ICS Member Spotlight from TUTTI CELLI, September/October 1996

I started to play the cello at the age of eleven at my local secondary school in Edinburgh. It was not a very succesful venture at first, as I did not make any real progress until my fifth year of study. At this time a new music teacher (Margaret Tod) arrived at the school in 1975. She was a pianist by training and had had some success as a soloist in her early career. Her experience of the cello was fairly limited but she certainly knew her stuff about music in general; what she was able to explain about phrasing and musicality more than made up for her limitations in cello technique. She always fascinated me with her stories of when she was page turner for Tovey and Casals when Casals made visits to Edinburgh in the 1930's. Apparantly the two communicated in German. By 1975 I was about Grade 5 standard and was making fairly good progress and I realised that I really enjoyed making music on this instrument. She asked me to go to her studio for lessons instead of the half hour a week at school - she had a full sized grand piano there. We started to work on the first movement of the Brahms E minor sonata which I fell in love with. She had obviously given a recital of this piece as pianist at some point in her career as she knew it off by heart. At first I was overwhelmed by the sound of her grand piano but over the next few months my playing got stronger and I was able to complete the movement without stopping. Of course, since I was not being taught technique at the same time, I picked up some horrible bad habits and fingering which I later had to shake off when I studied the piece properly. Nevertheless, I used to wait in excitement for my weekly lesson when I would sit in this grand music studio in Edinburgh's newtown and prepare to start that haunting low E minor melody with such a superb piano accompaniment.

It was electric to me - even in those days. One day in 1975 she commanded me to buy a ticket for "Rostakovitch" - she could never pronounce his name and insisted that it had a "k". I was none the wiser, and as good students do, I took the advice and bought the ticket. Rostropovich was making his first appearance at the Edinburgh festival for some years and was going to play 3 of the Bach suites. I did not know what to expect when I got to the concert hall - but I know that that first ever cello recital which I attended made a huge impact on me. I was mesmerized by Rostropovich and was near to tears during the sixth suite - I could not believe that one single instrument could make such beautiful music and that an individual could be so much in command of that instrument. I was from that moment a devout Rostropovich fan - but little did I know then that I would have the opportunity later in life to meet him over dinner and discuss the cello and its repertoire and have the offer of a lesson from him!

As luck would have it the following year (1976) Rostropovich came back to the Edinburgh festival this time to play the Prokofiev Simphonia Concertante. I was again electrified by this music although I found it difficult to understand at that point - I was only 17. I later became very keen on the music of Prokofiev. My first public recital, the prize giving ceremony of my secondary school, was a total disaster. I played Beethoven's Sonatina in D minor - a very simple piece, but unaware to me, my cello which had been under the grand piano during the ceremony was in the direct heat and light of the sun which was beating down on the glass windows - 1976 was unusually a very hot summer in Scotland!. When I went up to the podium to play, the cello was hopelessly out of tune. I got so flustered trying to tune it in front of over two hundred people and when I started I was hit by my first attack of stage fright. It was truly a nightmare for me and I wanted the earth to swallow me up. This incident really knocked back my confidence for a few years.

After a few years study with Margaret Tod, she insisted that she hand me over to a more experienced cello teacher to concentrate on technique. I then went to study with Kitty Gregorson - a wonderful lady who taught Moray Welsh (now principal cellist of the London Symphony Orchestra) in his early years. She had a difficult time with me at first trying to correct all the bad habits, but she succeeded as two years later under her supervision I passed the Associated Board grade 8 with distinction. No-one was more surprised than I! During the late seventies and eighties I took every opportunity to hear live cello recitals. I heard most of the Greats of that time including Fournier, Tortelier, Starker, and many of the "newcomers" like Lloyd Weber, Bailey, May, Kirshbaum, Harrell etc. I managed to hear Rostropovich again on many occasions - the most memorable being after the Armenian Earthquake where he played the last movement of Britten's Third Cello Suite (prayer to the dead) to a packed Barbican Hall at around 2:00 am in the morning. The complete silence after he played moved me to tears. I am disappointed that my cellistic interest did not develop earlier because I would have been able to hear Du Pre in concert, but unfortunately she had retired two years earlier.

I joined the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra, an amateur orchestra and played with them for almost ten years prior to my relocation to London. In London I played briefly with the Chiswick Symphony Orchestra and in 1990 I was posted to Hong Kong. There I joined the Hong Kong chamber orchestra and played in a few concerts as well as in quartets etc. I built up a vast CD collection of cello music including most of the contemporary compositions which Slava has been instrumental in creating. To me the jury is still out on some of these works although I do find some of them incredible (Penderecki's second cello concerto for example - a fantastic work). While I was working in Hong Kong I got the opportunity of a life time.

