ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!
Christine Walevska with Ennio Bolognini
Who did you study with after your father and Bolognini?
After a few years my father thought I should study with somebody else. We tried a few teachers, including Leonard Slatkin's grandfather, who had taught Eleanor Aller, Slatkin's mother. This didn't work out because my father did not agree with his insistence that I lean over the cello, saying, "Do all he tells you about holding the bow, but you don't want to lean over the cello. It doesn't look good and it's bad for your posture."
Then we went to Stephen De'ak, who is known for his etude books. This didn't last because he was extremely boring. My father knew that a little girl needed to have somebody who had a little bit more enthusiasm.
After a few more tries, I studied with Antonio LaMarchina, who was the father of the great cellist, Robert LaMarchina. Robert also has a wonderful younger brother who's the principal cellist of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. I remember when Robert gave up the cello to be a conductor and he went to live in Hawaii to conduct the Honolulu Symphony. I said to him, "You of all people, with your talent? You're giving up the cello to be a conductor?" He said, "I'm sick and tired of having to get on conductors' backs." I've thought about that over the years and I know what he means.
You also studied with Gabor Rejto?
I studied with him for a summer at the Music Academy of the West, where I was the youngest cellist in the school. The other cellists were studying at USC, including Laurence Lesser. One day Mr. Rejto said, "You will be here for many years to come, but this will be the last year for many others at USC. I would prefer that you not enter the concerto competition." I called my father and I told him what Mr Rejto had said. My father came up to Santa Barbara immediately and said, "Mr. Rejto, I have no illusions that my daughter's going to win the concerto competition, but I ask that you please give her the opportunity because this will be the first competition that she is eligible to enter, and it would be a good experience." Mr. Rejto relented and I ended up winning the competition with the first Saint-Saëns concerto.
Mr. Rejto's ideas and mine were very different about the Saint-Saëns. I remember how he tapped his fingers as I played. Once he asked me as I played the slow movement, "Why do you play it like that?" I said, "It's such magnificent music that I just love to play it this way."
The evening I went out on stage to play it with the Santa Barbara Symphony, I had the excitability of a racehorse. I was so thrilled about playing with the symphony orchestra. After the conductor started with the first chord I realized that nobody was tapping a finger as I played and I could just play how I wanted. My mother was sitting two rows behind Mr. Rejto and watched as he slipped down in his chair.
I recorded the complete works for cello and orchestra of Saint-Saëns years later. I said to the producer, "I hope I play on this record as well as I did when I was 13." He thought that was very funny, but he didn't realize that I had actually performed it at age 13, including with the National Symphony after I had won the Merriweather Post Competition.
Then you studied with Piatigorsky.
The Piatigorsky personality was a great inspiration, as you might guess from the book, "Cellist." After the Santa Barbara experience, my father arranged for me to play for Mr. Piatigorsky. Piatigorsky said, "I would like to teach your daughter, but I'm a lousy teacher. When I taught at Curtis I would talk about the cello in the café or something like that. But your daughter is a talent that I would like to teach privately." I ended up studying with him for one year.
One time I asked him what fingering to use in a certain passage and he said, "It is for each person to find his or her own fingering. Everybody is different." While that statement is true, I see one's role as a teacher differently. I give students the fingerings I have worked on over a lifetime. If I'm convinced that certain fingerings don't come off well in performances, I change them. I have been perfecting fingerings and bowings in order to convey my musical ideas most of my life. I don't see why a student should have to reinvent the wheel. I freely share whatever I have learned and achieved as a cellist during my decades of concertizing, plus the lessons from the magnificent teachers I've had. Let's start them where we leave off! As my mother used to say, "If every generation does not improve on the last, there is something wrong."
During my many years of concertizing I would have dreams after concerts about different bowings and fingerings. The next morning I would write them down so I didn't forget. Why not take advantage of my experience?
What I don't like is when students take my fingerings and don't continue to develop from there. I explain my reasons for why I chose certain fingers, but even I don't stop thinking and reconsidering. I want students to have their own voices and to develop in their own ways. An artist recognizes a musical fingering, even if its different from his or her own.
What did Piatigorsky emphasize with you?
One thing he said, which I very much agree with is, "These teachers today make a terrible mistake by giving students the standard repertoire. They have their adult life to do this." There's so much repertoire by Servais, Davidoff, Klengel, and many others. I've got hundreds of concertos that I've inherited from famous cellists that are unknown to younger generations today.
Piatigorsky said to me early on, "I want you to study the first page of the Romberg concerto. Everything that is needed for the cello repertoire is in that first page." Well, if you can believe it, the only thing I studied for an entire year was that first page of the Romberg concerto. I can't say I agree with his approach. Yes, students need to go through a technical regimen too, including scales, which is something that's missing today, but a 13-year-old needs to have some dessert.
He would have me play that first page of the Romberg Concerto in many ways. He'd say, "Play the first page like Mozart.... Now play it like Bach.... Now play it like Brahms.... Now play it like Beethoven." I must admit I learned a tremendous amount about style from this exercise. This is an exercise the Soviet musicians could have used.
One time out of the blue he said to me, "Sometime surprise me and bring Dvorak or whatever you want." Schelomo was my favorite piece, so I decided to bring it the following week. He took one look at the music and said, "What? Schelomo? You can't play this until you've lived! You can't play this until you're 21." I ended up recording it when I was 21, along with the Schumann Concerto.
