by Tim Janof

Thomas Demenga, born 1954 in Berne, Switzerland, studied with Walter Grimmer, Antonio Janigro, Leonard Rose and Mstislav Rostropovich, among others. Important chamber-musical influences were Claus Adam, Felix Galimir, and Robert Mann at the Juilliard School in New York.

As an internationally renowned soloist, composer and teacher, Thomas Demenga counts among the most outstanding cellists and musicians of our time. He has performed at important festivals and musical centers around the globe and shared the stage with fellow musicians such as Heinz Holliger, Gidon Kremer, Thomas Larcher, Paul Meyer, Aurèle Nicolet, Hansheinz Schneeberger, Thomas Zehetmair, and Tabea Zimmermann. He has worked with conductors such as Moshe Atzmon, Myung-Whun Chung, Charles Dutoit, Claus Peter Flor, Howard Griffiths, Heinz Holliger, Armon Jordan, Okko Kamu, Mstislav Rostropovich, Dennis Russell Davies, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sándor Végh, Mario Venzago, and Hiroshi Wakasugi. As a soloist he has collaborated with, among others, the following orchestras: Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester, Berner Symphonie Orchester, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Camerata Bern, Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, Kammerorchester Basel, L'Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, ORF-Symphonieorchester Wien, Sinfonieorchester Basel, Sinfonietta Basel, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Westdeutsches Rundfunk Symphonie-Orchester, and Zürcher Kammerorchester.

Thomas Demenga's artistic work is determined by intensive confrontation with different historical eras and styles of interpretation and composition. He dedicates himself with particular intensity to New Music and is also active as an improviser. Thus his individual voice as a composer and interpreter of 20th and 21st century works (among them important prèmieres) gives a new and complementary dimension to both the historical performance practice of baroque music and his virtuoso interpretations of the classical and romantic repertoire. In 1991 he was the first Swiss composer to be awarded first prize for his composition "solo per due" by the congress of the "Tribune Internationale des Compositeurs." Since 1980 Thomas Demenga has led a class for students and soloists at the Hochschule für Musik in Basel.

In August 2000 he was composer-in-residence at the Davos Festival, "Young Artists in Concert," and was subsequently appointed artistic director of the festival. In 2006 he gave up this position in order to commit himself fully to performing and composing again.

In the Lucerne Festival in summer 2003, Thomas Demenga participated as "artiste étoile," succeeding Sabine Meyer (2000), Anne-Sophie Mutter (2001) and Alfred Brendel (2002), Thomas Quasthoff (2004), Christian Tetzlaff (2005), and Emanuel Pahud (2006).

Thomas Demenga's work is documented impressively on a number of CD recordings on the ECM New Series label. In 2002 ECM issued the final volume of a widely-acclaimed series begun in the mid-80s which combined Bach's solo suites with works by modern composers such as Holliger, Carter, Veress, Zimmermann, Yun, and Hosokawa. His latest CD "Chongur" with Thomas Larcher and accordianist Teodoro Anzellotti has been awarded with the "Deutsche Schallplattenpreis", "Fono Forum: Star of the Months", "Gramophone: Editors Choice" and "Le monde de la musique: le choc du mois" (ECM 1914).

TJ: Your first major teacher was Walter Grimmer.

TD: He was one Maurice Gendron's finest students. He modeled his teaching style after Gendron's, which was very systematic and largely based on imitation. He would play and then I would try to copy him. His students, as with Gendron's, were required to use a color-coded system when marking the music; fingerings were in blue, bowings were in red, and green was for expressive markings. His teaching system was very clear.

I consider my time with Grimmer to be critical to my future success. One is dependent on one's early training and I was fortunate to have a great teacher. In the early developmental stages, it is customary to allow the teacher to lead the student step by step so that when the student moves on, he or she has a clear concept that is retained no matter what happens later on. I am very lucky that Grimmer set me up with good playing habits.

Do you believe that a teacher should dictate more to a young student as opposed to allowing him or her to experiment and explore?

The more dictatorial approach worked beautifully with me when I was young, so there must be something to it.

I must admit that I don't work this way at all with my own students. In fact, I do the complete opposite. Having studied with many teachers besides Grimmer, I see myself as a hybrid of all of them. I took what I needed from each one and formulated my own approach, which didn't result in some clearly defined, rigid teaching system. In my own teaching I discuss different ways of approaching the same technical or musical problem and I let my students figure out for themselves which approach works best. It was a huge realization for me that I should never assume that what is best for one person is best for another. There are very few universally correct solutions in music.

