she came to sing at the Lyric Opera, but I will never forget the way she used to look over my shoulder when we had tests in ear-training class.

I met Channing Robbins very soon after my first day (I was his first student at Juilliard). I wanted to impress him, so I played three of the most difficult Popper etudes. I thought I played them flawlessly, and was waiting for admiring approval. All Channing said was, “You played an E-natural instead of an E-flat in one place.” 17 years later, when I went back to work with him, I mentioned that since I had played so well he should have said something nice. He replied, “I would have known better now.”

My inability to sight-read Strauss’ Don Juan (or anything else, for that matter) prevented me from getting into the top orchestra at Juilliard. Fortunately there was a second orchestra, and its conductor, Jorge Mester, was delighted to have a principal cellist who already knew the solos from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture, and Lalo’s Le Roi D’ys Overture. He was an exceptional conductor, the first exceptional conductor I ever worked with. Sometimes he would comment on my interpretations, and I would say, “You do it your way and I’ll do it Rossini’s way.” I worked with him 32 years later when I was the principal cellist of the Aspen Festival Orchestra. After playing under some of the best conductors in the world, I still found him exceptional.

Another conductor I met at Juilliard was Stefan Bauer Mengelberg, the grand nephew of the famous Willem Mengelberg. He was an assistant to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, and also taught mathematics at City College. Stefan arranged reading sessions of the Dvořak Concerto and the Barber Concerto so I could have a chance to play those pieces with orchestra (he went down to Schirmer’s himself to get the orchestra parts for the Barber). When the weather was nice we would go to Riverside Park, and he would teach me advanced algebra.

One of the things that he told me he loved to spring on his classes had to do with sequences. I particularly remember his question about the relationship between 4, 14, 34, 42, and 59. It gave all of his students (including me) a headache to figure out. Finally he gave me the solution: those numbers are the station stops on the D train. He went to a lot of trouble for me. He got me tickets to performances of the New York Philharmonic and would treat me to dinner afterward at the Carnegie Deli.

After his incarnations as conductor and mathematician, he became a lawyer specializing in arts-related matters. He also invented a computer program to notate music. He sent me a very nice note before I played in Alice Tully Hall. He wished me luck and asked me if I wanted him to return my piano part for the Beethoven Sonatas. He expressed his regrets for not being able to come to the concert. I never saw him again.

The two summers that I spent at Meadowmount in 1957 and 1958 were crucial to my professional success. The atmosphere at Meadowmount was the total opposite the competitive atmosphere of Juilliard (a place where my colleagues were always ready to denigrate whatever accomplishments I may have had). At Meadowmount everyone was there to work in order to improve the way we played so we could advance in the profession. The atmosphere was totally positive, and I considered myself headed for success simply by being at Meadowmount.

I had interactions during those two summers with Ivan Galamian, Josef Gingold, and my own teacher, Leonard Rose. Leonard Rose pushed me to play more beautifully and with as much personality as possible. When I played the slow movement of the Dvořak Concerto for him, he told me, “If it don’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing.” Sometimes he would say, “Sock it to me, baby.” The advanced students, like Roger Drinkall, were also willing to share both their knowledge of the repertoire and their knowledge about Mr. Rose’s ways of teaching with younger students like me. Roger, who was a very fine cellist, spent a great deal of time helping me with the Dvořak Concerto and the Tchaikovsky “Rococo” Variations.

Mr. Rose asked Ivan Galamian to help me with my bow arm. After one of our fifteen-minute 6:45 a.m. lessons, Mr. Galamian took me to breakfast and talked to me about his philosophy of playing and teaching. We sat together beneath a placard that had a quote from Seneca that read “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” He told me, “It is easy to be easy on yourself and hard on the others, and it is hard to be hard on yourself and easy on the others, but much better.” He also reminded me that while I may be talented, talent is not enough. Only hard work can bring it to fulfillment. It was certainly empowering that the most renowned violin teacher in the world was willing to spend his time trying to fix up my bow arm. It did wonders for my confidence.

In addition to the attention I got from Mr. Rose and Mr. Galamian, I had the opportunity to work through Franz Schubert’s two-cello quintet with Joseph Gingold. Whatever he had to say about the way we played was much less important than his obvious love for the music, particularly his desire for it to be played as beautifully as possible.

Isaac Stern came and gave two very long masterclasses in 1957. The first class covered the Brahms Violin Sonatas, and the second covered the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I was most impressed with how passionately interested he was in conveying his thoughts and feelings about these works. His way of teaching reminded me of the way Leonard Rose taught the cello repertoire, and I thought Mr. Stern was as fine a teacher as he was a player. Isaac Stern was 37 at the time and his career in full swing. It was very generous for him come to Meadowmount to work with students (though they were very good students: Jamie Laredo, Jerry Rosen, and Arnold Steinhardt).

I really enjoyed hearing the students at Meadowmount. Roger Drinkall gave a great performance of the Schubert “Arpeggione” Sonata, and I’m sure some of the panache he displayed then inspired my interpretation of the piece. Michael Grebanier, my cousin, performed the Brahms F Major Sonata and the Tchaikovsky “Rococo” Variations, which were part of his Naumberg recital program. Varoujon Kodjian gave a magnificent performance of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, a piece I heard for the first time that summer, and Jamie Laredo gave a totally heartfelt rendition of the Sibelius Concerto. I also remember hearing Arnold Steinhardt practice Prokofieff’s Second Concerto for hours on end.

I made great and lasting friendships at Meadowmount. Charles Haupt asked me to join his string quartet, and I had the opportunity to play through quartets of Schubert, Schumann, Ravel, and Debussy with extraordinary players. We remained good friends, and his wonderful violin playing inspired me throughout my career. I had the very good fortune to live with Paul Rosenthal, another violinist I met at Meadowmount, during the year that he was practicing for the Queen Elizabeth competition. His example showed me how to work on and maintain my own technique, and also how to achieve consistency at a very high level of playing. I owe much of my professional success to the associations and experiences I had at Meadowmount, as well as those I had during the summers I spent at Blue Hill in Maine.

Blue Hill was a summer music school founded in 1902 by Franz Kneisel. After 1953 Kneisel’s daughter Marianne ran the school. I was a student there during the summers of 1959 and 1960, and I had the opportunity to work on the Beethoven Quartet, Opus 59, No. 1 and the Schubert Quartettsatz with the great violinist Joseph Fuchs. I learned a great deal from him, particularly when he would take over the first violinist’s part and show us how to play chamber music. Right after my graduation from Juilliard, Marianne Kneisel engaged me to be one of two professional cellists to spend the summer there. This particular summer, I had a discussion with Mr. Fuchs that changed the course of my life.

Mr. Fuchs was very famous for speaking his mind, and when I met him one afternoon in front of Taco’s Restaurant, he asked me if I was going back to Juilliard the next year. I told him I was thinking about it. He told me, “Don’t go back to Juilliard. It’s a big waste of time. Go out into the world. Get a job. Make money. You’ll do well.”

I took him at his word, and got a job.

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