Conversation with Bernard Greenhouse

Tim Janof

American cellist Bernard Greenhouse, a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio for thirty two years, has won a reputation as one of the major interpreters on his instrument, making appearances in most of the major cities of Europe and America in recital, with orchestras, in chamber music ensembles, and in recordings for CBS, RCA, Philips, Concert Hall, and the American Recording Society. He has been a member of the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, from which he received an Honorary Doctorate. He has recently retired Emeritus from his position as WCSL Professor at Rutgers University and from the New England Conservatory. Mr. Greenhouse now teaches Master Classes in the United States, Canada, and Europe. His varied career has brought him recognition both as a soloist and as a chamber musician. He was recently awarded the National Service Award by Chamber Music America. In 1993 he produced a video called, "Cello Master Class with Bernard Greenhouse," published by Crescent Software.

TJ: You studied with Felix Salmond, who also taught Leonard Rose.

BG: When I was 18, I had to choose between entering a pre-med program or trying out for Juilliard. I chose to try for a Juilliard fellowship, which I was awarded, and I began to study with Felix Salmond. He was sort of a funnel for talent from all over the United States, since there weren't many cellists at the time. There were only eight cellists at Juilliard, as well as at Curtis, and each one was a very gifted player.

TJ: Did you attend school with Leonard Rose?

BG: No, he was at Curtis, in Philadelphia, though we were quite aware of each other because of our common teacher. I remember going to my lessons where Salmond would often say, "Oh, Bernard, I just came from Philadelphia where I have the most wonderful talent in the world, just a great, great young talent, Leonard Rose." After a while, I grew tired of hearing about Leonard Rose, and I would bristle each time he mentioned him. Naturally, being an ambitious youth, I had a high opinion of my own talent, and I wanted him tell me how great I was.

A couple of years later, the Curtis Orchestra came to New York to play a performance of "The Marriage of Figaro" with Fritz Reiner conducting, and we had to share our rooms with some of the musicians. As luck would have it, Leonard Rose was my guest. He took one look at me and said, "So you're Bernie Greenhouse! Every time I have a lesson, Felix says, 'Oh, I have the most wonderful talent in the world, just a great, great young talent, Bernard Greenhouse.' After awhile I began to hate you."

We both had a good laugh over this and decided that this was Salmond's way of urging us on.

TJ: Did you continue to feel competitive with Leonard Rose after this?

BG: Yes, there was a certain amount of competition between us, though less on my part because I knew that I wanted to study with teachers after Salmond. Leonard Rose completed his studies with him, and then pursued his career. After studying with Salmond for four years, I was ready to move on to another teacher.

Felix Salmond was enormously gifted when it came to &34;sound.&34; Frank Miller, Victor Gotlieb, Leonard Rose -- some of the best talents in America at the time -- came away from him with a beautiful sound. Unfortunately, Salmond was not a truly great cellist himself. He was a wonderful musician and a fine artist, but his technique was very limited. Consequently, his repertoire was very limited too.

TJ: If he wasn't a great cellist, then how did he teach so many first rate cellists?

BG: You don't have to be a first class cellist to be an effective teacher. He kept us in line by insisting that we use all of his fingerings and bowings. You could not come into his room and make changes because you thought you had a better idea. I now think this approach was wrong because it prevented us from learning how to think for ourselves. As a result, many of his students never went beyond using his editions, and weren't terribly creative artists.

TJ: Did he play with a more modern technique, or was he from the old school?

BG: He was very much a product of the old school, which was why I was anxious to go beyond Salmond's teaching and to begin my studies with Emanuel Feuermann. Feuermann was a great help in developing my left hand.

TJ: What sort of exercises did Feuermann have you work on?

BG: He didn't work with exercises, he was mostly concerned with repertoire. He believed that concertos and other major pieces provided plenty of opportunities for technical study. He discussed and demonstrated the technique of the left hand in a completely new way, minimizing the use of extensions. Before him old-school German teachers like Klengel and Becker relied much more upon extensions, which required that you practice eight hours a day in order to build up enormous strength and endurance. With Feuermann the left hand was supple and moved freely. He showed me the technique of how to get around the instrument with minimal effort, taking advantage of arm weight when fingering.

TJ: Did he also work with you on bow technique?

BG: Yes, he did to a degree, but I found it extremely difficult to imitate him. He had the most natural bow arm of any cellist I've ever heard before or since. Even Heifetz admired his bow arm. I learned mostly about left hand technique from him.

TJ: Was he a kind teacher?

