A weekend to cherish

by Robert Battey

The University of North Carolina-Greensboro has slowly and quietly carved out a significant niche for itself in the cello world. Its Special Collections Division has acquired the complete musical collections of Luigi Silva, Fritz Magg, Janos Scholz, Rudolph Matz, Maurice Eisenberg, Elizabeth Cowling, and soon, Bernard Greenhouse. The school has also started a projected annual series of weekend-long celebrations, spearheaded by UNC cello professor Brooks Whitehouse, to honor historically important cellists. Last year they honored Silva. This year the honoree was Greenhouse; whether quid pro quo for his massive donation or not, no living cellist more deserves to be feted and celebrated for his contributions to the cello world.

I write this without total objectivity, as I studied with Greenhouse back in the 1970s. But this 90-year-old master's legacy is everywhere. In his pioneering work in modern Bach interpretation through his many years in the Bach Aria Group, in his standard-setting performances and recordings with the Beaux Arts Trio, and, above all, in his lifelong dedication to teaching at such institutions as Juilliard, New England Conservatory, SUNY-Stony Brook, Manhattan, Indiana University, and masterclasses around the globe, Greenhouse's ideals and spirit are a permanent part of our cellistic universe.

The Greensboro event, March 4-6 was, overall, quite well organized by Whitehouse. He and an enthusiastic staff made all feel welcome and connected. The three days were filled with masterclasses and performances given by Greenhouse and his alumni. The master himself attended every event, shuttling back and forth between double-booked classes, and even played a little for us. Greenhouse's musical enthusiasm, imagination, and insight are undimmed at 90. I recalled seeing his mentor, Casals, give classes at around the same age, and Greenhouse's specificity of detail, eloquence, humor, and even instrumental control all exceeded what Casals could do. Most enjoyable to me was seeing the younger cellists lap it all up. Whether playing in or just watching masterclasses, the students were clearly awed by what they were now a part of. The extraordinarily high level of the alums' playing and teaching (dozens of them) made clear that musical excellence was something definable and attainable with proper training.

I was present for all three days, but didn't get to every event. Thus, my highlights list may have glaring omissions. I was told Steven Doane's class was revelatory, but I missed it. From my own impressions, however, I offer the following cellologue:

The first event I was able to attend was the UNC library staff presentation on their special collections. This resource has been a permanent link on ICS newsletters for years, so it was enjoyable to hear from Sarah Dorsey in person as to what sorts of items they held and the various search protocols they offered. The collections are not available for general hands-on browsing, but the library staff has expended much effort in cataloguing the material and creating a user-friendly search engine. And, as Ms. Dorsey accurately stated, there are "jillions" of doctoral theses waiting to be written from all their material.

Next, Greenhouse and his son-in-law, the author Nicholas Delbanco, gave a joint presentation on Greenhouse's magnificent Stradivarius cello. Some years ago, Greenhouse had Rene Morel do an extensive restoration of the instrument. That delicate, lengthy process, and other lore before and after, led to a short book by Delbanco. He read passages from it, with Greenhouse and his instrument sitting nearby in an easy chair. At several points, Greenhouse would play short passages for us, revealing the glorious colors of sound it contained. A magical afternoon.

Although the Celebration offered such diverse events as an Alexander Technique lecture, improvisation workshop, and a reading orchestra, from this point on I only caught parts of various conventional masterclasses and concerts. Again, if someone didn't make my highlight list it may have been because I simply didn't see him/her. But the performances that stood out for me included: Timothy Eddy's poignant rendition of the tenor obbligato aria from Cantata 41, and an absolutely smoking Carter Sonata � both Greenhouse classics; Bongshin Ko's lissome, graceful performance of Offenbach's Les Lamres de Jacqueline, the most perfect playing I heard that weekend; Tilmann Wick's astonishing virtuosity in a Martinu Duo with violinist John Fadial; and Steven Doane's musical intensity and sovereign command of every facet of cello technique in Britten's Suite For Cello, Op. 72. Many other performances were excellent as well.

As for the masterclasses, Qiang Tu of the NY Philharmonic worked very intensely with his charges, maintaining a continuous stream of advice either through his playing or his exhortations. Amit Peled of Peabody did a very amusing riff on the subversive conservatory "lyrics" to the opening of the Shostakovich Eb Concerto ("I'm Yo-Yo Ma!" "No-you're-not, no-you're-not!"), challenging a student to prove the orchestra wrong. Paul Katz was at his avuncular best, patiently working with each student to find their optimal body/instrument set-up, and position for each hand.

There were only two planning miscalculations I noticed, though they were major. Thirteen masterclasses were presented, and all but Greenhouse's were double-booked so that visitors had to either choose or shuttle back and forth. Although all of the invited artists were of the first rank, certainly Tim Eddy and Paul Katz had the biggest cachet and reputations as teachers. But their classes were scheduled opposite one another, which irritated everyone (including the artists themselves, who had hoped to sit in on one another's classes). Surely, that could have been avoided. Secondly, the Greenhouse class and interview was placed immediately after a long afternoon concert (with an evening one coming up). For a variety of reasons the concert ran nearly 30 minutes over ("variety"-type recitals are notoriously time-consuming, with extensive stage resetting and impromptu remarks from some performers). Thus, the two signature events of the entire weekend had to be truncated. And precious time of the shortened on-stage interview was further wasted by an audience member with a pointless, droning "thank you, Bernie, for all you have done" speech.

Greenhouse has always given wonderful masterclasses. His musical and cellistic principles are on the one hand rather simple, and, on the other, very hard to attain. He has seen every problem, and dealt with every sort of personality. His humanity and dedication to great music-making are permanent yardsticks, and he never wastes time or fumbles about for something to say. At 90, he still produces a sound of unique beauty, and can demonstrate the essentials of any passage. All who were privileged to be there that afternoon saw precisely what has made this artist the true living legend he is.

Overall, the Greenhouse celebration was a great success. As many tributes of one sort or another that Greenhouse receives these days, there cannot be too many. There was much talk of our "living link to the past," and in this case it was entirely appropriate. The many young cellists there (who brought their own irrepressible energy to the event) were clearly affected by what they were now a part of, and they will hopefully carry the Greenhouse ideals into their own old age. For the alums, it was a welcome chance to reconnect with old buddies and catch up on each other's lives. Prof. Whitehouse and UNC are to be congratulated and thanked for this weekend.

-- R.B.

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