How did you end up studying with Maurice Maréchal?
My father knew a cello professor at Claremont College, Margot Jean, who had studied with Maréchal. Maréchal had taught many generations of fine cellists and she said, "Christine must study with Maréchal. He is a great teacher. She must go to Paris." My father had to get special permission for me to go on the Holland American Line because I was underage. He obtained letters of recommendation from our priest and school authorities that said I was very mature for my age and so on. My father also taught me enough French to get from the ship to where I was to live. I then went to Paris all by myself at age 16.
When I got off the ship, I went to the luggage pick-up area, and as my father taught me, I said, "Un porter, s'il vous plait." I then asked the porter to take me to get "un billet pour le Gare Saint Lazar." It was close to midnight at this point. I then exited the Gare Saint Lazar, got a taxi, and I looked at all the black buildings as they went by -- this was before they cleaned up Paris -- and I thought, "This must be where the poor people live. It looks so sad." After a few blocks the taxi driver stopped the car and said, "Et voila." And that was where he planted me. Mrs. Maréchal had found the one and only place that would take an underage student, the "Union Cretienne des Jeunes Filles," which was like the YWCA.
My room was on the sixth floor, which is like twelve American floors because of the double-height ceilings. Lugging the cello up those stairs was the last thing I needed when I arrived. Fortunately, there was a Dutch girl who spoke a little English and helped me with the luggage. After fifteen minutes I finally figured out how to open the door and I found a room the size of a jail cell. There was a bed, chair, and a washbasin in the corner of the room, and that was it. I quickly saw that I would have to remove the chair and sit on the edge of the bed in order have enough room to practice. This was not an easy situation for a girl who had come from a very loving family in California, where my father had put up dreamy posters of Paris in my room, including pictures of the Eiffel Tower and Place de la Concorde. The next morning I opened the metal shutters and what did I see? A brick wall.
What did Maréchal emphasize with you?
He was the greatest teacher of all. He taught Gendron, Paul Tortelier, and Maud Tortelier. He had a routine to his teaching which I also implement. He had me work on scales, thirds, sixths, octaves, and so on. He also had me work on etudes by Feuillard and other wonderful French cellists.
The first time I played in Maréchal's master class he said to me, "What would you like to study?" It was like a gift from heaven to hear those words, especially after my experience with Piatigorsky. I answered, "I would love to study Schelomo and the Bach Sixth Suite." He replied, "Okay, here are my fingerings. Get the music, copy my fingerings, and bring them next week," which I did. After two weeks he said, "At the Paris Conservatoire you're expected to know the music from memory after two weeks. Remember that for the future." I then memorized the music and that's how I spent the next two years. We went through the repertoire like you wouldn't believe. And he gave me his fingerings, so I wasn't starting from scratch.
Maréchal wrote a most beautiful letter to my parents after he heard me play for the first time. He said, "Christine is the greatest talent I have heard in my long career, and she must go to the Paris Conservatoire." That had not been my parents' intent. They expected that I would continue with high school at the Marymount in Neuilly and take private lessons from Maréchal, but Maréchal convinced my parents to follow his advice and I auditioned for the Paris Conservatoire.
One had to know three concertos for the audition, at least one movement each, but I only knew one concerto, the Saint-Saëns. Maréchal gave me the Lalo and some other concerto to learn that I now forget, but I only had two weeks before the audition. Out of 90 people, I and a fellow from Tel Aviv won a full scholarship that was given by the French government. I was 16 and he was 26. Unfortunately, he was very jealous of me, particularly when I became the first American to win the first prize in chamber music.
I had nightmares about the fellow from Tel Aviv for the two years I was there, since he tormented me my entire time at the Paris Conservatoire. He would, for instance, throw centimes into the f-holes of my cello when the teacher wasn't looking. He would turn on the radiator to make loud noises when I was in a pianissimo passage. He'd rip out the hem on my coat that I hung up in the cafeteria and he'd say, "Look at that girl. She's got her hem out." He basically did things on a daily basis. I didn't speak French, especially in the beginning, so I couldn't explain to others what this guy was doing to me. The result was that I was sick for two years, constantly vomiting from nerves, and I never told anybody about it. As the saying goes, it's not always the best of times that are the happiest of times.
Two weeks before the cello competition he told the other cellists to not bring their cellos to Maréchal's master class, which would oblige me to lend my cello to each one of them. When it was his turn he dropped my cello. I was completely devastated and I called my father, sobbing, telling him what this guy had done. But my father had a solution. He had just sold the Bass of Spain Stradivarius to an Engineer in California and the man had traded in his Gand cello as part of the financial arrangement. My father said he would send me the Gand cello by air.
It was interesting for the French to see an American girl playing on the Gand cello. It has gold letters on the sides with words in French saying that it had been awarded as first prize in 1852 by the Conservatoire Imperial de Musique (Napoleon III). My father then surprised me by coming to Paris to be with me during the competition. It was then with the Gand cello that I won the Premier Prix in cello soon, becoming the first American to win the first prize in both cello and chamber music, and I launched my career at age 18 in Germany.
Your father was certainly there for you when you needed him.