I was with a well known branded spirits company which as part of its brand development program had established a "World Master Musician" series of concerts annually. It was well known in the company that I was a keen amateur cellist - I had given a small concert in Shanghai to my colleagues at one of our management conferences earlier that year. I was thrilled and delighted when I heard that the plan for 1992 was to invite Rostropovich to play in Taipei, Taiwan and that I would be given tickets for the concert. I was even more thrilled when the General Manager of the local company invited me to join a small group which was hosting a dinner for Rostropovich and his accompanist (Lambert Orkis) the evening before the concert. I could not believe my luck!

At the pre-concert dinner there were 12 people invited to a typical Chinese style banquet in a Taipei restaurant. I was seated two away from Rostropovich at the early part of the dinner but as the evening went on we all moved seats. I was asked to sit next to him as we "had something in common". We spoke for a while about the cello and the repertoire - he seemed interested in the fact that I was tackling the first Britten Suite - he later autographed my copy of the suites which I now have framed. He was extremely entertaining during dinner telling many stories of his life and experiences - including the one mentioned in an earlier edition of ICS Tutti Celli regarding the "contract" between himself and Britten over the suites.

After dinner, it was arranged that several of the group take Mr. Rostropovich out to a night club in Taipei. We went to an up-market nightclub which served some excellent cognac while we listened to the entertainment provided. I was sitting next to Mr. Rostropovich and again we were talking about the cello literature. He told me there that in his opinion Schnittke is the greatest living composer and that his Cello Concerto no 2 was the most difficult piece he had ever tackled! I had both concertos in my collection of CD's and was able to give my comments on the works. I told him my favorite piece was the Prokofiev sonata in C and that I was having a few difficulties with the last page of the first movement. He asked me to play for him the next day, but I (stupidly) declined as I know I would have been too nervous - I will never get that chance again!

At that point, a young Taiwanese violinist started to play "The Swan" fairly close to our table. He played it beautifully - although Slava pointed out to me he took 5 bows for the high B eight bars from the end! We all suggested that we invite the violinist to our table for a drink after he finished playing. I went up to him and asked him to come to our table where there was a very "special guest" who wanted to meet him. As he approached our table I saw his lower jaw drop about 3 inches when he recognized who was sitting there. He had heard Rostropovich in concert two years earlier in Taiwan and recognized him immediately. Imagine the feeling of knowing you had just played the Swan to Rostropovich! Slava was very interested in listening to the violinist (who spoke excellent English) in relation to his studies and his work. The young violinist explained that he traveled from one nightclub to another on his motorbike each night giving small recitals - sometimes up to seven nightclubs each night. Slava responded with - "maestro, you are seven times greater musician than I am, I can only manage one concert hall each night!! "The young violinist was completely bowled over by the comment. It certainly made his night a memorable one.

The following evening Slava walked on stage and gave a fantastic recital incorporating the Beethoven Magic Flute Variations (one of the works I had studied for my grade 8 examination), the Bach Suite No. 2, Debussy and the Myaskovsky Sonata No 2. For one of his encores he played my favorite slow movement from a sonata - the Rachmaninoff. I do not think there was a dry eye in the house! All in all it was a perfect weekend and one which I shall never forget. He truly is a remarkable man and I feel privileged to have spent time (albeit very short) in his company. He seems to touch the heart of everyone he meets.

In 1993 the company invited Yo Yo Ma to play in Taiwan and I was again invited. Unfortunately the pre-concert dinner was canceled as Mr. Ma was suffering a bad bout of flu, but I did meet him after the concert. He too is a very charming man and easy to talk to. He signed my copy of the Bach cello suites "Keep going, Yo Yo".

After six years of living in Hong Kong, my company posted me here to Miami, Florida. I have not yet found an outlet for my cello playing but will continue to search.

My ambition remains to be able to retire at a relatively early age and go to music college as a mature student. I then want to live in a marble floored house overlooking the Mediterranean (Italy or Spain) and play the Bach suites each morning (somehow I do not think I will ever master Nos. 4 & 6). I want to give a public recital one day including the following works; Brahms E minor sonata, Rachmaninov Sonata and the Prokofiev Sonata the latter of which still beats me in the third movement!!. I would also like to give cello lessons. Its my dream - and I will do it..........

Keith Hall

PS. Does any reader know where I can get a copy of the Myaskovsky Sonata No. 2 music (A minor). I love this piece and would like to work at it but to date have been unable to locate a copy.

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