BG: He was rather sarcastic actually. In spite of this, I would hear rumors that he spoke well of me to others. But he knew how to push my buttons, and would say things like, &34;If you practice five or six hours a day for the next few years, you might play as well as Frank Miller or Leonard Rose.&34;

TJ: Did Feuermann talk about musical issues or was he mostly a technical teacher?

BG: He was mostly technical. He would demonstrate a great deal during lessons and would ask me to imitate him. When I attempted some of the more difficult passages he would either smile or ridicule me when I couldn't do it. He expected everybody to be able to play with the natural ease that he had. On the positive side, he provided a clear vision of how I wanted to play from a technical standpoint, which was very inspiring.

TJ: Do you consider him to be more of a profound artist or profound technician?

BG: I don't think of him as one of the great creative artists in history, and I didn't think so even then. I think his legacy is that nobody had been able to play the instrument with the same ease and unerring intonation before he came around. He is probably the best cellist, technically speaking, I've ever seen or heard.

There were three cellists who made a great impression upon me in my student days. The first was Feuermann. The second was Cassado, who had a great feeling for the instrument and a superb technique. The third was Raya Garbousova, who came from Russia and exhibited a profound technique and a wonderful performance presence. Of course, the one who was the most impressive was Feuermann. But then I became aware of Pablo Casals. When it came to making music, once you were in the presence of Casals and knew his playing, the rest faded away.

TJ: Before we discuss Casals, you studied with one of Casals' proteges, Diran Alexanian.

BG: Yes. I was principal cellist of the Navy Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. when I first met him during the Second World War. I met Mischa Schneider, cellist of the Budapest Quartet, on a train to New York and he invited me to sit in on his lesson with Alexanian. I thought the lesson was fabulous so I decided that every time I had a weekend pass and a chance to go to New York, I would have a lesson with Alexanian. This was the beginning of a long association with him.

TJ: Wasn't Alexanian a pretty analytical musician?

BG: He was extremely analytical but also very musical. Casals had chosen him as his substitute teacher at the École Normale in Paris because of his wonderful musical intuition. He had a profound influence on many of the great musicians of that era -- Fournier, Piatigorsky, Tortelier, violinist Alexander Schneider, to name a few. In fact, Feuermann never played in New York without first coming to play for Alexanian.

He was a superb pedagogue, but he wasn't much of a cellist. He never touched the cello during lessons, except to show an occasional fingering or something. When he did play, it usually sounded terrible, but one excused him because he was not a cellist and he didn't claim to be.

TJ: Did you consider Alexanian's technique to be more old fashioned?

BG: Yes, he was definitely a product of the old school. He had enormous hands, which enabled him to do things without great extensions that smaller hands would have much difficulty in achieving. He sometimes took his large reach for granted and expected others to play with his fingerings, which created difficulties with some of his students.

He was also an extremely intimidating character. If you didn't have a healthy self-confidence, he could overwhelm you. Raya Garbousova, for instance, went to work with him, which I think was a mistake. She came out a different person, much less self-assured. Fortunately, I wasn't afraid to challenge him. I used to spend hours arguing with him about his cello technique and the stiffness of his bow arm, which was always interesting and informative. Our discussions were always on a high level, and he treated me almost as an equal.

TJ: How did he discuss music? Did he break down phrases note by note?

BG: He was very detail-oriented, so much so that it wasn't always easy to understand him.

This reminds me of the time he and I went to Prades to see Casals after a separation of about 14 years. Casals had invited just the two of us to hear him play some sonatas with piano. Casals was so nervous to be playing for Alexanian that his knees actually shook as he picked up his cello to start.

Alexanian and Casals eventually got involved in a discussion about a single note in the C Minor Bach Suite, which lasted about half an hour. They couldn't come to an agreement as to which note was the key note of a particular phrase. Three months later I was in New York at Alexanian's home, and he showed me a postcard from Casals that said, &34;I think now, Diran, that you were right about that note in the C minor.&34; Three months later!

TJ: Looking back, do you think that Alexanian's highly analytical approach may have been a little extreme?

BG: I think it was rather extreme. He had a hard time getting through to many of his students because of this. He could be a bit unforgiving if you didn't follow him. If you didn't have the technical ability to keep up with him it could be disastrous. He insisted on his way of playing and his way of making music.

TJ: How did you end up studying with Casals?

BG: Alexanian helped to arrange a meeting with Casals. He wrote a letter to Casals in Prades, asking whether he would listen to me play and perhaps give me some lessons. Casals wrote back that he couldn't, since he was too busy taking care of exiles from Franco's Spain. With that letter I decided that I would go to Fontainebleau to study with Hekking, in the hopes that I would get another opportunity to study with Casals. When I arrived in Paris, I sent a letter to Casals asking whether he would at least listen to me play once. He sent a postcard back saying that, if I would donate $100 to Spanish charities and come to Prades on such and such a day, he would listen to me.