I had a most magnificent father. People who knew him always said the same thing. The cultural minister of France told me, "Your father is the most wonderful man I have ever met." I was devastated when he died at age 62. It had been my father's plan to join me in Europe during Christmas because he knew it was difficult for me to travel alone all the time. I was counting off the days before his arrival. Then one day I received a telephone call from my mother that he had a brain tumor and she wanted me to cancel everything and come home while my father could still see me. My manager told me that the concerts I would be canceling were in places where I would never be invited back. I replied that I thought I would always have as many concerts as I wanted but I only had one father.
When I returned to Los Angeles, the conductor Carmen Dragon, hearing that I had returned home, called me and said, "You're always traveling in Europe. I want to ask you if you would be able to play with my orchestra on April 8 at the Los Angeles Music Center." Of course I accepted. If my father was unable to hear me play in Europe, I wanted him to hear me play in Los Angeles. The night before the concert at the Los Angeles Music Center my father said, "I am dying at this moment." I begged my father, "Please don't die. Tomorrow is my concert." My father said, "Of course, my darling, I won't die the night before your concert." He managed to stay alive for another week, but he was too sick to attend my concert.
Before the concert I went to my father's room in my beautiful concert gown and I said, "Daddy, isn't it a pity? I am playing this concert for you, and yet you will not be there." My father said, "Think, my darling, of all the concerts you've played and I've not been there. But from the next world, I will be with you always." And then I said, "Do you think so, daddy?" "No, I don't think so, I know so."
After he died I helped my mother make all the funeral arrangements with the Roger Wagner Chorale, singing a Gregorian requiem mass, but on the morning of his funeral, I was rehearsing with an orchestra in northern California. Musicians in the orchestra, knowing that my father had been terminally ill, asked me how my father was. I told them that his funeral was going on at that moment. That night, when I played the concert, my whole being was focused on playing for my father, who I felt was with me.
You also studied with Pierre Fournier.
Yes. I consider my greatest influences to be my father, Maurice Maréchal, Piatigorsky in terms of inspiration, and Pierre Fournier. I studied with Fournier for one summer in Geneva, where we talked a lot about phrasing. Fournier's playing was so elegant and I was always a great admirer of his, and I loved listening to his recordings. I would point out how he played certain things and he'd say, "I do that?" One time I pointed out certain things in his performance of the Rococo Variations, and he said, "I didn't even know I was doing that." I said, "Yes. That's what gives it a special lilt in this phrase that you've done here." He was such a great musician that he could have been a great musician on any instrument, really. He was a very good pianist too.
As you know, Mrs. Fournier used to be Mrs. Piatigorsky. I remember her saying in her thick Russian accent, "Venn you see Grisha, tell him I still love him very much."
Were there any other strong musical influences in your life?
My best musical friend from whom I learned an extraordinary amount was a great violist, Joseph Reilich. He had been the youngest member in Toscanini's orchestra when he was 17 years old. I always felt he was the greatest interpreter on a string instrument of anyone I knew. He passed on to me what he had learned from Toscanini. We used to enjoy developing musical and interpretive ideas together.
How is it that you performed so much in South America?
I performed all over South America, in every big city and every little city as long as they had an orchestra or piano to accompany me because I had the greatest manager for soloists of all time, Ernesto de Quesada, who lived in Spain. He made the careers of Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Segovia, and Rubinstein in South America. During my first season in Germany I played with Hans Schmidt Isserstedt in Hamburg and Dean Dixon, the famous black American conductor, in Frankfurt, which was broadcast across Germany. Every conductor in Germany who heard the broadcast wanted me to play. I ended up having 45 concerts in Germany alone during my second season.
I had a two week break during my tour and I wanted to meet Ernesto de Quesada. I called him up and he invited me to visit him, so I took my cello on a train to Madrid and I showed up at his office. When we met he said he wanted me to play for him and he asked what I wanted to play. I said that I wanted to play some Spanish music, but even before I played a note, he said, "My advice to you is to never play Spanish music in Spain." So I played excerpts from the Bach Sixth Suite and a concerto. Then I started playing the Bolognini pieces. He said, "My advice to you is to always play Spanish music in Spain."
de Quesada immediately arranged for me to play a recital that week in Madrid. I expressed amazement that it was possible to arrange a concert within a week. He said, "I'm sending telegrams to the most important members of the musical audience of Madrid and they will be there." I then asked about an accompanist and he told me not to worry. There was an accompanist visiting from South America who knew the cello repertoire. He told me to compose the program and he would have it printed up. But there was one very important thing missing. I had left all of my concert dresses in Germany. He asked where they were, exactly. I told him there were in the basement of my German manager's house. He told me to have my German manager express mail whichever dress I wanted.
Several days went by and the dress didn't show up. de Quesada's secretary suggested I go to some clothing rental stores to see if there was anything suitable. All we could find were flamenco-style outfits, which don't work for a lady cellist. I was more than ready to give up and I offered to pay for new telegrams to cancel the concert, "I cannot play under these circumstances."
de Quesada had an idea, "I remember a singer. She is about your height. She lives here in Madrid. She has beautiful dresses with full skirts. She will have one for you." It was the day before the concert and I gave her a call, but she was out of town until after lunch the next day, the day of the concert. I arrived at her place at the appointed time and out of her closet that was full of lovely dresses she suggested an ugly beige one. Ordinarily, I wouldn't wear beige on stage but I had no choice. de Quesada's secretary offered to alter it for me, saying "I'll meet you at the theater at a quarter of seven."
