by Selma Gokcen

Bernard Greenhouse at Wigmore Hall, a DVD co-production of the Violoncello Society of London and Cello Classics, was released this September. This interview with Mr. Greenhouse took place on 30th July at 'Casa Verdi,' his home in Wellfleet, a picturesque New England seaside town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.


SG: Bernard, you gave us an extraordinary day of master classes at the Wigmore Hall in February of this year. What are your recollections of the day?

BG: I remember being completely involved with the students and able to ignore the fact that I was being filmed. I was pleased when I heard results from my teaching and a little bit frustrated by not always finding the right words to get immediate results. For the most part I felt it was a normal day of teaching and I was able to go through the day without being aware of the cameras. I was, however, aware of the fact that we had a large audience. One has to be extremely careful in making suggestions which can be misunderstood and bring about the wrong results. Wording becomes so important.

SG: How do you establish that immediate rapport with the pupils?

My goal is to put myself into the body of the student, to realize what they are doing to produce what comes out, and then to make the correction.

That requires a great deal of empathy.

The student does not realise what they are doing to produce the error. When you make the correction, they are surprised because they can finally hear themselves and make the change.

So you become their eyes and ears?


During your teaching of Bach, you often used the expression 'musical speech'. Would you explain this idea for our readers?

There is a fluctuation in speech. Usually there is a rise to the important part of the sentence, and a receding from that point to the end of the sentence. That can be reflected in music as well. There are words, invisible words in the formation of a beautiful phrase. I simulate a verbal sentence in building phrases.

All art forms are involved with inflection´┐Żwriting, painting, dance, and of course, music.

You taught six young cellists at Wigmore Hall. In the larger sense, how would you say that the ideals of cello playing have changed in the present generation?

We have had an enormous increase in the facility of young talented players. The instrument today doesn't offer the great difficulties that it did 50 or 75 years ago. There are hundreds of young cellists who have the facility of a Feuermann so that what was spectacular 50 years ago is commonplace today. What has been lost to some extent is the musical technique one needs in order to create the stamp of individual performance.

Why is that so?

Because it hasn't been taught. We teach the method of playing the cello. We don't teach the method of musical communication, which is what I learned through my work with Casals. At 30, I was searching for a means of expression. I knew there was only one man who could teach me those techniques. Through many hours of listening to Casals and listening to his advice, I discovered the musical techniques which I share with my advanced students.

It opens up a world of choice and gives one the opportunity of developing a style of playing which is individual and sets one apart from one's colleagues, just as a good writer has a style which sets him apart. This is what has been lost today.

I once heard you give a master class in which you characterized the interpretation as "too personal." William Pleeth often used the same expression in his teaching. What do you mean by it?

I think one can become so involved in the beauty of a phrase and emotionally involved to the point that one exaggerates. One has to be the interpreter, not the originator. There should be a slight distance. The tears that you bring to the eyes of a listener should not flow from your own eyes.

For the teachers amongst our readers, would you summarize what you would consider to be the essential ingredients of a good foundation at the cello?

Develop an enduring love for the art form.

Something that will carry you forward to the age of 90?

Yes, that's right. One should not be discouraged too soon. If you love it, stay with it. I remember Piatigorsky saying that the trouble with young people is that they don't stay with it, they give up too soon.

As an audience member listening to a performance of a work you know well, what would surprise you?

Innovative ideas. I must say I have been a thief when it came to listening to other artists I admire. When I hear something new, I say to myself: "Why didn't I think of that?" My next thought is: I will use it the next time I play the piece!"

Watching films of the legendary cellists of the past (Feuermann, Casals, Piatigorsky) we can see great economy of movement. Cellists today can sometimes appear to be at war with their instruments. What do you think might have brought about this change?

I cannot say there has been that much of a difference. When you listen to Casals you hear his breathing and singing. There are those players so physically involved in performance that their body reacts strongly. Either one has a reaction physically and in one's demeanor or one can let the music speak. With me there is a direct feeling from my mind into my fingers.

Yesterday we listened to a new recording of cello concertos and you made the comment that the playing was "predictable." What did you mean by this observation?

I could have duplicated that performance mentally. I certainly knew exactly which notes would be extended and I predicted the shape of the phrases.

So for you it wasn't musically interesting?

Completely boring. The act of interpreting was gone. He was following some sort of rules. Nothing was spontaneous.

If you were learning a new work today, how would you go about it?

I would certainly want to study the score and use the advantage of having contact with the composer and his wishes for the performance. In my New York performances, I used to present the work of a gifted young composer who would have the chance for success. I worked with the composer to give it as fine a performance as possible.

What motivates you at age 90 to travel across the oceans, still teaching and working long hours?

I find that working with people of the younger generations brings me back to their ages. I don't treat myself as an old man of the cello. When I teach, I am the young aspiring cellist. When I finish teaching and have to get up out of my chair, I am reminded of my age.

My interest in transmitting my musical ideas to young artists has sustained me over the years and keeps me involved in the wonderful world of music.


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