Conversations with Cordelia Wikarski-Miedel

by Tim Janof and Cordelia Wikarski-Miedel

Ms. Wikarki-Miedel is Instructor of Cello, the Northwest Artist in Residence, and Director of the Chamber Music Department at University of Puget Sound.

Comprehensive Bio

TJ: You were born in Berlin?

CWM: I was born in Berlin shortly before World War II, when Berlin was not divided between East and West.

TJ: Were your parents musicians?

CWM: My father was professor of piano at the "Hochschule fur Musik" in Berlin, the equivalent of the Juilliard School in New York. He taught from 1927 to 1945, when he was killed by Russians who had invaded Berlin in the last days of the war. My mother was a fine pianist, and was able to play the major piano literature. My parents often played together, sometimes she accompanied him at the second piano with the orchestral parts from scores of concertos my father wrote. We grew up with music in the house six to eight hours per day, mostly piano music.

TJ: Was your father killed for any particular reason?

CWM: No, he was just one of the many innocent victims of war. I remember clearly, it was a sunny and peaceful Sunday afternoon on April 29, 1945, when two Russian officers came into our house and took my father by the collar of his suit and shot him ten seconds later in front of his six children. I was only six years old. Our mother was 37 years old and suddenly alone with six children to take care of.

TJ: How did your family survive such a tragedy?

CWM: We were left with nothing after World War II. Our house was not bombed, but everything in the house was sold for food. We survived by a series of very fortunate circumstances, one miracle after another. Our family was well known to the artistic community in Berlin, so we received incredible help from friends and organizations such as Red Cross and Care. Spiritually, we survived because of our mother; who had a deep faith in God and an unswerving belief that God would take care of us. And God did.

TJ: How did you get started on the cello?

CWM: Years after my father died, my sister Eleonore, who later became a professional pianist, was able to finance my first cello with the fee from a young artist performance of Chopin Etudes and Mazurkas, which she recorded for the American Radio Station in Berlin. She was sixteen at the time. My first cello was purchased for the amazing amount of $ 60.00, including the bow. It was March 1952 when I started learning the cello with a teacher in our neighborhood. After a year, it was obvious that I had talent for the cello, which greatly contrasted with my years of piano playing, being rather poor in comparison to my sisters and brothers.

TJ: Who did you study cello with in Berlin?

CWM: My first teacher was Professor Richard Klemm, a fine pedagogue. He taught for 30 years at "The Hoch-schule fur Musik" in Berlin. He helped me develop my artistic expression, but my technique still lacked the essential knowledge to work without a teacher. I studied there for seven years, but during that time I took two semesters with Maurice Gendron, the French cellist.

TJ: What was Gendron like?

CWM: He is very hard to describe. He was a glamorous and elegant person, and his playing was incredibly elegant. I was captivated by his playing when he came to Berlin in 1957. He played both Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Haydn D Major Concerto in one evening with the State Opera Orchestra. I had this fascination with Gendron's sound, which I felt no one in Europe had at that time. He was somehow unique and unforgettable.

TJ: Was he a good teacher?

CWM: I don't think so. This is of course my own opinion, but after two lessons I sensed he was incapable of understanding that a one time demonstration does not improve a students playing. He made me feel worthless while I played for him, as if he was thinking about what a horrible experience it was to have to listen to me. Maybe it was, but I believe as a teacher you want to convey understanding and willingness to help. Perhaps one of the things I learned from him was to apply more of a drill to any technical place that I would need to focus on. Gendron taught mainly master classes. Students came from Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Japan to play for him. When Gendron demonstrated it was exciting and stimulating, but he could not explain these marvelous elements in his own performance to the students.

I had, at this time, a unique position among the students of the master class because, two weeks before, I had won, with my sister Eleonore, the first prize at the 1958 International Duo Competition in Munich, Germany. Two years later, I graduated with my Masters Degree. That same year, the Berlin Wall went up, imprisoning one part of Germany for forty years. I will never forget August 13, 1961. The feeling of helplessness and the terror that dominated all of our lives seemed unbearable. Since I lived only half a mile from the border, on the East side, I heard shooting during the night when people in despair tried to escape. It was a daily struggle to not be overcome by the hatred, by the isolation, by being cut off from a lifestyle my friends, just a mile away, enjoyed and took for granted.

TJ: Did you ever try to escape?

CWM: No, by escaping, I would have cut off ties with my family, which I didn't want to do because, once you leave, you are never allowed to return.

TJ: Who did you study with after M. Gendron?

CWM: From 1961 to 1966, I worked with a marvelous teacher, August Eichhorn, in Leipzig. He had been the principal cellist in the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig for many years. But by the time I met him, he devoted his entire time to teaching.

TJ: What was his teaching like?

