XVIII. The Death of Leonard Rose

I connected with Leonard Rose again in 1982 under circumstances that I unwittingly managed to arrange. My friend Dov Buk, an instrument dealer in New York, told me about an Amati cello that he was selling for Benar Heifetz. I told Dov that Leonard Rose had a Nicolo Amati cello, and when the two men met they became instant friends, who happened to have a lot in common.

Dov called me from his shop one day, and, as a kind of a prank, he put Leonard Rose on the phone without telling me who it was. After my initial annoyance, I had a pleasant conversation with Mr. Rose about instruments and how expensive it was for people like me to upgrade. I was, of course, not interested in upgrading, so when Mr. Rose asked me if I was a “looker,” I replied that the business of looking was too rich for my blood.

He then told me about the physical frustrations of old age (he was 63 at the time). I let him know that the perfection of his solos in the recordings he made of the repertoire I knew so well, piano trios by Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn, literally boggled my mind. His response was, “Every year it gets harder and harder, and so every year I practice longer and longer, but there is nothing else for me.”

I asked him if he could recommend any former students for me to call to play in the cello section for the upcoming American Ballet Theater season. He recommended two cellists who became life-long friends: Eric Bartlett and Scott Ballantyne.

Eric was one of the founding members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and Scott, who taught at Juilliard and at the Cleveland Institute, knew the playing of the 12-year-old Matt Haimowitz, a cellist Leonard Rose claimed would be the next Yo-Yo Ma. Scott told me that 82 he was very good. I asked Scott if Matt played better than I played, to which he responded, “He plays better than you did when you were twelve.” Eric played principal during my leaves of absence in 1994 and 1996, and John Lanchbery sent me a letter letting me know that my section was in “talented and capable hands.” Scott and Eric continued playing in my section until I left in 1998, and both have moved on to further successes. Eric is a member of the New York Philharmonic, and Scott has a great career as a teacher, soloist, and chamber musician.

Leonard Rose was diagnosed with leukemia in 1984. I heard him give a beautiful and inspiring performance of the Schumann Concerto with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra in January of that year. Somehow musical impulse triumphed over his many physical difficulties. When I saw him backstage, he told me that he knew what tired was, but that this was something quite different.

I asked Scott Ballantyne, Mr. Rose’s former student and very close assistant, if he could arrange for me to see Mr. Rose during the final days of his illness (and his life). Mr. Rose’s response was that he didn’t want me to see him, and certainly didn’t want me to come to his funeral or “any damned fool memorial service they may concoct for me at Juilliard.” He said that what he wanted me to do was to “play glorious solos in the opera.”

The evening of the day he died was the opening night of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, an opera with the biggest and most exposed cello solos in the repertoire. I tried to imagine how I could possibly play it in a way that would be good enough to honor Leonard Rose. Ironically the next time this opera came to the Lyric, opening night was on the 23rd anniversary of his death.