At my first Lyric Opera rehearsal I met Lois Bickel Colburn, a cellist in her late 60s or early 70s. She had been my predecessor Shirley Tabachnick’s teacher, and had four former students in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony. She gave the Chicago premiere of the Kodály Unaccompanied Cello Sonata, and was a member of the first string quartet to perform all the Bartók quartets in the American Midwest.
She must have viewed me with a certain disdain and suspicion when I arrogantly announced that I would play the Tosca solo better than anybody had in the history of Chicago. I did eventually win her over when Tosca came up early in the season, but she told me not to break my arm patting myself on the back. This was only one of her many tangy phrases. She said about one of our conductors, “What he knows about music you can put in your eye and see better.” About the cello section, minus the two of us, she offered the comment, “They add up to a big round zero without the rim.” Years later when Bruno Bartoletti conducted the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s El Amour Brujo, her response was “Jesus wept.” Whenever it looked like I might get myself into trouble, she advised, “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat.”
She had emphysema, caused by a lifetime of smoking, and had shoulder problems. Since the best defense is a good offense, she had something bad to say about everybody, and she did it in grand style. She would call the younger players “junior geniuses,” and some of the older colleagues who talked too much were “IN-sufferable!” When Joe Saunders, my stand partner, asked her to listen to him play and criticize it, she said there was a lot to criticize. I’m sure that once was enough for Joe. On the other hand, she really liked me, and encouraged me to play as loud as I could and let them know what I could do, but also encouraged me to go back and study with Leonard Rose because he was “Mister Big.” There wasn’t anything exceptionally dramatic about our friendship, but we shared our time together every day in a spirit of love and appreciation, and I treasure the memory of my time with her.
There were two things that really stuck with me over the last five decades since Lois came into my life. “When the devil says good morning, tip your hat and don’t borrow trouble.” How many times in my life has the ghost of Lois Colburn come down just at the right moment to tell me not to borrow trouble or to tip my hat for the devil, when my instincts would have been to do the exact opposite.
Lois desperately wanted me to have her Testore cello and was terribly disappointed when it did not suit me. In a way, I would’ve liked to have had her cello to be able to hold on to a tangible part of her. I’ve often wondered why I had so much trouble connecting with so many of this generation who were 40 years younger than me, since I had such a good and fluid relationship with Lois, who was 40 years older than me.