MEMBERSHIP SPOTLIGHT


John Koenig

I'd be willing to bet that the story of my path to the cello and its ultimate importance in my life will be one of the most unusual that members of the Internet Cello Society will likely ever encounter.

I was raised around music. My father, Lester Koenig, ran a jazz record company, which he founded in 1949 in Los Angeles, a year before I was born. He'd started it as a kind of a hobby. He had been working in the movie industry, as second in command (typically credited as associate producer, which meant a lot more then than it does now) on all of Willy Wyler's pictures ("The Best Years of Our Lives," "Roman Holiday," etc.) and as he was always interested in music, he made friends with many of the composers who worked on the pictures he worked on. Those included Aaron Copland ("The Heiress"), Gail Kubik (World War II documentaries with Wyler) and many others. So during the time he worked with Wyler, he started the label, Contemporary Records, in order to record "contemporary" classical music written by these composers and their colleagues, with the recordings supervised by the composers themselves. Notably among these were Roy Harris and Ernst Toch. He also recorded some other chamber music under the aegis of the Society for Forgotten Music, an organization founded by the composer Vladimir Dukelsky (who was also known as Vernon Duke when he wrote popular songs such as "April in Paris") and among those recordings was a cello recital recording of some obscure but interesting pieces performed by the cellist George Neikrug. But my father was also interested in both traditional and modern jazz and so he recorded both of those idioms, as well. Soon, with the burgeoning West Coast "cool" jazz scene, the jazz part of the operation predominated. In 1953, my father left the film business because of the Hollywood blacklist, a subject I won't get into here, and went into the record business full-time. So I was around musicians, and particularly jazz musicians, from a very early age. From early childhood, I went to a lot of recording sessions and I got to know the jazz musicians my father recorded: Shelly Manne, Andre Previn, Shorty Rogers, Lennie Niehaus (who scores most of Clint Eastwood's pictures), Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Ray Brown, etc. I also got to meet - and ultimately to know - many others whom my father knew because of his stature as the head of a record company - musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan and many more.

One of the most dynamic and important musicians my father recorded when I was very young was the legendary New Orleans bandleader Kid Ory (Louis Armstrong's first job was playing with Ory). Ory played the trombone, and his band played at my parents' parties at our house and he made a big impression on me. Consequently, when I was three, the first instrument I wanted to play was the trombone (subliminally I must have been attracted to the tenor clef!). But I was too little, so my parents got me a ukulele when I was four and I graduated to the guitar when I was five. In those days, I played mostly folk songs and popular ballads. I took up the trumpet when I was nine (I was actually too little for that too and had to have it attached to a hook in the ceiling by a string or else the bell of the horn would end up aimed at the floor). I was being taught "legit," but on the sly I was copying Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown solos off records by ear. I don't quite remember what motivated me, but I had asked my mother (my parents were divorced by then) when I was in 7th grade if I could study the violin in school, but she said no because when she was a child, a neighbor friend's younger brother was studying the violin and she couldn't stand the sound of it. So that was the end of that.

I continued to play guitar, and at fourteen, I became very interested in blues. There was a folk club in L.A. called the Ash Grove and all of the best country blues players of the time (Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Son House, Fred McDowell, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, Rev. Gary Davis, Mance Lipscomb and others) played there, as did many of the great urban blues players (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, Big Mama Thornton, Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton, etc.). As the Ash Grove was small and intimate and the backstage etiquette was informal, I got to meet and hang out with these artists and I also met other younger aficionados such as Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, and Bonnie Raitt. I got to know Taj and Ry again years later and it's clear to me that the Ash Grove experience proved to be a common reference between us that helped form our musical personalities, a common influence that I think all Ash Grove alumni recognize in each other.

I became a pretty respectable blues guitar player through high school (which stood me in good stead when years later I played guitar with the likes of Van Morrison and Taj Mahal), but started out in college at U.C. Berkeley as an anthropology major. I was occasionally sitting in on guitar in clubs with Charlie Musselwhite and others (remember, this was the Bay Area in the 60s), but otherwise not paying too much attention to music. The first day of summer vacation after my freshman year in college, I was in a bad car accident on the trip down from Berkeley to L.A. and spent a month or so in the hospital. Among other things I broke my left arm and shoulder and separated my clavicle when the driver of the car in which I was a passenger (a Morris Minor convertible) fell asleep, ran off the highway, and flipped it over. I think it dawned on my parents then that I was perhaps too young or immature to be living away from home (I'd skipped two half years in elementary school so I had just turned 17 when I graduated from high school), so I was "encouraged" to transfer from Berkeley to U.C.L.A. During the rest of that summer, I had time to reflect on things and where I was going with my life and one of the things I decided to do was to major in music. So I entered U.C.L.A majoring in music composition and theory in the fall of 1968.