So I met him in Prades and had a nice talk with him for about a half hour. He asked me to come back the next day and play for him then. When I returned the following day I was shaking like a leaf. He noticed that I was very nervous, so he said, &34;You take your cello out and warm up a little bit. I'll come back in a few moments.&34;

As I warmed up, I gradually started to feel a little better. After twenty minutes went by, I noticed that Casals hadn't yet returned. I turned my head and saw his head in the doorway. He was standing just outside the door with the door opened a crack. He had been listening the whole time. He walked into the room, smiled, and said &34;I wanted to hear you play when you weren't nervous.&34; I'll never forget his wonderful sensitivity to my feelings.

Then he asked me to play many things in the cello repertoire. He wanted to hear the Haydn D Major Concerto, the Brahms F Major Sonata, and some Bach, of course. After 45 minutes or so he told me to put away the cello so we could talk. He said, &34;I would like to send you to a great artist because I believe in the apprentice system, the association of a youngster with an artist. Unfortunately, I don't know who to send you to. But if you agree to stay in the village for at least six months and take several lessons, perhaps two or three lessons per week, I'll teach you.&34;

That, of course, was a great moment for me. For weeks I didn't even send for my things in Paris. I just stayed on and began my work with him, which was the most wonderful time of my life. I stayed there most of the year, returned to America to play some concerts, and then went back to study with him for another seven months.

TJ: Did he dictate bowings and fingerings?

BG: Definitely. I studied Bach's D minor Suite for three weeks. He insisted on certain bowings and fingerings for each movement, which meant that I had to write into my part exactly what he did. We went through the entire suite in this manner. After a while, this started to bother me, so I finally said to him, &34;Mr. Casals, I am concerned that I will end up being just a poor imitation of you.&34;

He replied, &34;Don't you worry about that. You just put your cello down and listen.&34;

He then played the entire D minor Suite, changing all the bowings and fingerings from what he had taught me during the last three weeks. I sat there absolutely aghast as he finished. He smiled and said, &34;Now that's the real lesson of how to play Bach. You must learn it so well that you remember every single idea that you have had in your practice. Then you forget everything and improvise.&34;

This was very difficult to do, especially after such rigid training the prior three weeks, but it was a profound lesson. I eventually played each Suite in a recital in New York, but it took me a whole year to learn each one to the point where I felt I could improvise as I played.

TJ: Did he work on technical issues with you?

BG: He didn't work on technique with me. He felt that I had a good command of the instrument. I did get the idea of using arm weight when bowing from him. He was very complimentary about my cello playing, though not so much about my music making. For instance, one time he told me that I sounded a little too much like Kreisler, which meant that he didn't like my style of playing. I had been greatly influenced by the Viennese musicality of Fritz Kreisler, and it was part of my playing at the time.

TJ: He didn't like Kreisler's playing?

BG: He loved Kreisler's playing, but he didn't want me to imitate him. He had a great friendship with Kreisler, but the Viennese style was not for him.

TJ: Do you consider Casals' technique to be more old fashioned or more modern?

BG: He was modern to a great extent. He had a great fluidity in his playing, which was very different from the Klengel or Becker school. He didn't play with the ease of Feuermann, since his hands were smaller and rather pudgy, though enormously strong, but nobody could play like Feuermann at the time.

TJ: Did Casals play differently live than on recordings?

BG: Definitely. Some of his recordings, especially the encore pieces, sound a little exaggerated. I never heard him play that way, live. I studied with him when he was 70 years old and still had enormous ability on the cello. As he got older, his playing became more exaggerated and less accurate, which is when many of his recordings were made. But when I studied with him, his playing was still wonderful and I never heard anything that was less than musically superb.

TJ: So we shouldn't really judge him by his recordings?

BG: Definitely not. Once in a while you'll hear something so exaggerated that it makes you jump out of your chair, especially in the later recordings. But there are also recordings, especially the earlier ones, like of the Chopin Nocturnes, that are splendid. In these recordings, you hear musicality that is unsurpassed. Nobody could ever match his level of artistry.

TJ: What was he like as a person?

BG: He was very genial, though at times he could be very stern. His stern side didn't usually come out when music was discussed, though he was very insistent on his ideas. It came out for issues outside of music. He was very firm about people who didn't understand that Franco was a tyrant. When it came to politics, for instance, his jaw would tighten any time we spoke about what was happening politically in France or America. He was very disturbed that the United States recognized Franco. Of course I was very much influenced by his political ideas.