I arrived at the theater later that day, still hoping for an excuse not to play. Much to my delight, the rented piano hadn't arrived and I practically sank to my knees thanking dear God for my good fortune, since this was the perfect reason to cancel the concert. But, typical of Spanish custom, it arrived late and the piano tuner started adjusting the instrument.
The secretary then arrived with the dress, but I noticed there were big green marks under the armpits, probably where the singer had been wearing a green shawl or something. I had to figure out a way to hide the stains. I had the secretary go out and buy some white shoe polish which I used to cover up the green patches. So here I was, waving my arms like a chicken trying to dry off the shoe polish under my arms. While this was going on, a music critic came up to me and asked for an interview. I did my best to decline graciously, "I've been so busy all day with this dress and I haven't had a moment to think of my Bach Suite. Can we please do the interview later? I need to concentrate on the music."
I then went out on stage, ready to start with the Haydn Divertimento, and I was greeted with the most bored, half-hearted applause I've ever received in my career. I immediately assumed my ugly dress was to blame, but the lack of applause inspired me, since I was more determined than ever to play fantastically so the audience would forget about the dress and concentrate on the music. The concert ended up being a great success, so de Quesada sent the reviews all over Spain, including to musical societies throughout the country, which resulted in my getting concert requests from all over Spain.
One day I said to Mr. de Quesada, "I have a dream. In all the books about the great singers, they always speak of the magnificent Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires. I want so much to play in this gorgeous theater." He replied, "Everything depends upon the director of the theater. I will tell him that I am confident you will have great success there. If he believes me, if he trusts me, then your dream will be realized." The director said yes! So I went down and played three concerts in one week in the Teatro Colon: a recital, the Brahms Double with Henryk Szeryng, and the Dvorak with Dean Dixon. Then de Quesada sent reviews of these concerts all over South and Central America, which resulted in many decades of concerts throughout the continent.
The cultural map was so different back then. For instance, there used to be a fabulous festival in El Salvador. I played the Beethoven Triple with Jaime Laredo and Minoru Niojima, with Alexander Schneider conducting. Guatemala had a fantastic orchestra back then as well, with whom I played the Khachaturian Concerto. One doesn't hear about these places anymore, at least in terms of classical music.
You did some community concerts as well.
One day I lamented to the theater manager in Lima that the tickets to the concerts were so expensive. I worried that only the affluent could afford to attend my concerts. He said, "Yes, but why do you think you have such a highly educated and sophisticated audience here in Lima? They are the crème de la crème." I replied, "True, but music is for everybody. My mission is to play for all people, not just the rich."
I got in touch with some people who arranged for me to play on a Saturday between my Friday and Sunday concerts in a very, very poor section in San Juan de Dios, where they probably never heard a live classical music concert. I played in a big cement room that had a harmonium instead of a piano. I looked at the crowd before the concert and noticed that the men were swaying back and forth. I asked if they were drunk or something. I was told they couldn't afford alcohol, so they had little sticks of cocaine, which they stuck inside their cheek. The cocaine was used to deaden their feelings of hunger.
There were some young people in the audience too, and I played everything for them. I played Vivaldi, Bach, Kreisler pieces, Chopin, and de Falla. But the thing I'll never forget was how the music and the cello affected them. I looked into the audience as I was playing and I saw tears coming down their cheeks. They were clearly moved by the soulfulness of the cello.
A boy, perhaps 12 years old, came up to me after the concert and kissed my hand with the elegance of a gentleman. He said, in Spanish, "How happy we are to have heard you play once in our lives. How envious I am of those who can hear you play often." I turned to the nun and asked about him. She said, "He's a very good student, like all the other children, though he has no parents." Homeless children are a major problem in Peru even today. Of course, I felt like adopting the boy on the spot.
You also met Fidel Castro.
Yes. I was the first American artist invited to play in Castro's Cuba, which came about because one of my fans in Lima was the Cuban ambassador to Peru. He had sent my recordings along with a magnificent article about me on the editorial page of La Prensa by Peru's Minister of Education. La Prensa is Peru's most important newspaper. Fidel wrote him back, asking if I would like to play concerts in Cuba, and of course I said yes.
I then received a call from the cultural ministry of Cuba asking when I could come to Cuba. I told them I was free in October and they agreed to make the arrangements, but one thing I needed from them was a cable so I could take it to the State Department as proof of my invitation. They said, "Tell the State Department that you were personally invited by Fidel Castro," but I said I wouldn't be believed without proof, given how many kooks there are in the world.
After two attempts I finally received the cable and I took it to the passport office in Rockefeller Center and waited in a long line. I finally reached the counter and the man said, "This is very interesting. I'll send this on to Washington. Come back after closing hours at 5 o'clock and I'll have an answer." When I returned I was told my permission was denied because there is "no precedence." The clerk asked if I knew anybody in Washington, D.C. I didn't, but I knew somebody who did.
I immediately went home and called my mother, since she had taught the violin to President Kennedy's cousin, who was a fine lawyer and violinist. I had also stayed at his house when I played during the inaugural year of the Kennedy Center. My mother called him up and said, "Christine received this invitation and she's very anxious to go. What can we do?" He replied, "I'll get busy. I'll get in touch with the proper department about this."