After Grimmer you studied with Janigro.

Janigro in many ways imfluenced me the most because his ideas have stayed with me to this day, especially his belief that one should never separate technique from music. Many students come to me saying that they want to learn technique so they can play music, but this separation makes no sense. Every phrase in the literature poses a unique problem. Yes, there are certain technical basics that can be applied to many situations, but the reality is that every problem has to be treated differently because each musical expression requires a unique set of factors that can't be practiced on their own. Janigro opened my eyes to the idea that music and technique are so interrelated in music-making that focusing on technique for technique's sake is not all that productive.

Janigro didn't have you work on scales and etudes?

That's correct. He would have us work on pieces instead, but he had a very specific technical system for each one, which we would learn to generalize to other works.

Starker seems have a different idea, which is that he wants to give his students a set of technical tools so that they are able to express themselves without technique getting in the way. The music will come later as the student matures.

The discussion boils down to how one defines "technique." I remember watching a master class in Basel with Anner Bylsma. He said to the students, "I bet you can't do what I do," and he played just one note: deeee. "Please do that." And students went krrrdeeee, or daaaah, or DEEEEE. They couldn't play even one note like Anner Bylsma, but they could play their scales and etudes very well. The ability to create a specific musical expression is true technique.

Colin Carr cautioned that student musicians already feel music deeply, but this doesn't always translate into being able to express what they want due to technical limitations.

True, but to play music you need to be able to do a lot of things that can't be learned without music. You can master scales and the Popper Etudes but this doesn't mean that you can play the Schumann or Haydn Concertos at a high level, since pure technical work only gets you so far. You will find millions of new problems to solve in actual music even if you have attained a certain level of technical proficiency.

I'm not saying that one should forget scales and just play the Schumann Concerto. There is a certain progression of learning that must take place before tackling such a difficult work. But you learn technique with each piece and a good teacher works through the necessary details to make the piece playable on a high level.

What sort of technical ideas did Janigro advocate?

He liked to use quickly released extensions to move around the fingerboard and he encouraged the use of the fourth finger in higher positions so that shifting is minimized. Getting used to the fourth finger in high positions is difficult at first, but persevering in its use for a year or two will reap great rewards later. He believed that fewer shifts results in better intonation.

Janigro was strongly influenced by Alexanian, as was Casals and Feuermann. I like to think I have some echoes of Casals' technique in my own playing because of my time with Janigro. I greatly admire Casals' articulation, which was the intertwining of music and technique at an atomic level. Every nuance was considered in terms of what served the music best. He was aware that a slight change in articulation of the bow and left hand can have a totally different musical result, perhaps resulting in more percussive playing than intended.

Do you encourage a more percussive fingering style?

The goal is not to hammer so hard that everyone hears it. Clear left hand articulation is a tool we use to avoid tension in the left hand and it should feel like relaxed tapping on a tabletop. It is also best to avoid applying pressure with all the fingers simultaneously. Rather, one should feel the weight on one finger at a time.

Minimized tension should be our technical goal whenever we play, which applies to the bow arm as well. We tend to tense up when we are nervous and we start missing things, which creates a negative feedback loop that can cause a total breakdown in technique. We must constantly strive for a more relaxed technique so that the natural increase in tension due to nerves doesn't cause a loss of control.

Did Janigro discuss bow technique?

Yes, especially in how it relates to the left hand. One of his big themes in lessons was being conscious of when a shift is done during a bow stroke. This is particularly helpful when one is trying to hit a difficult note. Most tense up as they approach the note and rush the motions involved, which not only results in missing the note much of the time, but disrupts the musical line.

Many don't realize that the best results are achieved when one doesn't try to synchronize the left and right hands exactly. The series of motions in the left arm and hand typically need to be anticipated and initiated well before the bow change, which means one is in essence living in the future with the left hand. This is a very difficult skill to master. Janigro talked a lot about how to time the shift so that both technical and musical goals are achieved, which may mean a clean shift or perhaps some kind of audible shift, depending on the context.

After Janigro came Leonard Rose.

I must confess that Rose wasn't the right teacher for me. All he did was tell me how talented I was. He never showed me how to do anything or at least how to do things differently. It didn't help that he was often away on tour either. He would demonstrate for me occasionally, but I was looking for something else in a teacher. Of course he was an incredible character and his demonstrations were fantastic. Perhaps he didn't think it was necessary to teach me, since I had come to him when I was older than most of his other students and I already had two diplomas. I stayed with him for one year, but I stayed in New York for another two years just to experience the city. Then I went to Basel for a six-week course with Rostropovich.