TJ: When you finished your studies with Casals, did you pursue a solo career?

BG: I did for 12 years, but it was very difficult. The cello was not a very popular instrument in the United States at that time. There were two main cellists in the United States -- Piatigorsky, who was doing fairly well, and Feuermann, who really struggled, only playing twelve concerts in the season before he died. Piatigorsky performed quite a bit, but he didn't really have a full scale career like the major cellists of today, such as Rostropovich or Yo-Yo Ma. Agents weren't interested in booking cellists, and orchestras would often only engage one cellist per year, if that. I really struggled.

In order to make ends meet, I joined the Bach Aria group, which afforded me some financial security as well as giving me the great pleasure of playing some of the Bach Cantatas, which have some wonderful cello arias.

During this time, violinist Daniel Guilet asked me if I would like to record some Mozart trios with pianist Menahem Pressler, who was in Israel at the time. I didn't know Pressler's playing, but Guilet was very enthusiastic about him. Later, when I was recording the Haydn D Major Concerto with the Indianapolis Orchestra for MGM Records, Guilet contacted me, suggesting that I ask Pressler if he'd be willing to come to New York and do some recordings. Eventually we all met in New York, started rehearsing, and formed what was to become the Beaux Arts Trio.

TJ: Do you find that you have to expend a lot of energy just to be heard as a cellist in a piano trio?

BG: That depends more upon the pianist than the cellist. We were fortunate to have a really superb pianist who had a sense of sound color in the piano, which enabled the other instruments -- the violin and the cello -- to be heard. He would never overpower us.

TJ: As a cellist in a piano trio, you spend a lot of time doubling the pianist's left hand, particularly in the Haydn trios.

BG: That's true, but I actually think I had more influence on the performance of the Haydn trios because I had more time to think about the music, instead of worrying about technique. Of course, there is plenty of beauty and difficulty in the rest of the piano trio literature to keep me busy.

TJ: The Beaux Arts Trio was one of the first professional full-time traveling piano trios. Was it difficult finding work?

BG: It wasn't easy in the beginning. Piano trios were not accepted in the chamber music world, which embraced string quartets for the most part. In our first season, our managers got us 80 or so concerts, but 75 were community concerts. We didn't mind at the time since we were busy learning repertoire. Eventually, we became accepted as a professional chamber group and we were able to give up the community concerts and play for fine chamber music societies throughout the world.

TJ: Do you think that the art of phrasing and rubato is becoming extinct?

BG: I wish that I could say that it still exists, but I find that there's less and less communication in phrasing, less individuality, and less creativity. Instrumental technique, whether for piano, violin, or cello, has increased enormously. We now have hundreds of cellists with technique that would have been called astounding 75 years ago. We have 13-year-old prodigies who would have been considered musical geniuses 50 years ago because of their fabulous technique. We now have the means to produce music with an ease that was unheard of when I was a young man.

The problem is that I cannot tell the difference between the finest talents anymore. When I listen to a recent recording, I can't tell who's playing, since they sound mostly the same. Occasionally I'll hear a moment of creativity and individuality, but it still lacks the stamp of an individual artist. Young people want desperately to succeed, so they imitate success without trying to find a way of speaking the language of music for themselves. Copying success can be very destructive.

TJ: In your videotape, "Cello Master Class with Bernard Greenhouse," you said something like, &34;We must wake up to the fact that there is more to cello than a beautiful sound. We must learn how to build phrases.&34;

BG: Exactly. I try to zero in on this very idea with my own students. We must develop a freedom of expression that is personal, that has nothing to do with what we hear others do. There are special techniques for making music that have to be learned, and can be used to create one's own musical style. These techniques are difficult to learn today because those who studied with the really creative and individualistic artists of our past, like Casals, Szigeti, and Enesco, are largely gone, and are not around to fight the trend towards musical uniformity. In my own teaching, I am trying to revive an interest in the technique of phrasing and music making so that talented musicians can put their fantastic technique to good use.

TJ: In your video tape, you also said, &34;Everything in music has to have an architectural feeling about it.&34; What does this mean?

BG: There is a structure involved in building a performance. You start by building a simple phrase, then another, then another, and so on. You then combine these phrases to build a structure for the overall work. When done well, this approach will result in an &34;architectural&34; feeling in the work, since each phrase will have context within the overall work.

