by Tim Janof

Gordon Epperson is Professor Emeritus from the University of Arizona. He is a renowned cello pedagogue and author, having written several books and articles, including The Art of Cello Teaching, which was derived from articles he wrote in the eight years he was editor of the "Cellist's Forum" in American String Teacher magazine. His recording of solo cello works by Ysaye, Crumb, and Kodaly has recently been released on CD.

TJ: You went to Tanglewood in 1941, where Koussevitzky conducted and when Leonard Bernstein was a student conductor.

GE: Yes, there were a number of young conductors, including Thor Johnson and Lukas Foss, but Bernstein was Koussevitzky's clear favorite and just dripped with talent. He wasn't afraid of anybody and was very brash.

TJ: What was Koussevitzky like?

GE: He was a very autocratic conductor of the old European school, an absolute tyrant. But he was a musical giant, and the effects he got were very exciting. We kids were under a tremendous nervous pressure. On the least pretext he would go into a tantrum and would storm around. Jean Bedetti, who was principal cellist of the Boston Orchestra, advised us to not show any fear because Koussevitzky would seize on it.

At that time, the Boston Orchestra was not yet unionized, and was the last major orchestra to do so. It had the longest season and the best pay scale in the country at the time, so the musicians hadn't been in any hurry to do it. But the musicians were agitating for a union because, like most conductors at that time, Koussevitzky had the complete right of hiring and firing. He could fire someone on the spot and there'd be no recourse, which happened in a number of instances.

He was like a spoiled child. He had to have his way in everything and always did. But I must say the results were spectacular! I recall how bitterly some of the Boston players at that time complained about his tyranny. But it was only a few years later that they looked back on their experience, after he was gone, as the greatest period in the history of the orchestra. It never sounded as well again.

TJ: You also studied chamber music with Piatigorsky at Tanglewood.

GE: Piatigorsky was in charge of the chamber music at Tanglewood that year. He coached our group in the Schubert cello quintet, which was a great experience. He was quite affable and was very, very sure of himself. He would enter the room, moving slowly like a big cat, usually a little bit late, and would talk casually about one thing or another. He would then slowly pull his pipe out of his pocket, go through the pipe maneuverings and light it, all the while still talking. And then we'd begin to play. He would say things like, "Careful with the intonation," or "You must look at each other." And that's almost as specific as it got.

He grabbed my cello now and then, threw his head back, closed his eyes, and played, sounding incredible of course. He had huge hands and used fingerings that wouldn't necessarily work for anybody else, though it worked wonderfully for him. Piatigorsky had tremendous charisma and was very exciting to watch.

Piatigorsky would give little sermons. He would say things like, "I've had all kinds of students since I first came to this country. I've had depressed students, and I've had conceited students who wanted to be famous and give concerts. But I've seldom had an enthusiastic worker." And then he would look around at us to let the lesson sink in.

Have you read his book, Cellist?

TJ: Yes. I love that book!

GE: That's typical of how he talked. He conversed in a series of anecdotes and was a great storyteller. But you never knew just how much was truth and how much was made up. But they were great stories in any case.

TJ: You've played in a number of orchestras, some of which had truly memorable conductors.

GE: Yes. Indianapolis was the first orchestra, which was conducted by Fabien Sevitzky, Koussevitzky's nephew. His name had originally been Koussevitzky. Sevitsky had many talents. He was a wonderful bass player, having come to this country as Leopold Stokowski's principal bassist. He'd also been a character actor in Russia, playing Boris Karloff type parts. And then he formed an orchestra in Boston on his uncle's doorstep, so to speak, called the People's Orchestra. There are all kinds of stories about what happened then. Koussevitzky didn't want that kind of competition right in his own city, and there were rumors that Sevitzky was paid to drop the "Kou" from his name. Sevitsky eventually left Boston.

Sevitsky was quite a showman. He wore a cape and conducted from memory. We did some recordings that season. One of them was the Manfred Symphony of Tchaikovsky, which runs about 120 minutes. He needn't have done it from memory, but that's what he did. He would get lost now and then, wave his arms and glare at us as if it were our fault. I always felt that he was a talented man, but I felt he was part charlatan. At an orchestral party at the end of the season he played bass in an impromptu performance of the Mozart "Eine Kleine Nacht Musik" and it was absolutely beautiful bass playing, which made me realize that there was real depth beneath all the show.