Rose must have talked to you about something, like tone production.

Not really. Perhaps because of our differences in size and technique he thought it better to leave me alone since things were working well already. In retrospect, leaving me alone may have been the most helpful thing he could have done since I was given the chance to assimilate what I had learned from Grimmer and Janigro without interference from yet another approach. Maybe he sensed this.

One day I received a postcard from a friend that contained a close-up picture of Rostropovich. I looked at how he held the bow and I was immediately struck because I had been trying to solve a bow problem and he was doing things very differently. I went to a practice room in Juilliard and I tried what I saw him doing in that picture and my problem was immediately solved. From that day on I changed my entire approach to the cello. I changed my bow hold, my endpin, how I sat, and I became less tense and more flexible and supple in my approach to the instrument. This experience helped me realize that each of us must, in a sense, invent our own technique, since each of us is unique in so many ways.

What did you notice in the picture, exactly?

He held the bow as if it were a tool instead of a pencil. Many cellists seem to hold the bow more in their fingertips, but he held it deeper in his palm, as if the bow were an extension of his arm.

Do you mean that he was holding the bow like a club in his fist?

No, he just held it deeper in his hand and let it pivot freely inside his palm without grabbing the stick too much. I always tell my pupils to imagine putting a nail through the frog and then allowing the bow to pivot around the nail freely.

You use a bent endpin. Did you get this from Rostropovich?

I first saw the bent endpin in Paul Tortelier's concerts but I hated how it looked. Then I saw Rostropovich use it and I immediately took my endpin to my basement and bent it in a vice. It worked perfectly! I prefer a bent endpin to an extra long one because it raises the cello up without forcing the cello into my chest. The cello moves more freely.

Isn't the cello less stable with a bent endpin?

Rather than less stable, I think of it as more flexible, which is exactly what I want. I want the cello to move freely with my body so that it doesn't feel mechanically blocked.

You mentioned going to the six-week course with Rostropovich in Basel. Was this the class that Maria Kliegel attended too?

Yes, along with about forty others, including Frans Helmerson, Mischa Maisky, Christophe Coin, and David Finckel. Almost every European cellist of my generation with an international career today was in that class. The class was incredible because Rostropovich was such a phenomenon unto himself. He taught all day every day for six weeks from the piano, not his cello. We were very lucky because this was the only class he ever taught in the West.

It was life-changing to be around Rostropovich's boundless energy and his love for the cello and music. One couldn't help but change how one played around him because he applied his approach to life to his own playing and he demanded the same of his students. He played with a certain intensity at all times, which one might question in retrospect, but music and expression were too important to him to be treated any other way. Even if he played pianissimo it was always with a reluctant intensity that came from within. One felt physically different when trying to play with the emotions he inspired. It was as if we were enveloped by his aura and he changed our core feelings about how we should play and how the cello should feel and sound.

Did he work on opening you up emotionally?

Yes, but not just during lessons. He did so in many ways, such as how he hugged us. As I said before, his energy and approach to music and people were contagious. We all tried to imitate him in whichever ways resonated. I saw a TV show in Switzerland about him before he died. Even after all these years, I still find myself being drawn into his way of playing.

Did you study chamber music with Felix Galimir?

I played for both Galimir and Bobby Mann at Juilliard a couple of times. Both were great musicians.

I've heard that Galimir could be difficult to deal with.

I suppose so, but he never bothered me. Both Galimir and Mann would become unpleasant if they sensed that somebody didn't care about what he or she was playing.

Getting back to our earlier discussion about copying one's teacher, Bobby Mann was one who taught by playing little phrases and asking his students to do what he did. He found this approach necessary to open his students' ears to other possibilities. It is also excellent training for chamber music, where being able to match others is essential. This kind of technique is far beyond mastering Popper Etudes.

You are quite tall. Is there something you do differently from a technical standpoint because of your height?

That's a difficult question since I don't know how it feels to be short. I think I may have an advantage because my arm is still comfortably bent even when I'm playing at the tip. Then again, there are plenty of great players who were or are much shorter than me: Casals, Feuermann, and Schiff, for example.

I heard you play Bach six years ago and the Haydn D Major Concerto this year. Given that you use more of a Baroque or Early Classical approach, you don't sound like your teachers. How did this radical departure from your own training occur?