At that time, I was really green when it came to classical music. I had some idea that jazz and classical music had a future together (a notion I abandoned many years ago, although I love both idioms - but separately) and that was kind of my approach to music then. Anyway, I threw myself whole-heartedly into the study of music. I made my way through all of the theory courses - music is quite a demanding major, as I'm sure those of you reading this who were fortunate enough to have had a thorough grounding in harmony, ear training, modal and tonal counterpoint will agree - and I was playing classical and jazz guitar as my main performance outlet. In those days, I also played the oud in a classical Persian ensemble and percussion in an Ashanti (Ghanaian) drumming group, since U.C.L.A. had one of the first ethnomusicology departments in the country. By the way, the first time I played on a major "classical" concert was when our Ghanaian group played on an L.A. Philharmonic family concert. This came about because the performer who ran the group was a major figure in African music, Kwasi Badu, and the word spread around the L.A. percussion community that he was running this group. As the rhythms were extremely complex, most of the students who tried out to be in the group weren't able to play the parts. But many local studio drummers and symphony players like William Kraft, who was the principal tympanist of the L.A. Philharmonic came to play with Kwasi because they wanted to learn the rhythmic patterns and experience playing this genre of music with a true master. So for the three years I played in that group, it consisted mainly of professional percussionsists, a couple of graduate students, two other undergraduates (both percussion students, one of whom was Burliegh Drummond, who later became the drummer in the 60s and 70s pop super group Ambrosia, and with whom I am still great friends) and me. Bill Kraft was so impressed with Kwasi that he arranged for us to play with the L.A. Philharmonic in a sort of introduction-to-the-orchestra type of program featuring the percussion section of the Philharmonic on stage in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with the full orchestra and us (minus the studio musicians). We also played at music festivals (the Ojai Festival, among others) and what seemed liked hundreds of (although I'm sure it was more like 30) school concerts.

As a senior, I tackled the major specialization courses for my degree: composition and orchestration. My composition professor was Henri Lazarof, a post-serialist composer who had won, among other awards, the Prix de Rome. Lazarof was a stern task master who didn't approve of either popular music (jazz was lumped in that category as far as he was concerned) or the guitar, which he didn't consider to be a real instrument, especially the electric variety. As it happened, one day my mother, who was an artist and teacher, came home with a 3x5 card that had been posted at the school at which she taught that read, "For Sale $25.00 CELLO. It doesn't have that great Stradivarius tone, but it will look good standing in the corner next to your oud." Since, by coincidence, I played the oud, and more importantly, I was more or less being shamed by my composition professor at least to be conversant with what he considered to be a real instrument (the trumpet was ancient history by this point), I scraped the $25.00 together and bought the cello, thinking that I would just fool around with it enough to be able to satisfy Lazarof. But something made me realize that I should at least have a couple of lessons, so I asked a violinist friend of mine if he could recommend a teacher and, as it happened, he was dating a girl who was studying with Terry King, a Piatigorsky assistant (a brilliant and expressive cellist who now teaches at Hartt Conservatory and the Longy School). So I called Terry and began studying with him in December of 1970. I was 20 years old.

At that time, I had heard something about Piatigorsky, as Jeff Solow was then also a student at U.C.L.A. and was a very visible figure in the music department even though he was officially a philosophy major. (See "A Conversation with Jeffrey Solow by Tim Janof, http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/solow.html.) At that time, while he was still in college, he had been signed to a management contract by the great impresario Sol Hurok and was already making solo appearances with major orchestras (I heard him play the Volkmann Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic that year or the year after). So Jeff was legendary around the U.C.L.A. music department (and elsewhere, of course) and the fact that someone as talented as Jeff was Piatigorsky's student, in addition to what little I knew about Piatigorsky (as, believe it or not, a neighbor!) made him - for me - a kind of super-mysterious, almost godlike figure. He was a legendary artist, he came from a very different culture - Russia of the early 20th Century - and he was very striking looking, tall and patrician, and he spoke in an almost poetic, but very unusual and exaggerated way with a very thick accent and with exotic and unfamiliar locutions.

