ROBERT LAMARCHINA: 1928-2003
Though relatively few may know of him today, Robert LaMarchina was one of the most brilliant cellists of the 20th Century. A child prodigy, he was the toast of the music world and was showered with praise from some of the most celebrated musicians of his time. Gaspar Cassadó said that LaMarchina was "the most outstanding talent I have seen." Maurice Maréchal said "There is no doubt of it, the boy is unusually gifted." Toscanini referred to him as "my little angel." Had he not gone into conducting and had some self-sabotaging tendencies from a career standpoint, there is little doubt that he would have been a household name for cellists around the world.
LaMarchina was born in New York City on September 3, 1928. His parents had first met on a ship that was headed for the United States from South America, his father being from Argentina and his mother from Brazil. LaMarchina's father, Antonio, a cellist, soon joined the St. Louis Symphony and moved the family to St. Louis, where Antonio remained for 27 years. At age 3, LaMarchina's mother left, and there are various theories as to why. It was said that she left because her husband was abusive. Others say she left because she was disappointed in what she perceived to be her less-than-exciting life. A part of Brazilian aristocracy, she had mistakenly assumed that professional musicians traveled in more glamorous circles than they actually do. She left her little son behind, some say because her husband refused to give him up, which resulted in him being subjected to an unhappy series of step-mothers and several new siblings with whom, except for one sister, he felt little connection.
LaMarchina's father was his first cello teacher and a strict taskmaster, especially once he determined that his son had a special talent for the cello. He made little Bobby, only seven years old, practice several hours each day. He wouldn't let his son play sports, except for a little soccer, because he was afraid that his son's hands would be injured. As an example of the rigor of young LaMarchina's technical regimen, Antonio insisted that his son play scales so slowly that a single run-through of a four-octave scale had to last a minimum of twenty-five minutes. If it didn't, he had to do it again. The result of this painstakingly detailed work was that LaMarchina had exquisite bow control and a sparkling left-hand facility, but a lost childhood.
Robert LaMarchina with his father.
LaMarchina made his stage debut as a soloist at age 8 with the Little Symphony in St. Louis and thus began his life as a child prodigy. He recalled those times with mixed feelings. "I enjoyed playing because I enjoyed the reactions of people seeing me play." But he also "recalled with horror the tweaks of the cheek and the sticky kisses that were frequently pressed on him by the good matrons after concerts. He conscientiously distorted his features into what was meant to be a sweet smile, but he really longed to scream himself into a tantrum and kick somebody squarely in the ankle." 1
LaMarchina's next series of teachers is a Who's Who of cellists: Maurice Maréchal, Emanuel Feuermann, and Gregor Piatigorsky. In 1939, he studied with Maréchal after winning a scholarship at the Paris Conservatoire, but this was cut short by the start of World War II. He then studied with Feuermann for three years at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and in California during the summers. LaMarchina quickly became one of the master's favorite students. "Once, [Feuermann] tried to fool Eva [Feuermann's wife] by having both Bobby and himself play passages on his cello. It was very difficult distinguish who was playing." 2 Eva later told one of LaMarchina's former students that the same guessing game was played at parties at Feuermann's house, and with similar results. LaMarchina then studied with Piatigorsky at Curtis for several years, the latter describing LaMarchina as having "golden hands."
Robert LaMarchina at age 10.
Composer Ned Rorem, in his autobiography, recalls LaMarchina at Curtis:
A music critic for the Globe in St. Louis, wrote the following glowing review when LaMarchina was twelve years old:
We do have some insight into LaMarchina's cello technique from his former students in Hawaii, who heard him play much later in life. According to Joanna Fleming, cellist in the Honolulu Symphony and renowned teacher in Hawaii:
At age 15, and against his father's wishes, LaMarchina decided to audition for the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini and drove to New York by himself. His father didn't want him to audition, perhaps because he wanted his son to pursue a solo career instead. LaMarchina won the audition and became by far the youngest member of the orchestra, which created a sensation in the media. Even Toscanini was charmed by him, calling him "my little angel." This was particularly notable because Toscanini was known for never showing any hint of favoritism toward any member of the orchestra. Toscanini once patted LaMarchina on the head on his way off stage, an uncharacteristic gesture that caused quite a stir amongst the young cellist's colleagues.
LaMarchina's perspective on his experience in the orchestra was somewhat less glowing. Though he loved playing with such an esteemed group, he found Toscanini's tantrums to be terrifying. The following comes from an interview with LaMarchina in 1945:
The cellists never did figure out which of them was in trouble.
LaMarchina also felt isolated while in the orchestra.
He also grew tired of being in the spotlight because of his youth. People in the audience would crane their necks to get a glimpse of the 'boy wonder.' Sometimes he was "tempted to make faces at them or return a stony stare."