When I arrived in Cuba, I played all over the island for a month. The night after my last concert, which was the Dvorak Concerto with the National Symphony of Cuba in Havana, I got a call at midnight. "Please excuse the hour we are calling, but you have been busy with your concerts and rehearsals. Can El Commandante y jefe come to meet you now? Fidel Castro would very much like to visit you." No sooner had I gotten dressed when there was a knock at the door and in came Fidel Castro, with whom I had a four hour visit. He said to me, "I received a very affectionate telegram about you from Henry Kissinger." I had never met Kissinger, but it indicated to me that the government must have kept track of traveling artists. Fidel then said, in his beautifully tailored military uniform, "I very much appreciated your playing in your recordings, but the thing that really struck me was that article about you in La Prensa. I have never seen an article like that written on the editorial page about a concert artist."
When I returned to the United States, I received interview requests from newspapers and TV stations all over the country. I was even featured on the popular TV show, To Tell the Truth. They picked out two girls, one a tall statuesque blonde, the other a short mousy brunette. I had to meet with them ahead of time in order to coach them on everything that the jury might ask about a cello, and they were extremely good on the show. The jury voted unanimously for the mousy girl instead of me. They gasped when the host said, "Will the real Christine Walevska please stand up" and I stood up.
One New York newspaper sent somebody to my townhouse and I went into detail about my conversation with Fidel Castro. Among many things, I told her about how in Cuba they have 57 music schools and 17 music conservatories. I told her about how mansions filled with paintings and antiques had been turned into music conservatories. I went into detail about how the conservatories had a lunch table formally set up for their music students so when they went out into the world, hopefully as soloists, they would know table manners at a formal dinner in a formal dining room. I also went into great detail about the Cuban composers and all the things the Cuban people did for me.
The journalist then asked if I had discussed politics with Castro. I said, "Not at all. Why would he talk politics with me? I am an artist. He asked me in-depth questions about my profession, my family, and my thoughts about the public in various Cuban cities." He also asked how we could create a school for cello. He said, "As you know, we already have good piano, guitar, and ballet schools." I told him he needed to get some luthiers in Cuba and have them make small instruments. Then he should start the children on these instruments. This is what Costa Rica did and now their orchestra is composed entirely of Costa Ricans. Fidel turned to his assistant and said, "Take note."
I also talked about pianos with him. I said, "All over Cuba you have Petrov pianos. Not even the Soviet pianists want to play on the Petrov pianos. I have seen lots of Japanese in your country. You should ask them for Yamaha pianos. They love to give gifts." I found out shortly thereafter that Yamaha pianos were all over Cuba!
I realized after talking with him why Barbara Walters, John D. Rockefeller, and others were so impressed by Castro. When meeting a new person, he goes into great depth about the person's profession and learns everything he can. He is endlessly curious.
Anyway, I was shocked when the interview came out. The reporter said, "...and he spoke politics with Miss Walevska and none of it too favorable toward our country." This was an absolute lie. She also said, "...and as usual, Castro appeared for his visit in military fatigues." This is completely false. I went into detail with her about his uniform, including describing his epaulettes and tie. I was so horrified by the article that I called up the Cuban ambassador at the UN and asked them what I should do to rectify things. I said, "That was the happiest month of my life and I do not want the Cuban people to think that I am a hypocrite and a liar. The Cuban people treated me like a queen." The ambassador advised me to do nothing, since it would only draw more attention to the situation.
My husband at the time organized music festivals at sea, which is how I met him originally. I had managed to speak with some influential people in Cuba and arranged with them to allow an American cruise ship from an American port to dock in Cuba, which was a first. We engaged all the most famous jazz artists -- Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Oscar Peterson -- which resulted in a second wave of worldwide publicity for me, a cellist.
How is it that you ended up marrying and moving to Buenos Aires?
My first husband and I had parted ways, though we remained the best of friends until he died. I met my current husband after playing the Dvorak with the great Polish conductor, Wislowski, in the Teatro Colon. I remember the title of the review, "Walevska tells the story of true love." It went on to describe that "she understood this unrequited love and told the story so well." When I became engaged to my current husband a couple of years later, I took that article and sent it to the music critic with the word "unrequited" circled and with a note next to it that said "no longer. We are to be married on December 10th," which was the same day that the new president was to be sworn in, the first president of the Argentine democracy.
I lived in Argentina euphorically for many years until my husband became a victim of a terrible scam. I thought I was going to live out the rest of my life in Argentina. We, along with our daughter, then moved back to United States. Thank goodness I had my own apartment to move back into.
I loved living in Argentina with my husband because that is the greatest musical audience of the world. I was deeply blessed thanks to Claudio Arrau, who had heard one of my concerts in Berlin. I had three concerts in one week in Berlin while he was there. Our mutual record producer, Volker Strauss, told Claudio Arrau that he wanted to take him to my concert. Claudio Arrau came to my performance and wrote a most magnificent letter to Philips, saying, "Christine Walevska is the only artist that I would like to make a recording with." When Arrau said he wanted to record with me, the President of Philips said he wanted Arrau to record with Grumiaux first, saying that he could record with me only after he made the recordings with Grumiaux, which he had been trying to convince Arrau to do for years. The Grumiaux project didn't go well and my Brahms Sonatas recording with Arrau never came to be.