CWM: August Eichhorn was an incredibly warm person. He was uncomplicated but his teaching was like science. His sense of humor and sensitivity towards his students and his modesty made him very precious to me. Any time I had a lesson, it felt like a celebration of music filled with enthusiasm. Eichhorn's teaching consisted mainly in taking all the time in the world to reach the root of a problem, to isolate problems to a degree I never had done before. When I heard Janos Starker present his lectures and seminars (I have been to several of them), I was reminded of Eichhorn and his concern about the same criteria. Eichhorn assured me that I would secure my technique, it just needed time to develop. Affirming Eichorn's excellent teaching, I entered the 1963 International Pablo Casals Competition in Budapest, where I received a diploma. This was a wonderful experience.

During all these years, I performed in concert with my sister all over Europe and Asia and in solo engagements with orchestras. In 1966, I entered the Tchaikovsky Competition. In the third round, I had to play with the Moscow Radio Orchestra, conducted by Gennadi Roshdestwenski, playing the Dvorak concerto and the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, one right after another. I remember it took place on a very hot and humid day, and my time to play was scheduled at 10:45 PM in the great hall of the Moscow Conservatory. My sister, who accompanied me through the previous rounds with full recital programs, received a special award for best accompaniment during the competition. I want to mention some members of the spectacular jury in 1966: Rostropovich, Piatigorsky, Cassado, Fournier, Milosh Sadlo, Shafran, Kossulopowa, and others.

TJ: Did it make you nervous to play for such musicians?

CWM: One is nervous for any audience I think. I don't become more nervous, but rather more excited and inspired to play for such world class musicians. When you know you are well prepared, you want somebody there who can recognize it.

TJ: You have been in four international competi-tions. How do you feel about them? There is a lot of discussion about their artistic merit.

CWM: I will explain my view by comparison to another type of contest. Would you like to give up the Olympic Games? Of course not. There are only a few music competitions in the world that have the Tchaikovsky Competition's status because of their stringent requirements. For the person who participates, it is a major commitment of time and extremely hard work. I enjoyed every minute of it. You test your discipline, your attitude, and your openness toward advice. You develop excellent practicing habits and your involvement in the music becomes incredibly focused. You gain much more insight in a piece that way.

I realize, Tim, that you were refering to the occasional political games that occur at great compe-titions. I believe they are unavoidable. Conflicts arise among the jury as the first sound soars into the hall and controversies will remain after the last tone has died away for a long time.

TJ: Was Rainer in your life around this time? [Rainer Miedel, the late husband of Ms. Wikarski-Miedel, was the music director of the Seattle Symphony from 1976-1983. He died relatively young of cancer in 1983.]

CWM: We met in Berlin in 1961.

TJ: You met in school?

CWM: Yes.

TJ: Was he a conducting student?

CWM: No, at that time, he was a wonderful cellist. We met the day I graduated, when I played the Dvorak concerto with the university orchestra. There was a big party afterwards at a mansion. All of a sudden, I saw him and I asked if he wanted to come too. Truly, I have lovely memories of that evening.

TJ: When did you come to the US?

CWM: In 1977. But before that, I taught at the "Hoch-schule fur Musik, Hanns Eisler" in East Berlin. When I applied for permission to leave East Germany in 1975, I lost my teaching position immediately. I was treated like a traitor to the Communists.

TJ: You have had more than your share of tragedy in your life. Your father was murdered, you grew up in a Berlin destroyed by war, you were trapped behind the Berlin Wall, your husband died in 1983, and now you are recovering from operations on both of your shoulders. And yet you don't seem bitter!

CWM. Oh, I am glad I don't give the impression that I am bitter. I feel difficult experiences have made me stronger. There is, as result of these experiences, more of a sense of fulfillment in life and it has given me greater insight into people. Of course, it is sometimes difficult to maintain this attitude.

TJ: You are, as a pedagogue, well recognized in the Northwest. What do you emphasize in your teaching from a technical standpoint?

CWM: The development of the coordination, or better, the independence between both arms is a concern of mine while I teach. I am trying to raise the students' awareness of the bow, since the left hand is already, for most of my students, their first consideration when something goes wrong. From the beginning, I work on the students' perception and image of the sound. I cannot stand a string player who has excellent facilities, but whose sound lacks sensitivity and flexibility.

I think the secret of a good relationship between student and teacher is based on trust, which evolves from experience and challenge. This means you get actively involved in discussing the value of advice given. I know from my own experience, that an active dialogue inspires me greatly.

Certainly, my major focus in teaching is to make them understand the music that they are playing. My goal, with the understanding that it will take several years, is to make my students aware of their own creativity and to lessen, little by little, their dependence upon my guidance.

This interview has mainly touched upon my earlier musical education and artistic development under difficult political circumstances in Germany after World War II. My curiosity for new ideas concerning my musicianship remains as vigorous as two decades ago. I hope sometime we can talk further about such things.


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