Photo of Arto Noras


An Internet Cello Society
Exclusive Interview!

Arto Noras appears regularly with major orchestras throughout the world and has recorded extensively. A former student of Paul Tortelier at the Paris Conservatoire, he was a runner-up at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966. He is also well-known for his appearances as a distinguished chamber musician and is a founding member of the Sibelius Academy Quartet. He is also the founder and artistic director of the Naantali Music Festival, as well as founder of the International Paulo Cello Competition. Since 1970, he has been Professor of Cello at the Sibelius Academy.

TJ: You studied with Paul Tortelier. Were you the student he worked with for six hours on the first note of Schelomo?

AN: No, we did that with the opening scale of the Bach's Third Suite Prelude. If he liked a student, he would put a lot of effort into his teaching, and would work the student relentlessly. But, if he didn't like somebody, the lesson would last only five or ten minutes. Fortunately, I was on his good side, so he taught me very profoundly.

His teaching method was not very democratic. He was a very dominating teacher, insisting that we play at least once the way he wanted, with his fingerings and with his voice. His ideas were very complicated, particularly in Bach, so it took a long time before he was satisfied. But as soon as he was happy, he stopped immediately and said, "Now you are free to do whatever you like."

His teaching method was also very liberating in a way. Once you demonstrated that you could play superbly in his way, he believed that you had attained the skills to play superbly in another way. The euphoria and relief of finally getting it "right" gave me a great sense of satisfaction.

TJ: Did he teach primarily with words, or did he demonstrate a lot?

AN: He seldom taught without the cello, demonstrating constantly, but he was also a master of description, and knew exactly how to describe what he wanted. He once told me that he always had a picture or story in mind when he played, though I don't remember what they were. I often wondered whether he always had the same imagery for each piece, or if the pictures changed.

TJ: Looking back, are there some ideas he taught that you disagree with now?

AN: I studied with him over thirty years ago, so my own ideas have certainly developed since then. For instance, our ideas on Bach differ. Tortelier probably played Bach every day for fifty years, changing his bowings and fingerings constantly. After years of work on the Suites, his Bach, though fantastic in his way, became very complicated. He studied, for example, the Sarabande of the C minor Suite all his musical life, a movement that Bach probably wrote in 4 minutes. After so many years of study, his interpretation was piled with layers and layers of meaning, more meaning than Bach probably ever envisioned. It's as if you study one stone in a wall for twenty years. Naturally you know your stone very well, but it becomes difficult to explain the character of this stone to others, and you may lose sight of the fact that this stone is only a small part of the wall.

TJ: How do you approach the Bach Suites? Do you strive to play them in a more Baroque fashion, or do you have a more contemporary approach?

AN: I prefer not to perform Bach these days. It has become too complicated and too controversial a subject. This becomes evident in competitions, for example. When the jury listens to Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, or Dvorak, everybody pretty much agrees upon whether the performance was good or bad. But when somebody plays Bach, some of the judges hate it, some love it, and the rest don't say anything at all!

The normal way to approach a composition is not enough for some reason when playing Bach. I am not allowed, by some groups, to apply all my knowledge and experience of music and music-making and perform Bach the way I like it. No matter what I do, somebody will be offended. I can play it with or without vibrato, legato or with separate bows, with a variety of tempos, and so on, and somebody is guaranteed to hate it. There are no rules with Bach, which I find to be very irritating! Violinists are lucky, since they don't face this problem with their solo Bach works.

And do we really want to play Bach the way it was actually done back then, with amateurish scratchy technique and out of tune? I don't think so.

TJ: It sounds like you don't have much sympathy for the Authentic movement.

AN: I love the Bach Suites, but I think they should be played like the other compositions we play today, with all the possibilities we have available. I remember when Itzhak Perlman recorded the solo Bach works for violin. After the CD was released, he was interviewed on television by a musicologist. When the musicologist started grilling him about his style, Perlman replied by saying something like:

"Look, sir, when I recorded the Bach, I tried to remember everything I was told by my teachers when I was in school in the United States. I then drew upon my experience of six thousand concerts since then. I did my best, applying my experience of playing Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and so on. I also tried to apply what I understood about Bach, and to apply everything we have learned since Bach, in an effort to approximate how I think he would have liked it, if played in the modern style. If that isn't good enough for you, I am sorry."

Bravo, Mr. Perlman!

I worry that if we restrict ourselves to playing in a style of the period when a piece was written, we will lose our audience. This applies to all music, not just Bach. In a hundred years, I'm sure we will play much better, so why imprison ourselves, both technically and creatively, when we will have even more possibilities available to us? We must allow ourselves to grow, whether we are talking music, art, architecture, or literature.

Remember that composers didn't necessarily play the instruments they composed for, or at least were not experts. So they probably never heard the works the way they heard them in their heads as they were composing. The music they envisioned in their minds was not scratchy, uneven in tone, or out of tune, the way it probably sounded in Bach's day. I think Bach would be thrilled to hear his music played by a modern cellist, with our modern technique, style, and instruments. This discussion makes me so angry!

TJ: Do you worry about style issues with Haydn, like how much vibrato to use?

AN: There is much less of a problem with Haydn or later composers. Historians believe that vibrato was more widely used later in the 19th century, but we don't really know for sure. The amount and type of vibrato you use in Haydn is definitely a question of taste. If you use your thick Dvorak vibrato in Haydn, I would call that bad taste. But a little salt and pepper with the left hand is marvelous. People will not notice if you use vibrato in Haydn, since it is so beautiful, but they will remark if you don't.

I don't think I've ever heard anybody play the Haydn concerti with a stiff left hand, without vibrato. Not only does vibrato add something very beautiful, but it's very dangerous to not use it, since the piece is so difficult and it's easy to sound out of tune. By all means, use vibrato in Haydn!

TJ: How would you say your approach differs when you play the Dvorak Concerto versus how you play Bach or Haydn? In your master class, you mentioned that performance or style issues are thrown out and that you can let go and just play.

AN: I probably over-stated this, but there is a significant difference. With Dvorak, the music comes more from the heart and less from the head, whereas with Haydn, there is more head and a little less heart. Nobody comes up to you after you've played the Dvorak and lectures you about how it is "supposed" to be played, questioning what comes from your heart. The Dvorak is more engaged with human feelings than concertos of earlier periods.

TJ: You mentioned that Bach always causes a lot of problems in competitions, because there is little agreement about what is good. Since Bach is usually required in competitions, do you think competitions are an accurate measure of a musician's artistic abilities? How can a competition be considered fair if there aren't consistent criteria with which to judge a contestant? Does this give us yet another reason to question the value of competitions?

AN: Yes, disagreements about Bach make judging a competition difficult. In the last international competition in Helsinki, I made sure that Bach was not on the program to avoid this very problem. But I don't have a problem with competitions in principle.

Competition is a part of life, and not just in music. Every concert is a so-called competition with yourself, since you want to play your best. We compete for positions in orchestras, and we compete for teaching positions. Quartet playing, where there is a constant give and take between one's colleagues, can be like a competition too. This festival is a competition, in that there are many teachers here who have students performing, and we want them to do their best. Life is a competition, and that's okay with me.

Competitions have become an integral part of the process of determining who will be promoted and who will not. It seems that agents understand music less and less, and rely upon the results of competitions to help them decide who they will represent. They only understand that a first prize winner in an international competition is a potential money-maker. Music is a huge business now, which we must deal with as best we can.


Copyright © 1998 Internet Cello Society

Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS Staff
Webmaster: webmaster
Director: John Michel
Copyright © 1995- Internet Cello Society