!!! ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW !!!!
by TIM JANOF
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
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
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"
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
He then introduced me to Zara Nelsova, one of the great virtuosos in cello
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
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
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
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
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
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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