XVIV. An Inevitable Sense of Rubato

I resigned from the American Ballet Theatre orchestra in 1998 after June and I decided to relocate permanently to Chicago. Our building, like other buildings all over New York’s Upper West Side, became a condominium, and we were faced with buying it or buying a much nicer apartment in Chicago, where we spent much of the year anyway. I took Bert Lucerelli’s advice to develop my career in New York when I joined the Lyric Opera, and by 1998 I was happy to take what I had built, and hone it in the comfort of a spacious apartment on Lake Shore Drive with a view of Lake Michigan. I also learned to drive, something I never could have imagined doing in New York.

Eric Larsen, who had become a senior member of the faculty at the North Carolina School of the Arts, could fly as easily to Chicago as he could fly to New York for rehearsals, so we were able to work on repertoire we would perform and record.

Eric and I are of much the same mind when it comes to practicing and rehearsing, and we developed ways to maximize our time. First we would work through the piano part, using the moving lines in the left hand of the piano as our guide, until we had the phrasing and timing exactly the way we wanted it. Then we would work for what I like to call “composite sound,” trying to reconcile the tonal disparity between the piano and the cello. Then we would spend the rest of our rehearsal time working at very slow tempos with the metronome, gradually increasing it until we reached our ultimate performance tempo.

When rehearsing with the trio, we would work phrase by phrase to try to combine inevitability with a sense of rubato. We never compromised, and worked on phrases until we agreed exactly what we would do with them together. We delighted in good phrases, and worked for them endlessly. Sometimes we experimented. I remember once during our 1981 tour, we tried to see how far we could exaggerate a phrase and still have it make sense. Thirty years later I think we could have gone further. I’m proud of the recordings we made together, particularly the Chopin Introduction and Polonaise, the Rachmaninoff Sonata, the two early Beethoven Sonatas, the Brahms F Major Sonata, the Archduke Trio, the Brahms B Major Trio and the Ravel Trio. I also like the video we made of the Shostakovich Trio; it shows a lot of what we tried to accomplish.

During the 1960s through the 1980s it was expensive and difficult to produce long-playing vinyl records. CDs were much easier to produce, but without distribution those recordings didn’t have credibility. My dear friend Henson Markham and his brother had a record-producing factory, and though most of their recordings were of Country and Western music, it didn’t prevent them from producing runs of 1,000 of my CDs at a very reasonable price.

Internet-based commerce made it possible for me to have a recording career. It entirely eliminated the problem of having a distributor. While there are certainly down sides to the changes in the way people buy recordings, initially this freedom from a distributor leveled the playing field, and made it possible for someone like me to be credible as a recording artist based on my credibility as a musician.

I feel extremely fortunate to have Leonard Rose as a constant source of inspiration. Many of the great virtuoso cellists of the past are remembered for their particular personalities and some are remembered for the way they have contributed to the virtuoso possibilities for the cello. Leonard Rose certainly had a formidable personality, but he will mainly be remembered for his perfect intonation, beautiful sound, elegant phrasing, and the emotional warmth he put into playing every note. His integrity and intelligence were matchless.

He tried to get his students to aspire to the standards and qualities he aspired to, and achieved success by not allowing students to play pieces that were too difficult for them to play at their highest level. I remember being resentful when Mr. Rose insisted that I play the Saint-Saëns Concerto for my jury at Juilliard instead of the Dvořák Concerto. He knew that I could play the Saint-Saëns Concerto well, and he knew that the Dvořák Concerto would have been a struggle for me to play well. Understanding the importance of making a good impression was one of the gifts that he gave to me. His philosophy was to spend half one’s practice time developing and maintaining technical skills with scales, exercises, and etudes, and to always keep practicing and performing technically difficult pieces, so that everything else you might be asked to play would seem easy by comparison. I try to give as much of what I learned from Leonard Rose to my students.

I use what I have learned to teach my students to sound as good as they can, any way they can. If something doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t sound good in particular ways: there could be problems with intonation, rhythm, or sound quality. There’s always a correlation between what I hear when a student plays and the physical means the student uses to produce what I hear. I spot the problem, define it, and then I come up with some sort of an exercise to bridge the gap between where the student is technically and what will make him or her consistently sound better. First I consider why something is happening and what can be changed to produce a better result. I believe that there isn’t any mystery to sounding good, and believe that sounding good is, obviously, always better than sounding bad. Many people don’t seem to see this, but that’s their problem.

During the 1980s I had a reputation for being able to help cellists sound good when playing under pressure, so young professionals, many who were graduates of the Juilliard, Manhattan, and Yale music schools, would come to me for lessons. I had the good fortune to play thousands of solos in big opera houses, and those solos gave me a laboratory in which to experiment. It has been a great privilege to be able to pass on some of the knowledge I learned from my experiments to some of my professional colleagues.

