During my last year at Juilliard I had a cello student named David Fink (he later changed his name to Finch), who happened to be the stepson of Leonard Shure, a protégé of Artur Schnabel, and one of the greatest pianists of the day. After my graduation Mr. Shure invited me to his home and asked me about my aspirations. I told him that my ambition was to acquire a technique that was so good and reliable that I would be able to play anything perfectly at any time. His response was, “I sincerely hope you never get your great technique.” After I asked him why he responded, “If you get your great technique, you will always demean the music that you are playing down to the level of what you can easily do. On the other hand, if you look at a piece of music, particularly a great piece of music, on a note-by-note and phrase-by-phrase basis and continually ask yourself what the music demands, in finding a way to meet those demands your technique can become as infinite as the music.” He then offered to teach me in exchange for my lessons with David, a lopsided arrangement, to say the least.
Mr. Shure was one of the greatest musicians I have ever known. His phrasing was so absolute that when you listened to him play you would find yourself breathing only where he let you breathe. Sadly, I only heard this level of artistry from him when he played in his living room. When he got on stage all spontaneity left him, and he became very didactic.
Since I was a cellist, not a pianist, I managed to avoid his technical criticism, but I did observe the sadistic way he treated his piano students. One in particular was a brilliant Israeli pianist with whom I played the Beethoven A major Sonata in his class. I thought she was a wonderful pianist with a free and easy style that was characterized by buoyancy and effervescence. Mr. Shure constantly and unremittingly accused her of being a right-handed pianist, and brought her to tears week after week. After a year of this treatment, she left to go to Juilliard and study with Rosina Lhévinne.
He would ask all the students, in his chamber music classes as well as in his piano classes, to follow the score assiduously, and everybody would point out whatever omissions or commissions offended the print. I never cared for this approach because I always felt that it wasn’t what was in the score, per se, but what wasn’t in the score that created real artistry.
I did learn a great deal from my lessons with Leonard Shure. Once I played the Gigue of the Second Bach Suite in a manner that was not awfully convincing. Mr. Shure played it on the piano with enough verve and panache 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 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 infinite variety that can be drawn out of the instrument.
Mr. Shure had a particular attitude when he played the Beethoven Cello Sonatas with me. 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; it just had an annoying cello part tagging along. From this attitude I started to see everything that I played as a complete, contextual picture. I learned to relate whatever I happened to be playing 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.”
Two years into our relationship, he organized a recital in his home. He played Schubert’s Die Winterreise with a singer on the first half of the concert, and Ursula Oppens and I played the Brahms F major Sonata on the second half. Ursula and I decided that we would play a little joke on Mr. Shure, and asked if we could play an encore. He said, “By all means!” at which point we launched into the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody, full of tasteless slides and faster-than-the- speed-of-light spiccatos. When we finished (and I can still hear his voice) he said, “Some of you may think this is funny. I do not. Circuses do not belong in churches. You are known by your face. Who are you? Are you an artist playing the Brahms F major, or a clown, wailing away in the most appalling bad taste? You are invited to leave and never come back.” That was the end of my relationship with Leonard Shure.
Twenty-odd years later I played a Beethoven cycle in Carnegie Recital Hall and got a wonderful review from a notably tough critic, Bernard Holland. I sent a copy to Leonard Shure; thanking him for everything he taught me and assuring him that this performance would not have been possible without his teaching and influence. I received no reply.
A number of people mentioned that, in spite of his tendency to be insulting and sarcastic, he really had a good heart, and certainly I experienced that many times.
After my first year away from Juilliard, I thought about getting a master’s degree. I contacted Bernard Greenhouse, who was teaching at the Manhattan School, and when I told Leonard Shure about it, he said, “at the very least, if you’re going to get a cello teacher you should study with Leonard Rose.” I told him that Leonard Rose hated me, and there was no way he was going to teach me. Mr. Shure said not to worry about that, and that he would take care of it.
Well, the next morning I got a call from Leonard Rose. He told me that he heard that I’m a reformed character, and that Leonard Shure called him to say that I was playing beautifully and that I should take you as a student again. He invited me to play for him that Friday. Ultimately I decided not to go back to Juilliard or get a master’s degree.
Leonard Shure got me my first serious chamber music performance. A pianist named Eric Hillman, a friend of Leonard’s son, was looking for a cellist and a violinist to play a trio concert in Washington D.C. Playing this concert was how I got my first good review. Also, Leonard’s chamber music classes had some very fine players. I played the Schubert “Trout” Quintet with Gary Karr, the famous double bass player, and gained Donald Weilerstein’s life-long enmity for opining that his sound was not quite intense enough for what he was playing. I was young, and I felt like I knew everything. Life taught me to know better.
When I was on tour in Cleveland with ABT, David Fink’s father requested to meet me. His comment about Leonard was that Schnabel sat on the right hand of God, and Leonard sat on the right hand of Schnabel (probably not far from the truth). He was primarily interested to know that I was not corrupting his son.
I had a high regard for Leonard’s wife Judy. Her mother, Julia, known as Ju-Ju, was a sister to the famous actors Luther and Stella Adler. Every once in a while, Leonard’s father, known as Papa Jack, would show up. Judy was salt of the earth. Her solution to any sickness was go to bed for 24 hours, and when David and I would stare out the window at some attractive lady taking off her clothes, she would say “that lady is just being at home.” I think that she kept Leonard under control.
Leonard opened my eyes to a much bigger picture of how music could be made. I felt that Leonard constricted his parameters and was unable to fully expand phrases to their ultimate possibilities in public. In private, I heard him play phrases from the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto that make the ones on his recording seem unconvincing. One of the things that I felt really indicated his insecurity was when he played the Diabelli Variations at Stonybrook University. He asked me to spend the day with him, and he constantly harangued me with the question of whether he should play from memory or use the music. He ultimately played it with music.