Fairly quickly in my lessons with Terry, two things became pretty apparent. First, that I really liked the cello and second, that I had a fairly serious aptitude for it. After I'd been playing for about six weeks, Terry decided that I should play for Piatigorsky at his master class. Although I was extremely short on repertoire at that point, I was able to play in first through fourth positions in tune. My left hand was already well developed in a way because of several years of playing classical guitar. It was less difficult for me to relate to the problems of not having frets that it might have been for other guitarists because I had also played the oud for three years and the oud has no frets. So even though I was, at that stage, extremely limited as a cellist, nevertheless, I was fairly presentable (i.e., I played in tune, I was rhythmically coherent, I had a reasonable tone with not a lot of squeaks, and even though my repertoire was elementary, I played with not inappropriate expression).

In those days, the Piatigorsky master class was held at Clark House, an old mansion owned by U.S.C. and Piatigorsky's students were, to me, of a level of accomplishment that truly seemed unattainable. Jeff Solow, Nathaniel Rosen, Dennis Karmazyn, Paul Tobias, Terry, and other incredible young artists all got up to play. Of course, even though I was well out of my element (I even had to borrow a jacket and tie to come to the class, as there was a dress code), I was aware enough to be intimidated. So after all of the Dvorak and Haydn and Beethoven played by these young, incredibly accomplished cellists, Piatigorsky invited me to play. And somehow, I summoned the courage to play a simple little Bach march that had been arranged by someone from a piece that was long ago forgotten. When I finished, Piatigorsky praised me warmly and asked me to play it again (the piece took perhaps only 45 seconds to play). He gave me some advice and, aware that I played the guitar, asked me to play some pizzicato things and told me that perhaps I should develop pizzicato as a specialty, as his friend, the wonderful and eccentric cellist Ennio Bolognini had done, but which, for one reason or another, I ultimately never did. He then invited me to come visit the class whenever I wanted to, although being particularly thickheaded, I didn't realize until a year later that he wasn't just being polite - he actually meant it. I only learned this when Terry finally asked me why I never went back to the class and he told me that Piatigorsky had been perfectly serious about my coming back. So Terry arranged for me to play again and I did.

I continued to study with Terry and play a fast game of catch-up both with respect to the business of learning to play the cello and gaining an understanding the great traditions of classical music performance, as well. At his urging during those years, I went to concerts several times a week and also began playing in local community orchestras, chamber music groups and music festivals. In those years, I was lucky enough to have heard (and in many cases, met and even in a couple of instances much later, played with) artists like Heifetz, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Milstein, Piatigorsky, Fournier, Starker, Rostropovich, Menuhin, Serkin, Perlman, Ashkenazy, Lynn Harrell, Tortelier, Rose, Stern, Stephen Kates, Zara Nelsova, Paul Tobias, Peter Rejto and others. When Terry, as a member of the Mirecourt Trio, accepted the post of artist in residence at Grinnell College in Iowa, I began studying with Nick Rosen (who in a few years would go on to win the gold medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition, the only American cellist ever to do so) in a master class he taught. I still kept in close touch with Terry and saw him whenever he came to town to visit his family. In the summer of 1975, when I was 25, Terry talked to Piatigorsky about my being in the class for the upcoming year and Piatigorsky said I should come.

The Piatigorsky master class was probably the greatest musical experience of my life. It was certainly where I was confronted with world-class artistry in classical music at close range for the first time. Piatigorsky was a gigantic figure. His personality was bigger than life. He told incredible stories. He knew personally all of the Presidents since Hoover. He knew most of the European royalty before and after World War II. He knew Einstein; indeed, many of his close friends were scientists. He knew all of the great painters and writers of his day. He knew Rachmaninoff, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, et al. He played "Don Quixote" with Richard Strauss conducting, who told him after hearing him play one of the big solo variations (I believe it must have been Variation 5) for the first time, "I have heard my Don Quixote as I thought him to be." 1 He had trios with Schnabel and Flesch, Milstein and Horowitz and Heifetz and Rubinstein. His understanding of musical expression was so deep that, confronted with it truly face to face, I thought I would be lucky to perceive one percent of it. And, although he had arthritis by the time I knew him, when he would play, it was like magic. It's not surprising to me that Ivan Galamian has been quoted as describing Piatigorsky as the greatest string player of all time. It's just a pity that his greatness as an artist was rarely, if ever, captured on record.

