Bonnie Hampton leads an active life as a chamber musician, soloist, and teacher. Ms. Hampton has been involved in performances of new music since the beginning of her career and has been active in contemporary music groups. She has also been the cellist of the Francesco Trio for 32 years. A student of Pablo Casals, she participated for many years in the Casals and Marlboro Festivals. Ms. Hampton teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and, during the summer, at the Banff Centre and the Tanglewood Music Center. She has served as president of Chamber Music America.

Bonnie Hampton and Nathan Schwartz perform an excerpt of the Hindemith Sonata Op 11 No.3 (RealAudio format 232K)

TJ: You studied with the great cello pedagogue, Margaret Rowell. What was she like as a teacher?

BH: I started my study with her when I was 8 years old and stayed until I was 15 or 16, though we maintained a lifelong association afterwards. The main thing that struck me about her was her infectious vitality. She was enormously alive, energetic, and enthusiastic, so her lessons were always an adventure.

She was a very physical teacher, and had many physical analogies at her disposal. For example, she talked about the bear hug to show how to hold the cello, and about bird wings to illustrate the motion of the bow arm and a feeling of freedom. She was willing to do whatever she felt necessary to illustrate an alive contact with the instrument, including getting down on the floor on her hands and knees to show the feeling of a bear.

TJ: What does the "bird wings" analogy illustrate?

BH: It refers to how you unfold your arm while playing a downbow, just as a bird unfolds its wings, and then how you fold your arm back in while playing an upbow. She had wonderful pictures on her walls to illustrate these concepts. I remember one of a gorgeous eagle with its spread wings. She wanted us to have that same feeling of flight and balance in our own playing.

She had many students and nurtured a sense of community among her students. She had monthly get-togethers where students of all ages would play for each other, as well as play in ensembles. We felt like we were all working together to achieve a common goal -- to experience a profound love for music and our instrument.

She was constantly finding sources of inspiration outside of music. For example, she looked to dancers for ideas. She found a book called "The Thinking Body," written by a famous dancer of the 1930's, that discusses the use of balance and other related concepts. She found that the ideas in this book were helpful in understanding cello playing. She was also very interested in the ideas of Dounis.

There was a constant exploration of ideas and concepts in an attempt to uncover the mysteries of the cello. Her students would excitedly compare notes about what they were doing with the cello, and about the concept of the week. We were given the opportunity, in an analytical and yet fun way, to examine how one does everything on the cello, how to shift, how the fingers work in terms of articulation, and how to get that centered vibrato that comes from a center core. We also explored the notion that our body prefers to move in circles or arcs rather than in straight lines. There was a strong element of analytical experimentation, which I'm really grateful for now.

Another big source of energy and awareness was learning to play from the back, with a springy feeling in the back. This is a feeling in which you're not playing from the muscles of your arms or from your shoulder, and you're not gripping with your fingers. You open up a source of energy all the way to your back by using a weight energy, or gravity. But this is not a dead weight, it is a very alive weight. It is the kind of weight that, if you want to push someone, for example, rather than pushing them with stiff arms, you push them with the weight of your own body. It's the same principle when you play the cello; you use gravity instead of pushing downwards. I remember exercises where she would pull the bow the opposite direction of the bow's travel as I was playing so that I'd get that sense of the sideways pull, instead of a forced downward pressure.

TJ: You are describing a lot of the technical aspects of her teaching. Did she also work on musical ideas?

BH: Of course, all of her technical teachings were communicated through the music. She certainly worked on the basics, and was generous in her doses of Klengel studies. But much of the lesson time was spent with music.

TJ: Did she encourage you to tell a story with the music, using imagery as a basis for musical ideas?

BH: No, but there was a very vital connection with the energy of the music. I remember as a young teenager working on the Saint-Saens Concerto. It was a hilarious experience because she'd walk into the room while I was tuning or fooling around, and she'd go to the piano without any warning and play an A minor chord, a very full one like the concerto's orchestral entrance. I had to immediately react and respond with the beginning of the Saint-Saens. The thing that came across was a real love and enthusiasm for the music.

