III. Sadist or Saint

During my final 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.

The usual way of getting sound out of the cello is to press it out. This is an outside-in approach that forces tension and a promotes paint-bynumber musical mindset. I think Mr. Shure’s technical advice applies even more to playing a string instrument than it does to playing the piano because string instruments have two different points of resistance: the string under the fingers of the left hand and the string through the bow. If a cellist thinks of the act of drawing sound out of the instrument as a release, there’s no limit to the variety of sound that can come out of the instrument without the cellist getting tight.

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.”

Mr. Shure had high aspirations for my development, but he violently objected to the ways in which I earned a living. I could not afford to abandon all sources of income in favor of studying Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert. I was obliged to go on ballet tours and accept other cello playing work in order to pay the bills.

Two years into our relationship, he organized a recital in his home. He played Schubert’s Die Wintereise 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.

My decision to continue touring with the American Ballet Theatre was a turning point in my early professional life, and I have the cello solos in La Sylphide and Giselle to thank for being offered the principal cello position for the 1965 New York season at the New York State Theatre.

As the principal cellist I was given the opportunity to choose my stand partner, so I chose Carl Ziegler, my first cello teacher. Mr. Ziegler was delighted when I asked him to be my stand partner. I told him about my problems with sight-reading and about how I learned the ballet repertoire by memory (I didn’t understand at the time that my difficulties were due to dyslexia) to compensate for my lack of professionalism. Mr. Ziegler’s response was, “What could be more professional than knowing the music you have to play by memory?”

Mr. Ziegler was a wonderful assistant, and he beamed with pleasure (and maybe a bit of pride) every time I played a solo.