TJ: You also worked with Sir Thomas Beecham in Seattle, Washington.

GE: That was a very exciting year. Most of the players were in war work of some kind in 1943 so the rehearsals were at night. I was in a carpool with four or five players from Tacoma. We'd drive to Seattle together, play the rehearsal, and then return to Tacoma to work in the shipyards at midnight, the graveyard shift.

The players loved Beecham, but he took a lot of flak from the local press. There was a critic, Suzanne Martin, who wrote well but didn't know very much about music, though she sounded very authoritative. She seemed to be out to get Sir Thomas and his blood pressure was rising. He came to rehearsal one day and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm hearing extraordinary things about you in the press. They're quite unjustified. You've given very good performances." But he went on to say that unless suit was brought against a certain paper he was leaving the city, which he eventually did.

TJ: What was he doing in Seattle to begin with?

GE: He spent the war pretty much in the US, conducting at the Met a lot of the time. He liked Seattle because it reminded him of London. The orchestral schedule was flexible enough so that he could conduct elsewhere. He had the reputation of making orchestras sound better than they could. Players responded to him because he made them feel that they could do anything. It was ironic that he was getting rave notices at the Met and was being panned in Seattle. The orchestra actually did sound awfully good.

He put on a real tour de force before he left. His autobiography had just come out and he had had all of our concerts recorded. He invited musical Seattle to an evening at the Moore Theater, having the stage rigged up in sort of a Victorian style. There was an easy chair and a table with his book and some articles and recordings on it. He began by telling the audience that they had a much better orchestra in Seattle than anyone was allowing them to believe. He said that he could foresee a time in Seattle when the critics are so vitriolic that after a while no self-respecting artist would go there to perform.

The clever thing he'd worked out was to play the same pieces from a commercial recording and then from the Seattle performance of the same work, without telling the audience which was which. He then asked them by a show of hands to indicate their preference. In every case the choice was for the Seattle rendering. Ironically, a lot of the commercial recordings he used had been conducted by him with other orchestras. He said a criticism on such and such a night said that in this piece there were weak horns. "So let's listen to it." So he played the passage and the horns sailed out. And so he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Weak horns?"

Suzanne Martin, the Seattle critic, had also been castigating him for having too few rehearsals. This irked him terribly because Sir Thomas really didn't like to rehearse. He seldom used all the time he was alloted, but he worked on what was necessary and let the electricity come in the performance. He said in this meeting at the Moore Theatre, "All my life I've been giving performances with very few rehearsals," and he said that he had a trunkload of good press notices backstage which he would be glad to show anybody who was interested. Well, the event was a triumph. It was carefully staged, but he also had the evidence.

I remember a performance of Lohengrin. After the performance he turned to the audience and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have just conducted one of the finest performances in my entire career. If I read anything to the contrary in tomorrow's paper, the guilty person shall be pursued by me for the rest of my life." So next day there was a big open letter to Sir Thomas Beecham, of course giving adverse criticism. He finally threw in the towel and left. But the players loved him and he was musically very inspiring.

TJ: You studied with Luigi Silva at Eastman? I hear he was a very dedicated teacher.

GE: Yes. I was only with him for a year but we kept in touch and he became a good friend and ally. He died prematurely around 1960. I don't think he quite reached 60 years old himself. He was a wizard technically and had edited most of the etude literature, a lot of which is still available: Piatti, Servais, and Kreutzer. He also liked the Popper studies very much. Basically, he was an etude fiend.

He was a fine analyst and diagnostician but he liked to work mainly through the etudes. The lessons themselves were open forums. In the so-called "private lessons" there were always four or five people present. He advocated a very systematic approach. I noticed that he didn't follow it strictly himself. But he was interested in his students and wanted to see people progress.

TJ: What was his emphasis in his teaching?

GE: His emphasis was on left hand fluency and bow technique. He worked out an ingenious chart of bowings with the nomenclature clearly spelled out and some little illustrations. It's something that I've used with students myself.