TJ: Chamber music was another important part of your early musical experience.

BH: Definitely. When the Griller Quartet became the resident quartet at the University of California in Berkeley, Margaret Rowell, in her typical fashion, quickly welcomed them to her home and introduced them to the local music community. She encouraged me to study with the cellist of the quartet, Colin Hampton, when I was in high school, which I eventually did.

I often sat in on the quartet's chamber music coaching sessions at the university. One day the cellist of the student quartet that I was listening to became ill. They happened to be studying the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven. I had been so enthusiastic about the piece that I had been practicing the cello part at home. I was asked to substitute for the ailing cellist, and I guess I was good enough that I became the permanent cellist of the group, which was fun because they were all graduate students, while I was still in high school.

TJ: Most people start their chamber music life with the early Haydn Quartets, but not Bonnie Hampton.

BH: This irony was not lost on me at the time. I joined the class after that and worked on Beethoven's Opus 132 Quartet, yet another challenge, as well as Bloch's Second Quartet. I was definitely getting an intensive education early on.

TJ: I'll say.

BH: The funny thing is that after we performed these pieces and went to Haydn and Mozart, the quartet broke up. Haydn and Mozart are very difficult to play really well. Kids these days don't realize this. They want to get right into the Romantic music because they think that's where the real "meat" is.

During my later teenage years, I was playing chamber music like crazy and was also beginning to play contemporary music. I had the opportunity to play Leon Kirschner's trio, with Leon playing the piano part, and from then on I was very involved with the local composer's forum.

As a young teenager I had a chance to play some concertos. But I remember at 17 being invited to play a recital in Sacramento. I wrote back as only a 17-year-old could, "I only play chamber music now. I don't play solo recitals." It was a period when I was absolutely bitten by the chamber music bug. I had become deeply immersed in it.

TJ: You mentioned that you studied with Colin Hampton, who is also known for his cello compositions. What was it like studying with him?

BH: Colin was very much a quartet cellist, and he saw "quartet cellist" as his role in life, so to speak. He always referred to himself as the bass of the quartet. He was a wonderful cellist and people were constantly asking him to play other things, but he wouldn't. He was from an older school of quartet players where, when one was labeled as a quartet musician, that's all one did. Today, everyone diversifies much more, and, frankly, I think it's probably more healthy.

One of the things that was so strong with him was how he was able to delve beneath the surface of someone's playing and look right into the character of the music. He had no use for the idea of mere instrumental playing, or virtuoso playing per se. He admired and loved virtuoso playing, of course, but he said, unless one really loves music, there's no point in playing the instrument.

He then introduced me to Zara Nelsova, one of the great virtuosos in cello history.

TJ: Did you study with her too?

BH: Yes. With Margaret Rowell and Colin Hampton, the concept was to gain your technique through the music. Zara focused a lot on purely technical issues. Prior to her, I had fooled around with etudes, but I had never really been held responsible for them. But Zara had me do a lot of etude work, which was very helpful. We also worked on a lot of concertos.

TJ: What were some of the big themes in her teaching?

BH: The main thing she talked about was projection, being able to be heard above the orchestra in a concerto. She worked on achieving a "bigness" of sound and style.

TJ: She still talks about that. Now let's talk about your most famous teacher, Pablo Casals. How did you get the opportunity to meet him?

BH: I was about 16 when I went to the Casals Festival in Prades with my mother. Each day I attended many rehearsals and concerts, as well as the recording sessions that followed. Margaret Rowell had brought us up on Casals' recording of the Bach Suites, so going to Prades was like going to the "temple," so to speak. It was incredible just to be in his presence. There was something so right about his music making, and so right about his playing. I tried to analyze it in terms of his bow arm, which was so beautiful and so perfect, and I tried to figure out what it was about his music making that made it seem so completely convincing. If one could only get a handle on it, then maybe one could do it too. But the beauty of his playing was that it was always elusive, so you couldn't quite put your finger on its magic. And as long as I played for him, both in cello lessons and during the many years in the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, there would be always be some moment, when I wasn't necessarily expecting it, when everything would come together and I would say, "Yes, this is the way this needs to be." And it's not the kind of thing you can explain, but thankfully I recognized it when it happened.