My transformation occurred over many years, but I reached a point early on when I decided that something was wrong with how I approached older music and I knew I had to change. I sensed that I couldn't express what I wanted with steel strings and a stiff, modern bow, so I started by tuning down my steel strings and I found that the reduced string tension was easier to handle and that the strings spoke more clearly. I then tried gut strings and all of a sudden I was able to do what I wanted musically. Then I tried a baroque bow and I realized that musicians in the baroque era could not possibly have played the way Modern players play today. They didn't play differently because of musical reasons, they did so because their equipment wouldn't allow them to play otherwise. I found this very exciting because I started getting new ideas for works that I had played for many years. I don't claim to play exactly how musicians played in the 1700's, but I do try to imitate a certain style that I believe was used back then.

What is perhaps more important in this type of music is clear articulation, which artists such as Casals, Feuermann, and Piatigorsky understood so well. These musicians really spoke with their instruments. This kind of articulation is something that Rostropovich eradicated from the cello world for many years because he was more focused on a certain intensity of communication and he inspired others to follow his lead. While Rostropovich's playing was wonderful in its own way, his approach was stylistically problematic.

What kind of strings did you use in your Haydn D performance yesterday?

I used steel strings, but I did so using articulations that I developed from my experience with gut strings.

You recorded the Bach Suites and paired each suite with a different contemporary work. Where did you get this idea?

About twenty years ago I developed a strong interest in contemporary music and sort of specialized in it. I also played a lot with oboist Heinz Holliger, who is known for playing both Early and Modern music, as well as being a composer. I came up with the idea of juxtaposing both styles of music in the same concert, which was unique at the time. Now everybody does it.

Listening to three Bach Suites in a single concert can be a bit much for the average concertgoer, as can two hours of contemporary music, so why not mix them? I tried playing two Suites and one or two modern works and the concerts became a phenomenon. I found that the audience's ears were greatly expanded and they became more open to both styles of music.

My first attempt on CD was to play the Fourth Suite alongside a piece by Holliger. Every few years after that I recorded another suite along with another contemporary work. The entire project took over 16 years to complete.

Your approach to Bach must have evolved over that amount of time.

My transformation is astonishing when one listens to them in order of when they were made. I started with the fourth suite, using steel strings. It holds up well, but I don't play like that anymore. Then I recorded the third suite with the same setup. Next came the first suite, but this time I used gut strings and tuned down a half-step. Then came the second suite and I tuned down an additional half step and used open gut strings and a baroque bow. Finally came the fifth and sixth suites in a double album, in which I used the same equipment as the second suite.

Did you ever consider re-recording first few releases so that your approach is more uniform across the suites?

I've thought about it, but documenting my evolving approach is perhaps more interesting to the listener. I also think that it's very instructive for young people to witness what can happen when a musician starts thinking about how he or she plays.

You are a composer as well. Do you find that your approach to music has been affected by your experience with the creation process?

Very much so. When I write music I consider every detail very deliberately. Every marking I make is intentional. I assume that the composers of the past were similar, so it's important that I find their manuscripts and study every mark very carefully. I ask myself why the composer chose to write this way instead of that, which greatly influences how I play.

Do you think Bach agonized over each marking, or did he just crank out the music?

Bach was such a genius that he probably wrote down the music as it came to him, but he is the exception more than the rule of how composers generally work.

The Bach Suites are very special. Despite the fact that we don't have the original bowings, there is so much music to discover within the text that issues of articulation are in a sense secondary. Completely different things seem more important, such as the harmonic motion and the structure. Those who obsess about which slurs are closest to Bach's intentions may have lost sight of the bigger picture.

I would imagine that, as a composer, you have a heightened awareness of the compositional methods being used in the works you play. Do you find that you have to resist the temptation to play somewhat pedantically, where you might over-emphasize certain compositional elements just because you see them so clearly?

I certainly hope I don't play that way! Every musical person who understands music has to be careful about this. Perhaps this reveals more about the personality of the player than whether he or she is a composer. I can't imagine playing music without trying to understand why a composer wrote something a certain way or what techniques he or she used. Music is not only an emotional activity, the intellect must be engaged as well.

Do you have any new recordings coming out?

My latest is called "Chonguri." It's a series of short pieces that are carefully matched to each other. You can listen to the music as if it's one overall work with multiple movements, although it's comprised of different types of music. I picked the pieces and their order so that the harmonies melt into each other as seamlessly as possible. The music ranges from a transcription of Bach chorales for accordian and cello to two of my own pieces, one called "New York Honk." I think the CD turned out great and I hope others will enjoy it too.


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