The clarinetist Jon Manasse played for me before taking his audition for principal clarinet position of the Metropolitan Opera. When he played the famous solo from the second act of La Traviata, I clapped out the subdivisions. This gave his playing a poignancy that wasn’t there before, and he immediately told me, “What you just taught me means that I can control the destiny of every phrase I play for the rest of my life.” He won the audition, and he tells me that what I taught him about subdivision is one of the main things that he teaches his Juilliard and Eastman students.

James Kreger, a fantastic cellist, came to play for me in preparation for a Metropolitan Opera audition. Everything sounded good, except for a fast-moving excerpt in Verdi’s Aida, which he simply could not play at the required tempo. I broke the excerpt into sequential units with breaks in between, and he was immediately able to play the passage at breakneck speed. What held him back was the constant connecting of the end of one sequence to the beginning of the next. When he could picture this excerpt as a series of units of release, the obstacles that he created for himself vanished. He won the audition.

Patrick Jee joined the Chicago Lyric Opera as my assistant a year before he was scheduled to play a performance of the Tchaikovsky “Rococo” Variations with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. During the intermissions I showed him the detaché bowing as it had been shown to me by Leonard Rose. He gave an excellent performance, and told me that the Rose detaché made a huge difference in his rendition of the final variation.

Eliot Bailen was one of the greatest talents who ever crossed my path. He worked with me for many years, but I can’t remember what I taught him. I suppose I was able to help him amplify his sound and get a little more bite into his bow arm, but in all fairness, from his first lesson, when he played the big solo from Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme, I felt that I should be paying him for the beauty and pleasure he brought into my life with his wonderful talent.

I was able to give him useful professional advice, though. Eliot felt that he had to prove himself to every cellist in sight in order to feel legitimate. I kept telling him that every other cellist was his rival, and they didn’t want to be illuminated. I explained to him that working his way through the ranks was simply not the way to go. After ten years of nagging, I finally got him to give a New York recital in a major hall. It was a stunning event. At the end of the recital, he told me, “Now that I’m on the other side of it, I know why you wanted me to do it.” Reviews of cello recitals by Lynn Harrell, Yo-Yo Ma, Janos Starker, and Eliot Bailen that were played in New York came out in the next month’s issue of Strings Magazine. Eliot got the best review, by far. He has since enjoyed great success as a member of the faculty of Columbia University, directing and performing in several chamber music societies, and writing music of real significance.

My Lyric Opera colleague Walter Preucil had never studied with Leonard Rose, but I was able to bring him into Leonard Rose’s world technically, tonally, and musically. At the time of this writing, he is playing principal cello at the Lyric Opera, and sitting in my old chair.

Barbara Bogatin, one of my stand partners at the American Ballet Theatre, came to me before playing an audition for the assistant principal chair in the New York Philharmonic. She was having trouble with intonation in Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. I had her play each first note of each group of four sixteenth notes four times. I had her do this through chromatic passages, until she could hear recognizable varieties of seventh chords emerge. Once she recognized that outline, she played the excerpt perfectly in tune. She didn’t win the audition, but Zubin Mehta did listen to her play for an hour. She served as the principal cellist of the New Jersey and Milwaukee symphonies, and then joined the San Francisco Symphony.

Rosalyn Clarke had trouble vibrating on her third finger. We tried strengthening exercises, but eventually I suggested that she should forget about trying to vibrate on that finger and simply try to get the most beautiful sound she could without vibrato. In a very short time she was vibrating on that third finger perfectly well. Once she had a long cello solo in Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, and was particularly concerned about it because the performance was going to be broadcast on the radio. Her sound was constricted when she played it for me a few hours before the performance.

The solo was in the key of A major, so I had Lindy (as she is called) play some three-octave A major scales, using one bow per scale degree. I had her hold each note for two beats, while the metronome clicked half notes at 60 beats per minute. Then I accompanied her with a stream of double stops that created a series of dominant seventh chords. After 25 minutes she sounded great. She has been the assistant principal at the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for the last 30-odd years, and has had a very successful career as a freelancer in New York.

Joseph Kimura was a very gifted student, but he suffered from intonation problems. He had particular trouble with augmented 4ths and minor 6ths. I asked him to play the first three notes of “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (the first two notes outline an augmented 4th), and to my amazement, he played it perfectly in tune. I sent him home with instructions to find twelve tunes, one for each possible interval. From then on, every time he played out of tune, I would have him play the appropriate tune for that particular interval and then repeat the passage as written. The improvement was dramatic and within a few weeks, he no longer needed to refer to his interval list to maintain his newly acquired sense of pitch.

I have also taught many students who didn’t play very well at first, but made enough progress with me to become successful. Seth Woods was a student at Roosevelt University who had severe intonation problems. He came to me after being told that if he didn’t improve he would lose his scholarship. His problem was that he didn’t know where the notes he was trying to play actually were on the cello. I put him on a steady diet of scale exercises, and after a year and a half, he was able to play the Shostakovich Sonata and the Boccherini Concerto well enough to get a large scholarship at Brooklyn College. He studied there with Frederick Zlotkin, the principal cellist of the New York City Ballet, and after a year, he got a scholarship to study in Switzerland with Thomas Demenga and has become well known in eclectic new music circles.