TJ: How did you get the opportunity to study with him privately?

BH: When I played for him in Prades, he indicated that he would take me as a student, but he felt that I was too young to be on my own in Prades, so he told me to come back in a couple of years. When I mentioned that Colin Hampton was in Berkeley, he indicated that Colin was a fine cellist, having heard Colin play in the Griller Quartet in England, and encouraged me to study with him, which is what I decided to do. Four years later, I went back to Prades and studied with Casals for almost a year, before he moved to Puerto Rico. I then studied with him in Puerto Rico three or four months at a time.

When I began lessons with him, I often had two or three per week. We started with some of the fundamentals, especially intonation and vibrato. Vibrato was an interesting subject because, just before going to him, I had been studying with Zara Nelsova and had been very influenced by the vivacity of her vibrato and her sound. When I first played for him, he said, "Well, it's very electric and very exciting, but then it just goes on. It's not exciting after awhile if you keep that sound all the time." And so I was introduced to the important concept of varying your vibrato and sound, depending on the character of the music and what the music needed.

He was very demanding about intonation. He wanted his students to really hear the tonality, to think of intonation within a tonality, and to be conscious of the fact that the notes have a role within each key. It's amazing how my ears became very attuned under his guidance.

As a teacher he was very kind and very patient. The only times I saw him be short with a person was when he saw a talented student who was obviously trying to slide by without practicing, who was being careless about intonation, or who was trying to show off. But if he saw that someone was really trying to get through to something, he was very, very patient.

He was extremely detailed both musically and technically, which I always found fascinating, since his playing was also quite spontaneous. He had a complete sense of each note and how he wanted to played them. There was this constant variety of sounds depending on the musical passage and where each phrase was going. The paradox was that he analyzed everything by living with it until it was internalized, and yet I don't think I've ever heard anyone play with such spontaneity and vitality. But it wasn't that he was merely spontaneous, since his playing originated from deep within. He was truly unique.

TJ: Richard Taruskin, in an article in the January 1995 issue of "Strings" magazine, wrote the following: Casals "did for the Bach Suites what Chaliapin did for the role of Boris Godunov in Mussorsky's opera: revived them from the dead, made them a classic, created their performance practice, and as interpretations of consummate authority inevitably will, ruined them for generations to come."

What do you think of this statement?

BH: I've never met Mr. Taruskin, but if I did, I would have a "friendly" argument with him. Some of the statements he makes are inaccurate. I have over 30 different editions of the Bach Suites, because I'm interested in what other cellists do with them. I also have three facsimiles of different manuscripts of the Suites. We don't have the manuscript in Bach's own hand, but we have the Anna Magdalena, the Kellner, and the Westphal manuscripts, as well as the lute version of the 5th Suite, which is in Bach's hand. The thing I find fascinating is that the Bach Suites belong to each one of us. The Suites did not belong to Casals, though we are all fortunate that he shared his vision of them with us. Obviously plenty of other cellists have felt and feel as I do, otherwise there wouldn't be so many different editions. Casals deliberately chose not make an edition because, as he once told me, "If I make an edition, it will be carved in stone." He said that that's not the purpose of music making, since it is supposed to be a constantly living experience. In fact, when I heard him play the Bach Suites throughout the years, and while studying with him in the late 50's and early 60's, he was already using quite different bowings from those he had used earlier in his landmark recordings. Earlier in his life he had used much more legato bowings, which was the more Romantic style of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Then he had probably seen some of the Urtext editions, which indicate more separate bows, so he started to incorporate more of these in his own playing.