I was also very lucky because since the time of my car accident some years earlier, I was expected to live at home, my parents still not having gotten over my close call the summer after my freshman year in college, and as it happened, my mother lived four blocks from Piatigorsky. So for reasons of convenience, I was designated as Piatigorsky's driver to class. That meant that I would drive him from his house in Brentwood to U.S.C. for the master class twice a week. Each trip took nearly an hour, so he was my captive audience - and I his - for nearly four hours a week and we soon became good friends. After a month or so, the phone would ring and I would hear on the other end of the line in this amazing voice with his thick accent things like "Hello John, (somehow pronounced in 2 syllables) tell me, are you interested on [sic] boxing?" (he wanted to know if I wanted to come over and watch Mohammed Ali fight) or "Hello John, would you like to come over, maybe play a little duos?" (he loved the Kummer duos). Sometimes he would invite me over to watch a basketball game or go to lunch or dinner together with his wife or other friends. Sometimes he'd just ask me to play for him. Sometimes, he just wanted to talk. Once, out of the blue, he asked me to improvise and he gave me a lesson on improvisation. And because he was so musical and, like many of the other great musicians I have known, a master of being able make something from nothing, it was startling that he was able to plumb the depths of a subject about which one wouldn't imagine he would have much interest. But he did.

It was also a truly wonderful experience for me in the Piatigorsky class to make friends with a group of other young cellists who were, like me, dedicating themselves to perfecting their artistry on the cello. I'm sure that Ola Karlsson, Dan Smith, Roger Lebow, Julie Bevan, Mary Lane, Danny Rothmuller, Victor Fierro, Jenny Langham, not to mention Nick, Jeff and Doris Stevenson, Piatigorsky's accompanist in the class, will never forget those days. I know I won't. Our experience there has created a bond among us and although I don't see everyone from class still, we still share an experience never to be repeated, as this was Piatigorsky's last official master class.

After the class ended for the year, I continued to visit with and play for and with Piatigorsky at his house. He was preparing for a two-week master class that he was giving in Zurich and a couple of Brahms Double Concerto performances with Isaac Stern in Philadelphia. He liked to play duos to keep his fingers supple; by this time in his life, he hated to practice, something he wasn't shy about acknowledging. Indeed, I remember that one morning he wanted me to come over and play with him and the phone rang. When I picked up the receiver, I heard, without ceremony or introduction, "Well, dis ees da lazy BUM!" In late June of 1976, I drove him and his wife to the airport in Mrs. Piatigorsky's Cadillac and helped get them and his cello on the plane. I thought he might pass out when the baggage inspector started to finger the cello he took on the trip, the Baudiot Stradivarius, but we were able to make her understand what it was and she stopped, after asking him, "Oh, do you play this?" He handed me a few bucks for the parking, and after I told him I was going to practice hard while he was gone, he grinned broadly and said, "Well, you'd bettah!" Then he told me not to forget to pick some plums from his favorite plum tree in his yard and they boarded the plane. That was the last time I saw him alive. He had cancer and in Switzerland, his health failed and he had to be brought back to L.A. in July, where he died in early August.

Shortly after Piatigorsky died, Jeff Solow, then one of Piatigorsky's assistants, recommended me to Sidney Harth, then the co-music director (with Lukas Foss) of the Jerusalem Symphony, who was looking for a solo cellist. I played for Sidney and he hired me. I stayed in Jerusalem for a season and then my friend, Ola Karlsson, who had been a member of the Piatigorsky master class, and who at that time was an assistant principal cellist in the Swedish Radio Symphony in Stockholm (he's now the principal cellist there, as well as a terrific soloist -- he's recorded the Walton concerto with Heinrich Schiff conducting, among other things -- a festival director and a fine conductor in his own right), called me and told me that there was a cello opening in his orchestra. I didn't know it at the time, but the Swedish Radio Symphony was and is one of the best orchestras in Europe. Recent music directors have included Evgeny Svetlanov (who just recently died) and Esa-Pekka Salonen and the consensus is that it was made into a great orchestra under the tenure of the legendary Sergiu Celibidache. As I wasn't all that interested in staying in Jerusalem, Ola arranged for me to audition in Stockholm and I won the post.