Claudio Arrau later said to me, "Christine, you go so often to Argentina. You must meet Manuel Rego. He is one of the greatest pianists in the world, but he's not known because he never wants to leave his own country." So I went to Mar del Plata, which is a seaside resort, and soloed with its orchestra. The concertmaster, who had bought a house next to Rego's, called me in the afternoon and said, "I'm here with Manuel Rego. Would you like to play trios with us?" Of course I said yes and he said he would pick me up. We never ended up playing trios, however. As soon as I walked in the door, we sat, chatted briefly, and then Rego sat down and played from memory the accompaniment to the Schumann cello concerto. He said, "I have listened to your recording of the Schumann so many times I know it by memory." We ended up playing from that late afternoon until the wee hours of the morning. I told myself that I had to buy a house there. I wanted to record everything possible with this genius. As it turns out, no commercial recordings were made, though I have some live recordings of our performances.
Christine Walevska with Manuel Rego
Rego and I had a fabulous musical marriage during the years I lived in Argentina. One critic said, "It's like one performer playing two instruments." We would play every year for one of the many musical societies or associations that exist in Buenos Aires. We would also play in places like Cordoba and Mendoza, where there were wonderful audiences and fine halls.
I was very fortunate to have this great pianist as my duo partner. I remember one time when our little daughter was sick during the night. She was just a few years old and we were up all night with her. She didn't like going to the doctor, so the next morning I bribed her with one of her favorite foods. I said, "Tania, we're going to go to the doctor. Afterwards we'll pick up some McDonald's hamburgers." When we returned around two o'clock, the maid said, "Senora, your manager called. He said it's urgent, you've got to call." My thought was whether to eat my hamburger first or give him a call. I decided to call first. He said that a famous flute player from Italy was to come down and play for the Harmonia, an Italian concert association, but he canceled because of a death in the family. The association said they either wanted the Walevska-Rego duo or they would cancel the concert. I told my manager I was willing to play but I needed to check with Rego. I called Rego and he said, "We're ready." We came up with a fantastic program: Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, and Chopin sonatas. I called my manager back to say we were ready, and Harmonia's sponsor, Banco Livorno, sent a private jet to Rego's city to pick him up. After the concert, there were TV cameras and press, asking "How did you pull the concert together so quickly?" I responded, "My father always said you must be ready from one day to the next, but I never thought I'd have to play the concert on the same day."
I don't recall hearing your name all that often over the years. Did you take a break from performing or was your career more outside the United States at a certain point?
Keep in mind that I had a big career that started younger than anybody else. Piatigorsky once said to me, "The concerts you are playing at age 18 are ones I did not play until I was in my 50's." I played absolutely everywhere many times over, and I recorded 17 cello concertos on the Philips label. I have done everything I ever wanted with my career and more than I ever thought I would.
I always worked hard. From the time I was at the Paris Conservatoire everything was work, work, work. And the work didn't stop once my career got under way, since one success led to another engagement, which meant I had to keep working to maintain a certain performance level.
I was also very lonely. I remember one time I played the Schumann Concerto in Düsseldorf. The manager said, "Would you like to have two complimentary tickets for the concert?" I thought to myself, "How unfortunate. I've played here before and yet I don't know anybody to invite." I remember after that concert I paid a porter from the theater to take my cello across the street to the hotel. I was in a beautiful long satin dress and I went upstairs, left the cello, and changed clothes. I then went down to dinner by myself. People looked at me, since they knew I was the soloist, but they didn't approach me and ask me to join them. I was so alone.
My father arranged to leave my brother and mother with the business so he could travel with me. He said," You only need me in Europe. In South America you don't need me because people there are so simpatico and they invite the artist and take you around." He bought a used station wagon that could hold the cello, my music, including orchestral parts, and our luggage, which made traveling much easier than the train.
One time I played in Dortmund. The next day we were leaving for the next city and my father, who was going to see that the luggage was packed into the car, said, "Christine, do you remember where we left the car?" I said, "Yes, right in front of the hotel under the streetlight." He said, "It's not there." The car was stolen.
We immediately notified the Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt, since I was to play with them. The problem was that my music was in the car. An announcement was made over the radio, asking that whoever took the car to please return the music at any police station. "The artist needs all of her orchestrations, as well as her concert dresses." Five days later they found the car. It had been in an accident and the dresses and the music were still there.
That experience really affected me. I'll never forget my father saying to me, "My darling, I notice a change in you." I replied, "I'm just thinking of my girlfriends back at Marymount and that they're probably thinking about what movie they're going to see this weekend, and what boy they're going to invite to the school dance, and here I am playing Schumann one night and Haydn the next and Prokofiev and this and that. I'm leading the same kind of life that Pierre Fournier leads, and I don't see a way out. Wherever I play I have success and they invite me to come back next year, and it's as if I'm reliving the same year over and over again." My father took me into his arms, and he said, "My darling, I don't care if you ever play another note of cello in your life. All I want is your personal happiness. If you want, we'll cancel the whole concert tour and you can come back home with me and your mother and your brothers tomorrow." His saying that spurred me on. I realized that I wasn't trapped and that if I wanted to stop, I could.