He was constantly evolving, especially with Bach. He didn't want to fall into an artistic rut. In fact, I remember one time in Prades, when there were several of us studying the same Suite. We'd get bowings and fingerings from each other to save lesson time. At one lesson he figured out what we were doing. So after he heard me play, he said, "Now let's start from the beginning." He then played it in a way that we hadn't heard before, though it still had the same structural feel and the same general character as before. In other words, the details were not as crucial as the understanding of the phrases, the understanding of where the music was going, and the understanding of the character.

TJ: So he may not have approved of the creation of the Casals-Foley edition of the Bach Suites, which was published after his death, supposedly indicating his fingerings, bowings, and musical ideas.

BH: No, I don't think he would have, because he was very clear about the fact that he did not want Bach to be rigid. Incidentally, I was looking at the Casals-Foley edition recently, because I have to play a Bach Suite in Japan soon. I pulled out some of my old copies and looked at what I had put down from lessons and then compared it with what Madeline Foley has, and there are a lot of differences. I also have editions from some of Casals' other students, like Maurice Eisenberg, and there are differences there too. Casals was always fresh with Bach and he didn't want to fall into a rut.

TJ: Casals certainly is an endless topic of conversation.

BH: The wonderful thing about studying the different repertoire with him was that it was an endless journey of discovery. The music always seemed fresh and new. This topic is not only endless, there is an aspect of it which is hard to talk about because his genius was so elusive, though so distinctly Casals.

TJ: You studied chamber music with Felix Galimir, the great violin and chamber music pedagogue, who teaches at Juilliard. How did you meet him?

BH: I met him at the Marlboro Music Festival in the 1960's, which I attended regularly. One of the purposes of Marlboro is to have seasoned professional musicians work with and perform with students. We worked with him on the Schoenberg quartets, which was fascinating. There was such a depth of study in his approach. He was driven to try to understand each note and its relationship to other notes. This approach is especially crucial in the complicated works of Schoenberg.

But more importantly, he would bring out the beauty of the music as well as his love for it so that we had a truly living performance. It wasn't just a musical jigsaw puzzle that had been neatly put together; it was something that was very vibrant and alive. He was a very dynamic person who was totally committed to what he was doing, though he could be very excitable at times. It was a wonderfully alive experience to play with somebody so dedicated.

In later years I had the opportunity to play other Schoenberg works with him, as well as the works of other Second Viennese School composers. Galimir is truly an authority on these works, because he grew up in Vienna, where he was in the inner circle of Alban Berg. In fact, he played in the very first recording of the Berg's Lyric Suite. I played the Lyric Suite with him, which was intimidating, because he knew every note by memory and wasn't the most patient fellow in the world.

TJ: Performing contemporary music seems to be your passion.

BH: It's definitely one of them. I have found that working on contemporary music and working directly with composers is mind-expanding, though it can be difficult at times. There was a period in the 1960's when composers were experimenting like crazy, which sometimes made me wonder whether the sound effects people in Hollywood could do better. It is amazing, as we near the end of the century, to look back at the last hundred years and to marvel at the eclecticism of 20th Century music. It's sad that more cellists aren't playing the vast quantity of contemporary music out there. We need to get more up to date in our recitals and start programming "contemporary" music besides Shostakovich.

There's a book called "Solo Cello," by Dimitry Markevitch, that lists hundreds of unaccompanied cello works, most which are contemporary. How often does one hear them? Almost never! Students tend to be very cautious about what they'll play. But once they figure out that they just have to dive in and grapple with the music, it becomes intriguing to them. The most important thing is to simply open one's ears and mind, which results in expanding one's technique and musical vision. When you have to grapple with a new score, especially when you aren't sure what the music means, you really have to dig deep. You can't go to the record store and find a recording to help you.

One great benefit of playing contemporary music is that you start looking at older music with fresh eyes and ears, instead of taking it granted. Kids today come to their first lesson and play the Dvorak concerto like the final performance. The problem is that they haven't figured it out for themselves. They feel they don't need to, in a sense, because all they have to do is put on a CD to hear how it is "supposed" to sound. In reality, one needs to go back in and figure out the Dvorak concerto the same way that one figures out a piece that's brand new, that nobody has heard before.