By the way, a positive by-product of my time in Jerusalem was my opportunity to study with Leonard Rose. There is an institute in Jerusalem called the Jerusalem Music Center. Its mission was to provide advanced training for young Israeli musicians and people like Isaac Stern, Rose, the Menuhins and others would come periodically to give lessons and master classes, some of which were filmed for Israeli television. As it happened, there didn't seem to be any cello students in Israel at that time who could get through a movement of any pieces in the standard repertoire, so the television people came to our orchestra looking for young-looking "ringers." I was 26 at the time (1976-77) and fairly young-looking and there were a couple of other young Americans, Katherine Marcus and Peter Garfield, in the cello section and so the three of us, along with Michal Haran (the youthful principal cellist of the Israel Philharmonic) and a few other young professional cellists got to have lessons with Rose and participate in master classes.

Coming into contact with Rose, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Piatigorsky devotee, and all of my training up to that point had been from him or his students (Nick Rosen, Jeff Solow, Terry King). As some of his students have reported elsewhere, Piatigorsky didn't talk about technique. As far as the development of my own technique went, while I was studying with Piatigorsky, I spent a good part of my time working on Davidoff's first concerto, Piatti caprices and trying to imitate Jeff, Nick, and the other prominent alumni (i.e., Mischa Maisky, Gottfried Hoogeveen (now principal of Concertgebuow), Rafael Wallfisch, Erling Blondal Bengtsson and others), who would drop by and play when Piatigorsky would invite them to, which he invariably would. But the main thing you got from Piatigorsky was a sense of the music, the proper way to approach a line or phrase, what its meaning within the context of the piece was in relation to the intentions of that particular composer (he was a tireless researcher on this subject - seeking out people who knew the composers, i.e. Tchaikovsky's brother, people whose parents had known Schumann, etc.), the importance of the cello and what the cello could do expressively. Above all, he told us he wanted us to be "good servants of art." But he also told us he wanted us to get used to getting paid! As to why he didn't dwell on technique, I think he expected his students already to have a thorough technical grounding by the time they got to him -- which, of course, wasn't always the case. To me, his predisposition not to discuss technique may have come from when he was in Klengel's master class. He said that when a student had a technical issue, Klengel would tell him to consult one of the other students who did the particular technical thing well: i.e., "Go talk to so and so. He has a very nice staccato," and so on. Nevertheless, if you were in the position of having a technical issue that Piatigorsky would recognize, but one for which he did not direct you explicitly toward a solution, it could be pretty confusing and I did see students confused and frustrated from time to time. However, one did always have access to Nick and Jeff, and that wasn't chopped liver! But I think he was encouraging us to be independent and figure things out on our own. After all, this wasn't a group of beginners. Many of his students had already established careers and were playing big concerts with major orchestras by the time they came to him.

In many ways, as a teacher, Rose was the opposite of Piatigorsky, especially when it came to technique, an area about which he was quite specific. The first thing I played for him was the Schumann concerto. I also played the Beethoven A Major Sonata. But at that time, he was really most interested in hearing me play etudes, mostly Popper. And my studies with him had far less to do with music itself - although he certainly did have things to say in that area - than with focusing on playing the instrument technically in a coherent, systematic way. I think he felt that inasmuch as we had only a relatively short time together, the time would be most productively spent if he had me come to terms with the most important of the technical deficiencies that it was obvious I had then. I must say, looking back, Rose provided me in a very short period of time, a foundation that has enabled me to surmount a number of technical hurdles that, before I came to him, I just took for granted that I'd never conquer. That confidence permitted me to get me into music and the cello in a new way. And also, I liked him a lot. I found him to be a friendly, warm and giving person in addition to being a great artist and master of his instrument. So I was fortunate to have taken quite a lot from that experience and I am indebted to him, although I still consider myself to be mainly a Piatigorsky disciple.

In any case, in the summer of 1977, I did go to Stockholm to audition for the Swedish Radio Symphony and got the job. Almost immediately, I was playing concerts with Carlo Maria Giulini, Evgeny Svetlanov, Kiril Kondrashin, Maris Janssons, Riccardo Muti, Sixten Ehrling and on and on. By the way, in addition to my friend Ola Karlsson, the fine cellist Frans Helmerson was one of the assistant principals in the Swedish Radio Symphony's cello section at that time.

