Revered as the grande dame of the cello, Margaret Avery Rowell died of pneumoniaat 94 on Friday, April 21. The Berkeley Hills home in which she had lived for almost sixtyyears served as a studio to teach individual students as well as a place to experiment with thesound of large cello ensembles at informal Sunday concerts that evolved in the early 1950sinto the founding of the California Cello Club¸the first of its kind in the nation. Thus theBay Area became the cello center of America and many of the century's greatest cellists,including Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, came to perform,teach and visit her. On her 80th birthday in 1980, 80 cellos played an extraordinary concertat the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she taught for fourteen years and retiredwith an honorary doctorate. She also served on the faculties of the University of Californiaat Berkeley, Stanford University, Mills College and San Francisco State University.
Born in Redlands, California, she moved to the Bay Area in 1908 and became a concertcellist in her teens with the Arion Trio, a women's chamber music group that soon beganplaying the first regularly scheduled live radio broadcasts of classical music six days a weekon the NBC network, then based in San Francisco. In 1936 she married Edward Z. Rowell,a distinguished speech and philosophy professor at the University of California. She retiredfrom major performances and put her heart into teaching by a method she developed during asevere three-year bout with tuberculosis in 1930, when she became physically unable to play. She retaught herself the motions she knew must be within her by focusing on her ownmethodology, thus forming the basis for a ¸whole body¸ teaching technique she practiced forthe next 50 years. The Rowell method has now been utilized by generations of her studentsand their students around the world. The SF Conservatory of Music holds an annualMargaret Rowell String Seminar in the summer.
San Francisco Chronicle critic Robert Commanday said of Rowell "Anyone who hasattended a Rowell lesson, cellist or not, would be captivated by the enthusiasm, the energy,the down-right missionary zeal generated by this evangelist of the cello. You'd have thoughtshe was saving souls or sharing a just-discovered secret of life. And there was no differencein the level of excitement if the pupil were a near beginner, had average talent or was one ofher prize proteges."
Her other great passion was wilderness. Immediately after graduating from theUniversity of California at Berkeley in June 1923, she set off with her sister and a fewfriends to trek the as-yet-unfinished John Muir Trail across 200 miles of the California HighSierra. It took her three summers to complete, months she much later said "mean more tome than anything. . . in my whole lifetime." In 1989 the National Geographic ran a storyon the trail that included pictures of her and her journey. It may be more than coincidencethat she died peacefully on John Muir's birthday. She is survived by a son, photographerGalen Rowell of Berkeley, and by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Amemorial service with cello music will be held at Hellman Hall at the San FranciscoConservatory of Music on Saturday, May 6 at 4:00 pm. Contributions in memory ofMargaret Rowell may be made to the Margaret Rowell Scholarship Fund of the SanFrancisco Conservatory of Music.
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