One of the most uniquely gifted cellists to cross my path is Robert Gardner. A consummate musician and artist, his extraordinary sound and total authenticity is immediately apparent in his rendition of the solos found in Shostakovich Fifteenth Symphony.
Besides Bob’s playing, his remarkable inventiveness manifested in other ways. At one point, he bought a factory-made Juzek cello for $126. After many hours of research and experimentation, he created a bridge for this factory-made
At one point, Bob broke the index finger on his left hand, and with the finger in a splint played an entire season, including solos from Tosca and Don Giovanni, without the use of that particular finger. I can’t imagine how this could be accomplished, but it’s documented that Bob accomplished it and suffered no loss of quality. In fact, I understand that the conductor Sergiu Comissiona demanded that Bob play for him privately using just three fingers to prove that he could do it.
These two incidents are emblematic of a 50-year career, when he was principal cellist of the New York City Opera and the Aspen Festival orchestra, where all sorts of miracles were accomplished on a daily basis. He was an important mentor to me, and I admired him tremendously. During a time when I didn’t believe in myself, it was his encouragement that kept me going when I might otherwise have faulted. On Bob’s recommendation I was invited to audition for the principal chair of the Saint Louis Symphony in 1967. I did not get the job, but in preparing for that audition I found my voice. Immediately after the Saint Louis audition, I won an audition for the principal chair of the American National Opera Company, which led to becoming the principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera orchestra. When I went off to Chicago, Bob rode in the cab with me to LaGuardia Airport. His parting words to me there were, “As principal cellist of an opera orchestra, you will either be bored to death or scared to death.”
Every Sunday during that first season at the Lyric Opera, Bob would accept my collect calls, advise me, and sympathize with me. Throughout the years, he’s been my dearest friend and supported my career and my life, and I consider his friendship one of the greatest blessings in my life.
Robert Gardner, Cellist
Principal cellist of the New York City Opera for over 46 years, Robert Gardner was one of the longest-serving principal cellists in the United States. He was also for many years principal cellist of the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra and a member of the Festival faculty. In addition, he maintained a large private teaching practice in New York City.
From the beginning, his career followed an unusual trajectory. He began his cello studies at the relatively late age of 13, and a year later became a student of Leonard Rose, the greatest American cellist and teacher of his time. Mr. Gardner stopped playing the cello at 18 for five years while he explored other career interests. At 23 he returned to the cello as the result of a chance encounter with Charlotte Moorman, legendary avant-garde cellist of the 60’s.
Mr. Gardner’s first instrument after returning to music was a $75.00 plywood cello whose inadequate tone prompted a search for improvement, culminating in Mr. Gardner’s invention of his “Augmented Efficiency” bridge, which he eventually applied to his first “real” (and current) cello, a $126.00 factory-made Juzak. He used this cello exclusively for more than 50 years. Colleagues often referred to it as “the Gardner Strad.”
His unusually varied career includes the American premiere of Carl Friedrich Abel’s Triple Concerto, at Carnegie Hall; one of the earliest performances of Alberto Ginastera’s Second String Quartet with the York String Quartet, which helped launch this work into the standard repertoire; the American premiere of the Triple Concerto of Emanuel Moor with the New York Philharmonic; guest artist in the Lark Woodwind Quintet’s recording of the complete chamber works of Carl Nielsen, which won Stereo Review’s “Recording of Special Merit” award; a solo collaboration with Jazz-great Ornette Coleman in the feature movie “Chappaqua”; and solo cellist in the RCA prize-winning recording of Handel’s Julius Caesar, with Beverly Sills.
Critics have singled out his orchestral solos for praise. The Los Angeles Times lauded the “sumptuous tone and expansive musicality” of his solo playing in Richard Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In The Aspen Festival Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony The Denver Post praised his 2nd movement solo as “bold and convincing with a gorgeous big tone”. In a Lincoln center performance of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” the New York Post devoted a separate paragraph to his solo playing, entitled “A Nice Touch”. During a NYC Opera Live From Lincoln Center nationally telecast performance of opera highlights, Luciano Pavorotti invited Mr. Gardner to take a solo bow, while praising his beautiful tone.
Robert Gardner was one of New York’s prominent cello teachers. His students occupy positions in orchestras throughout the United States and Europe, including three of the four resident Lincoln Center orchestras.
Aside from his performance of the Dvorak Concerto at the age of 18, most examples of Mr. Gardner’s playing occurred in the course of his work at Lincoln Center and the Aspen Festival.