He illustrated everything himself. His playing was warm, a lovely singing tone, but it was not big heroic playing. He was interested in meticulous detail and for the left hand he worked out a series of groupings. He advocated more use of the thumb than most cellists do, and wanted us to use the thumb as a singing finger. I noticed however that not even he could make the thumb sound as well as the other fingers. He knew all the literature, the Bach suites, Reger and so on. He tended to prefer Reger over Bach because he had fingered everything and because of all the double stops and the high tessatura. That sort of thing attracted him and he liked to do a lot of pyrotechnical things.

TJ: You also studied with Maurice Eisenberg, author of the cello classic Cello Playing of Today.

GE: Yes. This was a fringe benefit of my being in Boston. I was on leave from Louisiana State University, and was studying in a doctoral program with Sammy Mayes, principal of the Boston Orchestra. While this was going on, Maurice Eisenberg was teaching at Cambridge. I sort of bootlegged some lessons with him. He was a very gifted teacher. He seemed to know how everybody on earth fingered and bowed everything. So it was very stimulating, though his own playing was disappointing. He had a number of students who played better than he did in my opinion. But he was a catalyst and he could bring out good things in his students. And it's very possible that he had been a strong player at one time. But I was in my late 30's and I was still not reconciled to the idea that some people could teach better than they could play. He confirmed that diagnosis for me. He loved playing, and he played a lot, but I thought that his real gifts were in teaching.

TJ: Looking over your resume, you seem to have done it all. You've been an orchestral player, a recitalist, a soloist, a teacher, and a writer.

GE: I've enjoyed the diversity. I feel that they're mutually reinforcing. In my teaching I've tried to emphasize to my students that, in a very crowded job market, versatility counts for a lot. There's still the myth that "arrival" means having a spectacular solo career. Well, when I was an undergraduate, I was thinking mainly of concertizing. I think I had some idea that I would do some teaching too. But I couldn't foresee what actually developed, which was that teaching really became the paramount thing for me. I feel I have arrived, but in my own special way.

TJ: Which of the various aspects of your career has given you the most pleasure?

GE: They've all been wonderful in their own way. Teaching has been gratifying. Most of my former students have kept in touch with me and I with them. It's been very satisfying in most cases to follow their careers. Performing also has this wonderful excitement and satisfaction, whether it's in recital or chamber music. The thing about performance is that it's so ephemeral -- there it is and it can be as authentic as can be and then the next day maybe a few people will remember it. It's not like painting a painting or writing a book where you have something tangible to show. But of all the aspects of my career, I think the long range results of teaching are perhaps more satisfying.

TJ: In terms of bow hand, I've seen a several schools on the bow hand motion. There's the paintbrush technique that was championed by Leonard Rose. And then there's another approach that is used by Janos Starker and many others, who have more of a firm wrist. Where do you fall in this issue?

GE: Well, I'm eclectic. In recent years there's been a lot of talk about "teaching the bow." Leonard Rose had a very particular way that he taught and emphasized, and I've encountered the high wrist and the low wrist. Of course the old way of the extreme movement of the wrist is out for all players. Mine is more along the lines of what you see Casals doing in his films.

In my teaching with youngsters, I give them a lot of richochets which they like to do, first on open strings, and then in rhythms and so on. With the richochet bowing I found that, in most cases, the hand falls into a position that is right for each student. For one thing, in a ricochet you can't have a stranglehold on the bow. It's a relaxation technique and is good for establishing the grip.

I don't feel that there's just one correct grip for everybody. But we agree on certain principles - we don't want excessive tension and we want things to be fluent and sound well. If you observe a number of artists, they play in such different fashions, some with high wrists, some with low wrists, some with the high cello, some with the cello low. Silva had the cello down near the floor. While I was with him I adjusted down somewhat and then when I left him I moved it back up a bit for what was comfortable for me. Everybody is different.

I don't believe there's one correct way of doing everything. Casals illustrated that. People forget what a rebel, what an iconoclast he was. Karl Kirksmith, former solo cellist with the Cincinatti Symphony and one of my former teachers, studied with Hugo Becker in Berlin at a time when the German school dominated the cello playing world. It was Becker to whom the Don Quixote was dedicated. Becker was a law giver. Kirksmith told me that Diran Alexanian, a protege of Casals, came to Berlin to give a recital and played the Third Bach Suite. The next day Kirksmith had a lesson and Becker said, "Well, how did you like the Frenchman?" (There was this long antagonism between France and Germany.) Kirksmith made the mistake of praising Alexanian, saying he liked him very much, he liked his tone, and he particularly liked his Bach. Becker responded, "Well, I see my work with you has been wasted, you don't even know how to criticize." Becker then took his cello out, which had been gathering dust in the corner, and played through the G Major Prelude, metronomic from beginning to end and without nuance, the antithesis of Casals' approach. He then put his cello aside and delivered this proverb in German to the effect that Bach is not a brook but the ocean. Nothing more was said about Alexanian.