Anyway, it was like a dream living in Argentina during those years and the country treated me very well. A famous music critic in Buenos Aires gave me Caruso's silk scarf because he said I was the "Caruso of the Cello." I had two marriages, a personal one and a professional one with Rego. I had the family life that I had yearned for and a musical partnership second to none. I basically moved on to another stage in my life. In other words, I too had an opportunity to be in love, be married, have a beautiful home on the golf course, have fun in my garden, have fun doing things I never had time to do because I was traveling all the time, which included lugging the cello in one arm and concert dresses in another. When my mother came down for our wedding, she said, "Put your career in three words: I've had it." Well, that was my mother's idea, but it was never mine. I continued to play as soloist with orchestras throughout Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and all my duo concerts with Rego.
I used to have a manager in every country. When I had concerts in Europe I was always gone for at least a month. Just flying to New York from Argentina is over ten hours. I just decided it was my turn to enjoy a lovely family life like everybody else. I stopped touring internationally except for certain projects. For instance, one year Spain had a series of concerts devoted to Latin American music. I participated in the festival by soloing with the Madrid Chamber Orchestra. Another time Josef Suk asked me to play his grandfather's (Dvorak's) chamber music with him in Prague. The next night I played an entire evening of Dvorak cello works with the Suk Orchestra accompanying me.
I don't have a manager in the United States and maybe I should. Mrs. Bolognini is constantly after me to play more. She says, "You've got to be on the stage so the younger generation knows a different type of cello playing." Perhaps she's right.
Christine Walevska with Joseph Suk
I've become interested in how technology can assist with teaching remotely instead of traveling. I was shown a DVD of the principal cellist of one of the important orchestras in Japan. I could tell immediately what was missing in her playing. I told the person who shared the DVD with me that I could help the cellist a lot. She told the cellist what I said and two weeks later the cellist flew to New York, slept for a day, played for me the next day, and went back to Tokyo.
I really enjoy your recording of the Prokofiev and Khachaturian Concertos. What was it like recording them?
I recorded those in Monte Carlo. We did the Prokofiev the first day and the Khachaturian the next. Then the record producer, who did all the beautiful recordings of Claudio Arrau, Bernard Haitink, and Jessye Norman asked me when I was going to be in Europe next, since he needed me to record the cadenzas. It was 10:30pm and we had been listening to takes all evening, so I offered to do them the next morning, but he said we couldn't since the hall was booked for a pianist who was doing a recording the next day. I said, "Let's go out and get something to eat." We then came back and I recorded the two cadenzas at midnight.
The Prokofiev concerto is so difficult that when I played it in California, the conductor, who loved Prokofiev, paid out of his own pocket for extra rehearsals. We had eight rehearsals, which is rarely done in the music business, two being the standard. But a piece like the Prokofiev needs it, since it's fiendishly difficult for both the orchestra and the cello, which is why Rostropovich got together with the composer and created the Concertante. I believe the concerto is by far a much richer work than the Concertante, however. I'm sort of amazed that audiences sit through the Concertante because it seems to be padded with meaningless sequences and runs.
My mother worried that I was being taken advantage of when she found out I had to record two big concertos in two days. She said, "If you ask me, they're taking advantage of a young artist." My parents were musicians and owned a music store, Fine Violins and Cellos, and some studio musicians had come in and told her about how Heifetz, who was in his later years at that time, had taken six hours to record a six minute piece. I told her that I was very happy to have that Prokofiev concerto down on record. It was so difficult that I promised myself while I was recording it that I would squeeze every ounce of blood out of it because I never intended to play it again! And that is the way things ended up, so I'm glad to have it on record.
The week prior to that recording I had played Schelomo three times in the Musikverein. After the recording sessions, I played the Schumann Concerto with the Concertgebouw. Then my schedule indicated a two week break before I had a series of concerts in Colombia. So I went out with some friends in Holland and returned at something like two in the morning only to find a pile of messages from Abe Cohen of the Israel Philharmonic, asking me to call right away. So I called and it turned out the scheduled soloist had just cancelled at the last minute on their opening concert the following night and he was desperate to find a replacement. He asked if I would play the Haydn D Major Concerto, but I said that I hadn't played it since I recorded it seven months earlier. I suggested that I play Schelomo, Schumann, or Khachaturian instead. He had to talk with the conductor about my proposal. I wasn't sure they would back away from the Haydn D, so I took out my cello to see if I could remember it. I then called my mother in Los Angeles and asked her to send my music to the Israel Philharmonic so that it would be there when I arrived. Sure enough, they pushed me into playing the Haydn and my two-week vacation turned into 14 concerts in 16 days.
I recently listened to your recording of the Haydn C Major Concerto. You play the last movement slower than some of your colleagues. We're you trying to bring out the musical aspects instead of treating it like a showpiece?
Exactly. When I think of it as a piece by Haydn and about his other music, I can't help but think of that movement as something that is charming and beautiful, like a little trumpet solo. Cellists like Rostropovich sounded as if they recorded it and then sped up the record. He played it mostly in thumb position whereas I play it on the A string as much as I can. After Pierre Fournier listened to my recording he said, "Christine, you are so right. You chose the right tempo for that last movement. I did the same thing as Rostropovich because I wanted to prove that I too could play it that fast." I said, "But Pierre, you of all people should know better. If you're going to prove that you can play something fast, choose another piece, but not the Haydn." I have similar disagreement with Rostropovich in how fast he played the last movement of the Rococo Variations.
