On Thursday, October 10th, the music world lost Zara Nelsova, the "Grand Dame" of the cello, after a heroic long battle with cancer. I first heard her play in a recital at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1947. She opened the program with a rather innocuous Prelude by Emmanuel Moor. Her passion, flair, and flawless intonation completely overwhelmed me. She seemed to have combined all the qualities of my two heroes, Feuermann and Piatigorsky. I met her at a party following the concert and it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Zara was convinced of her own destiny and turned down offers of lucrative commercial work to concentrate on building a solo career. This was at a time when, in the United States, cellists were not considered salable items by the music managers. Being a woman created even more obstacles. With no managerial backing or help from wealthy patrons, her determination to have a solo career eventually led to worldwide recognition as one of the greatest cellists of all time.
She told me that the most help she received was from cellist colleagues who admired her playing and would prevail upon orchestral managers and conductors to engage her as soloist. In the early years of her career, she would often be dependent on friends for lodging in between engagements, because of the meager fees of the time. I remember her traveling with her cello and an old battered suitcase to accept a concert in London, where the fee was less than the fare.
The conductor, William Steinberg, once told me that she came backstage after a rehearsal and plunked her cello down in front of him and started playing. He was so impressed that he hired her as soloist every year after that!
Here is an amusing anecdote that illustrates her colleagues' respect for her. She was rehearsing the difficult concerto by Samuel Barber with the London Philharmonic and as soon as she finished playing, the principal cellist threw his cello down on the floor and stomped on it, shouting, "I give up!" Of course, this was a planned joke and he had bought a cheap cello for the occasion. Everyone in the orchestra was in on it except Zara.
Zara was the favorite cellist of Ernest Bloch, who wrote three Solo Suites for her and presided as conductor for her recording of his Schelomo. Samuel Barber also chose her as soloist for a recording of his Cello Concerto, with him conducting.
In the last decade, she devoted herself to teaching and giving master classes all over the world. She achieved the status of "queen mother of the cello." At the last World Cello Congress, she gave a hilarious talk about stage deportment. Her presentation had all the timing and polish of a professional comedienne. Her own stage personality was unforgettable. She would be dressed in spectacular long flowing gowns presenting an image very much like the famous portrait of the cellist, Suggia, by Augustus John.
Her two closest colleague friends over the years have been Bernard Greenhouse and myself. When I learned of her terminal illness, I was reluctant to phone her very often but Greenhouse would devotedly call her every day and I would contact him for news of her condition. Last week, I flew in for a final visit. I talked to her about what an inspiration she had been to all of her fellow musicians. She didn't have the strength to speak but she did manage a little smile in acknowledgement. I knew it would only be a matter of days before we lost her, so I started thinking about this tribute. Many memorials in her honor are now being planned.
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