In 1946, at age 18, he became the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position he held until 1949, when he was drafted into the Army. LaMarchina was appointed to the 293rd Army Band at General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo as a french horn player. He didn't know how to play the french horn, but it was either learn or be sent to the front lines in Korea:
He learned how to speak Japanese and taught cello lessons in Tokyo at the Ueno Ongaku Gakko (Ueno Music School). He also told someone at the Fujiwari Opera Company that he would like to conduct. "They asked if I ever had. 'Oh yeah,' I said. I lied." He assumed that he would have a month to prepare. Instead, he only had five days; a conductor got sick. For his debut, he conducted Puccini's Madame Butterfly and became to the first Westerner ever to conduct the opera company. He remembered it as the slowest Madame Butterfly in history. "It lasted three hours forty-five minutes. It usually takes two hours fifty-five minutes, including intermission. It went on and on. I'd wait for the singers and they'd wait for me." 8 Thus began his gradual meandering away from the cello towards a conducting career.
After his release from the Army, he rejoined the Los Angeles Philharmonic and resumed his position as principal cellist, where he served off and on through 1956. In 1951 he met Sylvia Kunin, a TV producer. Kunin had decided to do a television series featuring young talented classical musicians. She had heard that LaMarchina wanted to conduct desperately, and other musicians in the Los Angeles Philharmonic had recommended him. LaMarchina thus became the conductor for what was to be called the Debut television series, which aired every Sunday night for almost two years. Incidentally, Piatigorsky was so impressed with the TV show that, after it went off the air, he urged Kunin to start the Young Musicians Foundation in 1955, which is still active today, and has retained the original TV show's names "Debut Orchestra" and "Debut Competition."
In 1960 LaMarchina became principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) under Fritz Reiner for the 1960-1961 season. Janos Starker, who had been the orchestra's principal cellist since 1953, had left the orchestra in 1958. Reiner then hired a series of interim principal cellists, including Paul Olefsky, Mihaly Virizlay, and Robert LaMarchina to tide the orchestra over until Frank Miller became available. LaMarchina can be heard playing the famous cello solo in the 1961 RCA Victor recording of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with pianist Sviatoslav Richter and Erich Leinsdorf conducting the CSO. There is a story floating around that LaMarchina lit a cigarette on stage during the recording session of this work, perhaps as an act of belligerence. According to Phil Blum, who was in the orchestra at that time and still is, too much has been made of this incident, which he remembers as a casual act that occurred during a break.
It seems that LaMarchina's thirst for conducting had grown stronger since the Debut television show went off the air. In 1961, he received a Ford Grant for an intense three-month study course for conductors at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. His American conducting debut occurred in 1962 with the National Symphony when he was called on to substitute for an ill Charles Munch. He received rave reviews. After such a success, he went on to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the St. Louis Symphony. For the 1965-1966 season, he became the musical director of the Metropolitan Opera National Company, and toured approximately seventy cities and university towns across the United States. He also traveled with the "Ambassadors of Opera" and conducted the New York City Center Opera, the Hawaii Opera Theatre, and numerous other companies during the remainder of his career.
Harold Schonberg, the renowned music critic for the New York Times described LaMarchina's conducting in a review in 1963:
In 1967, LaMarchina was appointed the conductor of the Honolulu Symphony, a post he held until 1978. In 1968 he performed a stunning cellistic feat that is still recounted in disbelief to this day. Jacqueline du Pré had been scheduled to perform with the orchestra but cancelled only three days before the concert was to take place. In what is one of the most gutsy offers one can imagine, LaMarchina volunteered to perform the Dvorak Concerto in her place, even though he hadn't touched a cello in seven years, didn't own a cello, and had only three days to prepare. He had to borrow a cello and a solo cello part from one of the cellists in the orchestra. According to Robert Loveless, who reviewed that concert, LaMarchina "turned a major crisis into a rather remarkable musical achievement ... he performed brilliantly," and demonstrated just how ingrained the cello was within his being.
LaMarchina had lots of fans of his cello playing in Hawaii, including Roxie Berlin, who became his student and friend:
Robert LaMarchina in 1963.
LaMarchina was apparently marvelous on the podium, "a born conductor" according to Janos Starker. Joanna Fleming, cellist in the Honolulu Philharmonic, said that, even though his conducting technique was not flawless, his musical intentions were always clear:
"He was the kind of musician who had a piece in his body, and it would just flow out. It was like a phrase was part of his body. He had all the equipment he needed to make it what he felt it should be, and he would share various musical devices in order to show us how to achieve a certain musical effect. But what he couldn't give us, of course, was his inner Oneness with the piece. He was able to make me play better than I thought I could, just because it was so important to him that we make a phrase happen. It was that kind of conviction that made me want to play my best, because he really cared about the music. This came out in his cello playing as well. "
Fleming feels that opera was his forte, especially with Puccini:
LaMarchina was an enthusiastic cello teacher. Fleming, who studied with him for a year or two, described his teaching:
He was extremely detailed in his teaching. In what seems reminiscent of Starker's teaching method, he talked a lot about different kinds of shifts, like whether one shifts on the departure or arrival bow, and whether one shifts on the departure or arrival finger.