I have found with rare exceptions that I've always gained something from working with a composer. Sometimes it's tough, especially with some of the younger ones, because they feel insecure about their music. But even with the younger ones, I gain an insight into their relationship with the music.

TJ: Do the younger composers expect a rigorous adherence to the score?

BH: It varies a lot. Some want absolutely every detail a certain way, while others are more relaxed in their approach. I had a wonderful experience a couple of years ago with Elliot Carter. We were going to perform his Triple Duo, which is a very difficult piece for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion. We were doing the best we could, but it still needed some help, so there were plenty of details that he could have picked on at the rehearsal. Instead of dwelling on the details, he helped us understand what he needed to hear, and helped sort out the piece by showing us which parts needed to come out where. His approach really liberated us so that we were able to play with much more confidence and expression. We could have easily become bogged down in the minutia otherwise.

TJ: Since many composers are not that militant about the fine details in their own score, does that make you question those in the Authentic Movement who insist that one must play every note exactly as written?

BH: No. I think it says more about the wonderful diversity of the personalities of the composers and performers. Some people are sticklers for fine details and some are more interested in the big picture. Neither approach is wrong, they are just different.

This is a very common issue in chamber music, where different personalities must work together towards a common goal, though each may take a different path to get there. In a chamber music group, you are very lucky if you have both personality types, and you are even luckier if the differences are mutually respected. It's no good just having the overall inspiration because the performance can sound sloppy. It is also no good to be stuck in the details, because the performance will sound overly detailed and not have an overall sense of structure and flow, and may not leave room for inspiration. I think just about everybody has a natural tendency one way or another, and a serious professional musician needs to try to develop both sides of his personality so that he or she will have a more balanced approach.

TJ: Do you think that it's best to have a first violinist who is more free in his approach?

BH: That's hard to say. It's wonderful to play with somebody with imagination and creativity, but it is also great to play with somebody who is very disciplined.

TJ: You've had and continue to have a wonderfully diverse career.

BH: I feel very fortunate. As I look back I realize that I've had a chance to do a lot of wonderful things. I've had a chance to perform pretty much all the standard concertos, as well as a lot of the 20th Century concertos. I often try to talk a conductor into a newer concerto as opposed to a standard one, although it's a lot of fun to play the standards too. I've had some wonderful teachers, and I've had the opportunity to play with many great musicians, including Bobby Mann, the first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, for several summers. I've also been very active as a teacher throughout my life, and have taught here at the San Francisco Conservatory for quite some time. In fact, I have 30 hours of cello and chamber music teaching per week, in addition to my own performing career.

My diversity has been a large asset in my career. I tell my students that they need to prepare themselves in every possible way as a cellist, because they don't know what their opportunities are going to be in the future. In addition to the solo cello and the chamber literature, one needs to be able to play orchestral music well. One also needs to really think about teaching, and not just do it from one's own cellistic habits, in order to communicate effectively with a student.

TJ: Diversity is a particularly important strategy in today's competitive job market.

BH: Yes, there is a limited job market on one level, but on another level there really isn't. There is a huge country out there, and culturally there's a lot of work to do, because an awful lot of people don't know about classical music or the cello. Part of why they don't know about our world of music is because they simply haven't experienced it. This is certainly something that Chamber Music America is working hard to remedy by sponsoring groups who go to more rural places to perform and teach.

One great example of this is the Rackham Quartet, which is one of our rural residency groups in California. Currently they are in King City, which is a farming community. They've been playing hundreds of school concerts and acquiring many students. In fact, within their first week, they had 400 kids sign up for lessons. And that's just in one town. There are many similar stories occurring throughout the country.

We are a big country, and there's a lot to be done. But I think things are going to change tremendously. We don't have to go on approaching classical music the way we have always done it. The classical music industry won't dry up as long we engage in some really imaginative and creative thinking.


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