Kirksmith had been told by Becker that he was not to lift his little finger off the stick of the bow, and if he did, he'd send him home and say, "Don't come back until you can keep your little finger down." And then Casals was observed to lift his little finger when he played, which loosened things up throughout the cello world. What I'm trying to illustrate is that we should remain open-minded. Somebody may come along some day and topple "truths" that we hold to be self-evident.

TJ: Should one listen to recordings when studying a piece?

GE: I think it all depends. I wouldn't give an outright "no." It depends on the age and advancement of the student. I don't believe in learning a piece through a recording and imitating it. I think in most cases it ought to be studied first and be pretty well under the fingers. I think it can be useful to listen to recordings, but not just one, maybe two or three artists doing the same work. I think it's of great importance to cultivate the individuality of the student and help him or her toward his or her own style. I think a judicious use of recordings is fine.

TJ: Is there such thing as a wrong interpretation?

GE: If we say that all interpretation's are equally valid, then what are we doing when we try to teach people or guide them along viable paths? What need do we have for teachers if they don't have some conviction about music? The words "right" and "wrong" may not be appropriate terms, though. I do think there's such a thing as a "poor" or a "bad" reading of something.

On the other hand, I think we've got to have a lot of flexibility. I don't like musical dogma, such as what I encounter with the Authentic movement. When I was at Tanglewood, the "style consciousness" was just taking hold, largely because musicology was becoming more of a discipline. People were becoming aware that Tchaikovsky and Mozart should not be played in the same way. But this whole authentic music business has become too rigid -- absolutely no vibrato. etc. Sometimes the results can be quite dull and I can't believe that this style was ever the intent of composers. So is there such thing as a wrong interpretation? I think when we hear something played badly - and sometimes we do - in a sense that's a poor reading, or a bad interpretation. But personal taste has to play a big part in a person's style. And we musicians should be very much aware that, no matter what you do in performance, someone is going to object to it, someone is going to criticize it adversely, and so you have to stick to your guns.

When I was in my teens there was quite a revulsion against glissando, which had been a large part of the earlier style. When I was studying the Dvorak with Kirksmith in Seattle, I did something and I said, "Oh, let me do that again without the glissando." He said, "No, with the glissando, but nicely." Kreisler's glissandi to me are charming and I love his style. Heifitz used perhaps more glissando than most fiddlers do nowadays. But I've heard some players who use of slides was nauseating.

TJ: Me too!

GE: And I felt that way about the Adolph Busch chamber recordings. He was a wonderful musician, but the slides were so frequent and so obtrusive, you know, that I felt they really got in the way. So it depends on the context and who's doing it and how.

TJ: Do you have any general principles when playing the Bach suites?

GE: I think that the integrity of the dances ought to be basically respected. The dances forms are stylized, and we don't expect to dance to them, but still they should retain the character of the dance. I think in most cases that musicians are very likely to approximate the right tempo, just by instinct. The Gigue is fast, though one person's Gigue may be faster than another. Rostropovich's will probably be faster than anybody else's.

Of the printed editions of the Bach Suites, I like Alexanian's because it has the Anna Magdalena manuscript photostat and I keep referring back to that because I think that it is about as close to the horse's mouth as we can get. Admittedly it shows every evidence of hasty writing by his wife, because Bach was turning out things so rapidly. But I don't think that the character of a Minuet or a Bourre or a Gigue is baffling to musicians. The one thing that they did in the 19th century was to throw slurs over everything, and we know now that the style of the 18th century was much more detaché. So I think we need to get away from the 19th century concept of slurring over everything. As far as the Preludes are concerned, they are free fantasias pretty much and so we have a good bit of latitude in what we do with them. But when I go back now as I have occasionally and hear Casals doing Bach, though I question some of the liberties, we owe the popularity of the Suites to him. He really brought them to public attention and did wonderful things with them.


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