LaMarchina believed strongly in having his students do lots of scale work and playing the lesser concertos, like the Davidoff and Goltermanns. There is a story about him getting in a heated argument with another well-known pedagogue about whether students should practice scales. The other pedagogue did not believe in them at the time. Finally the argument boiled down to who their teachers were. He asked the pedagogue with whom she studied. She replied, "I studied with Margaret Rowell." He replied, "Well, I studied with Feuermann and Piatigorsky!" It is unclear if this settled the argument, but scale work had certainly done wonders for him. In 1995, he was honored by the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Center at Indiana University with the prestigious Chevalier du Violoncelle.
After LaMarchina's time with the Honolulu Symphony ended in 1978, he spent the last twenty or so years of his life in relative quiet. He had the occasional conducting gig, but these tapered off, and he also taught cello lessons, but students came less and less. In what seems like a sad turn of events, he essentially disappeared off the music world's radar, though he occasionally re-emerged briefly before fading away again.
Robert LaMarchina in the 1970's.
How could this have happened to such a tremendous talent?
It seems that there are several factors that can be attributed to this. Of course, his cello career faded because he went into conducting. Had he stayed with the cello, there is little doubt that he would be a household name for cellists around the world today. Many theorize that he may have stayed with the cello had his father not pushed him so hard as a child. Other factors include his settling in a remote island in the Pacific (i.e. Hawaii), his feelings of alienation from the priorities of today's music world, his difficult personality, and his history of womanizing.
LaMarchina was disenchanted with how music conservatories were churning out technically brilliant students who didn't comprehend the art of phrasing. According to Joanna Fleming:
According to everybody that was interviewed for this article, LaMarchina was a difficult man to deal with, and his reputation goes back to the 1950's if not earlier. Most blame his poor social graces as an adult on the loss of his mother, his overly demanding father, and his lack of a childhood. Sylvia Kunin, now 90 years old, who produced the 1950's Debut television series with him, was warned about him before they met:
Kunin said that LaMarchina's career-threatening tendencies caused Piatigorsky great anxiety. Piatigorsky, who continued to feel great affection for him, would shake his head, saying, "What are we going to do with Bobby...."
Joanna Fleming described his demanding nature as a conductor:
"A lot of the musicians' hearts weren't in it from time to time because he was not always very respectful. He would make comments that people resented, but most of the best musicians really felt that he was something very unique and special. He said to me many times, 'People get so mad at me, but it's never personal, it's all for the music.' "
Roxie Berlin has a similar view:
According to Joanna Fleming, his later years were pretty lonely:
He apparently had a voracious appetite for the opposite sex, especially in his younger years, and most who were interviewed for this article alluded to how this may have contributed to the unraveling of his career, since he may have made some unwise choices in whom he "got to know." According to Sylvia Kunin, LaMarchina told her back in the 1950's, "I can only tell you that as principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic that after a concert the young women line up around the block to see me. What the hell!" He used to joke with Kunin, who was 20 years older than him, that she was the only woman he knew who he hadn't slept with. Kunin credited his ability to seduce woman with his looks, "This was, I hate to say it, because it sounds so awful from a 90 year old, a gorgeous hunk of man."
The general consensus seems to be that, although LaMarchina was a marvelous conductor, his greatest gift was the cello. According to Sylvia Kunin, "This was really one of the big, big cello talents in the world, and he really screwed it up."
Only two weeks before LaMarchina died, overweight and struggling with emphysema, he acknowledged that he may have made a mistake in going into conducting. He had just shown a student a video of himself playing when he was much younger. After the student left, he said to his wife, "Oh my God, I was good. I should have stayed with the cello."
Janos Starker, who was one of LaMarchina's friends, sums up his fascinating and tragic career:
1. Everyday Magazine, St. Louis, (date and author unknown).
2. Seymour W. Itzkoff, Emanuel Feuermann, virtuoso, International Academy of Chamber Music Kronberg, Kronberg, 1995, p. 199.
3. Ned Rorem, Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994, p. 171.
4. Harry Burke, Globe, May 13, 1940.
5. Alvin H. Goldstein, Everyday Magazine, St. Louis, March 5, 1945.
7. Dale E. Hall, The Honolulu Symphony: A Century of Music, Goodale Publishing, Honolulu, 2002, p. 99.
8. Ibid, p. 100.
9. Harold Schonberg, New York Times, December 20, 1963.
I would like to thank the following people, whose enthusiasm and candor made this article possible:
|Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS
Webmaster: Eric Hoffman
Director: John Michel
Copyright © 1995- Internet Cello Society