The tragedy is that generations of young cellists have copied Rostropovich's incredibly fast tempo without thinking about the musical aspects of the piece. What about the musicians in the orchestra, like the flute player and the others who are trying to tongue their notes as fast as the cellist? This is not musical playing. Fantastic technique is the basis of all great playing, but the purpose of acquiring all this technique is to get to the heart and soul of the music.
I've read several articles that refer to you as the "Goddess of Cello." Where did this come from?
Antonio Hernandez, the famous Brazilian critic in the Rio newspaper, O Globo, was the first to use that description. The same phrase was later mentioned in German newspapers when I opened the concert season in Bonn, and in Swiss newspapers when I played the Boccherini concerto with conductor Günter Wand.
You were one of Sol Gabetta's teachers.
Her parents had come to me after an international competition for young artists in Cordoba. They said, "The day this child was born, we said we want her to be a cellist and, if possible, like Christine Walevska. We had no idea your destiny would bring you to our country. Will you teach her?" She was eight years old at the time and I said "Yes."
When I left Argentina I advised Sol to go to Spain. I told her the Queen of Spain was an admirer of mine. The Queen once invited me to have a glass of champagne with her and her friends at the intermission between two concertos I played with the orchestra. I told Sol that I thought the Queen would take her under her wing and do things for her.
What do you think about today's players? Has musicianship changed over the years?
Absolutely. I remember when Artur Rubinstein came to my last concert in Paris at the Theatre de Champs-Elysée. He had invited me to his house the day before and I had my magnificent accompanist with me from Venezuela. We spent seven hours together at that lunch and Rubinstein said to me, "You know, all these people, they play fast. But where's the music?"
I was recently encouraged when I heard an interview with Lorin Maazel, who was talking with Renée Fleming about a violinist who was performing a concerto with his orchestra. He said, "I have such wonderful memories of this concerto because I have heard it done by the greatest violinists in the world. And who could forget the beautiful interpretations of Heifetz, Kreisler, and Milstein." Renée Fleming said, "Yes, but playing today is very different. They're more respectful of what the composer has written." He said, "Quite the contrary. I think they're disrespectful. Where is the soul? I hear the notes, but where is the soul?"
This reminds me of a great compliment Maurice Maréchal wrote on a photograph that he dedicated to me. He said, "For Christine -- qui possede le talent le plus rare entre tous -- l'emouvoir" -- "who has the talent, the rarest of all, which is to communicate."
I read that Maréchal said if you're inspired to play forte when the score says piano, just do it.
Yes, that's right. He wanted me to feel free, which was so different from the effect that Rejto's finger-tapping had on me, which was cramping my style. Maréchal wanted to encourage the inner soul to come out in the music, since that's what reaches the audience.
A great music critic once said, "We are living in an era when shoddy exhibition reigns, and where things of the spirit are wasted on the desert air." Another critic wrote that classical music has become more about entertainment than providing an uplifting spiritual experience, which is what I always hope for. What could be more important than uplifting and connecting soul to soul with those who've paid to hear your concert and make them realize the cello is the most beautiful of all instruments? Instead I hear people say before going out on stage, "Hit 'em between the eyes.... Sock it to them...." which is exactly the opposite of the way I like to feel about going out on stage to play for people.
Do you hear French music played as it should these days?
Not as often as I'd like. I was once asked to give a master class at a university. One girl came with a Fauré Sonata and I said, "It's very seldom that people play a Fauré Sonata. It's the epitome of the French style." She asked me, "How do you know what the French style is?" I couldn't help but wonder about today's teaching with this kind of question. Another time I heard a person play the Debussy Sonata and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This guy is a big name teacher and he's teaching students to play like that? All you need to do is look at the score and where Debussy put instructions over the notes and you can't go wrong. Some places he asks for practically no vibrato and sur la touche on the fingerboard, and then play on the bridge and so on. But people don't respect his wishes.
Maurice Maréchal knew Debussy personally. Maréchal said that Debussy was terrified of the interpreter and that's why there are so many detailed instructions in the Debussy Sonata, since Debussy had a very specific concept of how it should be played. But how often do you actually hear the Debussy Sonata played the way Debussy wrote it? A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a YouTube video of Maurice Gendron playing the Debussy. It's a magnificent interpretation and I thought how happy Debussy would have been with it, as I know he was with Maréchal's, because Maréchal premiered the work and they were very close friends. Maréchal's recording of the Debussy is magnificent. Another great musician was André Navarra, who performed the Schumann Concerto like I've never heard since. That was truly a Golden Era of musicianship and cello playing.
I'm very, very grateful that Maurice Maréchal was my teacher because it was he who inspired so many of the impressionist composers to write these beautiful works for the cello. He was the inspiration for sonatas by Debussy, Milhaud, and Martinu, and he performed them all the time. One difference between Maréchal and Rostropovich is that Rostropovich would play premieres of many works written for him, and sometimes record them, but then we wouldn't hear them ever again. Not so with Maréchal. Maréchal did a great deal for the cello repertoire.
I am privileged to have had such great teachers. When I teach and give master classes, I share not only my experience from decades of concertizing, but I bring to students the teachings of Piatigorsky, Bolognini, Maréchal, and Fournier. We are so fortunate to play the cello, since it is the greatest instrument. It is the closest to the human voice and the most soulful. We can do things with the cello that even the voice cannot do.
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