Casals emphasized the &34;arch&34; in music making. Each phrase has a beginning, reaches the top in a beautiful arching way, and then comes down to the starting point. He called these &34;rainbows.&34; He was very insistent that every phrase have this feeling of motion toward the top, and then a receding motion to the bottom. Each piece consists of smaller rainbows that are part of larger rainbows, which gives the piece a sense of form. This is what he called the &34;architecture&34; of building phrases.

TJ: You also mentioned that there are &34;consonants&34; and &34;vowels&34; in music. What are these?

BG: This relates to another concept that Casals emphasized -- articulation. He insisted that every note have a definite beginning, even if it was to be played pianissimo. A consonant is heard when the finger audibly comes down on the instrument, giving the note a sharp beginning. A vowel is played when the finger is placed less percussively, giving the note a milder beginning. In other words, a consonant is more articulated.

TJ: You caution your students to not become overly involved in the beauty of the music, to not lose control their emotions. Why?

BG: I have to be careful how I explain this to my students. Of course, you must be emotionally involved in the music, but there is a limit. You don't want to start crying while you play. If you show that much emotion, you take it away from your audience. Your goal is to get the audience members to feel these emotions, not for you to distract them with your own display of feelings. There have been times when I have been extremely successful in creating a beautiful phrase, and I have seen people take out a handkerchief to wipe a tear away, which is a tremendous compliment. But it's enormously difficult to be overly expressive if you let your own emotions go, since you also lose technical control. You tend to lose your audience too, since they can be repelled by such displays.

TJ: How do you go about analyzing the pieces you play?

BG: I try to develop an understanding between myself and the composer, which doesn't necessarily come through highly theoretical analysis. Remember that we are playing beautiful music, not studying mathematics. My goal is to attain a sympathetic feeling toward the music, which then shows me the path towards more technical analysis if necessary. For instance, when I study the Beethoven G minor Sonata, I begin to understand each phrase when I develop a sympathy for what Beethoven is trying to say, and what he may have been feeling as he composed. I don't think of my approach as the kind of analysis that one would do in a music theory class.

TJ: Why do you encourage people to play closer to the bridge with the bow, particularly when playing forte?

BG: Moving the bow closer to the bridge creates a sound that has more of a forte character, much more than what one achieves when playing midway between the bridge and the fingerboard. When one plays forte closer to the fingerboard, it sounds like the cello is being forced to do something that it doesn't want to, like shouting with one's hand over one's mouth.

My priority is to have an enormous range of tonal colors. You can't be fully expressive without having a wide palette of colors available. The speed of the bow, the position of the bow, and the amount of pressure are the three primary things we can vary to alter the tonal colors on the instrument. Like a painter who mixes his colors on his palette, we mix ours with the bow.

I don't ask people to play closer to the bridge because I want to hear a &34;bigger&34; sound. The cello is not a trombone or a trumpet, and there's a limit to how much sound one can get out of the cello. I think my fine colleague, Rostropovich, has shown us the limit. I'm impressed by tonal variety, not sheer volume.

TJ: You take advantage of arm weight when you play, in both arms.

BG: Definitely. But arm weight is not the most important thing, it's being able to attach the weight of the arm to the spine, since the back has an enormous influence on the ease of playing, a notion I got from Feuermann and Casals. The smaller the amount of body you use, the more difficult it is to play with strength. When the back is more involved, you achieve a feeling of freedom and power that you cannot attain when you play only with your arms, hands, and fingers. The motion should starts from the back, not from the arm or shoulder. When you put your finger down, for instance, it's not the finger that is creating the strength, it's your back that's pulling the finger down. You should use the large muscles of your body in order to create the ease and strength.

TJ: How do you achieve subtle shades of vibrato, if you use arm weight and your back as the primary ingredients for any motion? The large muscles are not known for their subtlety.

BG: Vibrato doesn't depend on strength as much as it does from which part of the arm you're using. If you're on the C string, your entire arm should be used, since the C string requires a wider vibrato in order to be discernable. If you play on the A string in the lower positions, and if you want a luscious sound, you should use a movement that hinges more at the elbow. If you play in the upper registers of the cello, the wrist becomes more important. As you can see, there isn't only one type of vibrato motion, there's an enormous variety of vibrato types that vary depending on where you are playing on the cello, not to mention the shades of vibrato available when you strive for a variety of tonal colors.

Remember also that the bow is always working in conjunction with the left hand. There is as much crescendo or diminuendo in the left hand as there is in the bow. The right and left arms always work together to create sound.

And most important, we mustn't forget that the goal of all this technical discussion is to create music that says something, not just to play with a beautiful sound. I implore all musicians to express their unique inner selves deeply and creatively. Don't look to recordings or to your neighbor for answers, study the score, learn about the composer, and look inside yourselves.


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