About six months into the season, I received news that my father had died in L.A. I was 27 at the time. I had to resign my position and come back to L.A. to take over the running of the record company he'd founded and the handling of his estate. It was complicated and I anticipated having to be away for a "whole" year and then going back to Europe and either managing to get my job back in Stockholm or auditioning elsewhere. To make a long story short, resolving the disputes around my father's estate took seven years, during which time my sister and I were taken to court (as executors of the estate) three times in litigation brought against the estate by an ex-wife of my father. I had also gotten married during that time and my wife was firmly rooted in Los Angeles (among other things, she was a student at U.C.L.A.) and she wasn't particularly interested in the prospect of abandoning her studies at the university to resettle in an unfamiliar, unspecified and as-yet-to-be-determined place in Europe. Also, I had been producing lots of records in the course of running Contemporary Records and had developed something of a reputation in that area. I started out with jazz records, recording top jazz artists of the time: Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Bobby McFerrin, etc., and some years later did a number of blues and pop projects (including producing sessions with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin), Taj Mahal and others). Ultimately, after seven years, the stress of trying to run an independent jazz record company while at the same time enduring relentless legal attacks from my step-mother caused my sister and me to decide to sell the company and try to get on with our lives.

Koenig listening to playbacks in the studio with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.

My unhappy experience as a defendant in lawsuits and the fact that I had been habitually condescended to by my lawyers (in spite of my being proven right and their being proven wrong repeatedly over the very issues over which I was condescended to) prompted me to go to law school with the aim of never having to be put into a position where I could get so screwed again, or at least being able to handle my lawyers if I ever found myself in the unfortunate position of having to employ them again. As it happened, after I graduated and practiced law for a few years, I realized that no one can ever absolutely avoid getting screwed by the legal system, but that if one is a lawyer (presumably one with at least average intellectual gifts), then if one gets screwed, one will at least know how it had been done. But I digress.

Upon my graduation from U.S.C. Law School in 1987, I went to work for a top national law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the pre-eminent mergers and acquisitions law firm in the country at that time, as a securities litigator. The next four years were probably the bleakest years of my life. Sixteen-hour days were the rule and many times I'd stay at the office all night and work into the next day. I went stretches of months without a day off (no weekends off, of course) and the work was mind-numbingly boring. As a "young" associate in the trenches of cases worth billions of dollars and staffed with teams of lawyers that, just from our firm, sometimes numbered into the high teens, I would typically spend my days responding to harrassing discovery requests and poring through thousands and thousands of pages of corporate documents when our clients (who were most often corporate boards of directors of Fortune 500 companies who were defendants in shareholder suits) were served with discovery requests in these law suits. I also wrote lots of briefs and made the occasional court appearance, usually in a discovery matter in one of these huge cases.

When I turned 40 (in 1990), I decided that in spite of the money I was making (I was paid almost as much in my first year out of law school as I had made in the aggregate in seven years of running an independent record company), if I wanted to live to see 41, I had to make a change, particularly as I wasn't doing anything remotely like what I really wanted to be doing in life. So I started a small entertainment law practice and resumed producing records. In the late '90s, I also started writing music for films. One feature with my music (modest as it may be) has been released nationally, "Luminarias" with Scott Bakula and Cheech Marin, among others. I've scored three other films, none of which has been widely seen, but that's one of the things I'm pursuing now. And I'm also working hard on getting back into the cello playing scene here in L.A., although the entertainment business is in disarray and work in every area is hard to come by. But I am back to daily and assiduous work on the cello, practicing quite a bit and working on things like Popper etudes (at the moment # 13), sonata repertoire, Schelomo, Bach E-flat Suite, Haydn D. Maj. Concerto, Shostakovich concerto, etc., etc. and playing private recitals when my pianist friends are available and so inclined.

Endnotes

1. An interview exists in the archives of the Internet Cello Society that Tim Janof did with Lynn Harrell (http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/harrell.html) in which Harrell makes the following statement:

LH: . . . Szell once told me what Strauss said to Piatigorsky when they were rehearsing, "You play my Don Quixote beautifully, but you have to understand that I don't want it to be played. I want it to be spoken and sung." . . .

This is somewhat different from what I heard from Piatigorsky and may be, I suspect, apocryphal. In fact, what I understand Strauss to have told Piatigorsky (and, indeed, the assembled orchestra in Frankfurt-am-Main) that day regarding Piatigorsky's playing of "Don Quixote" is quoted above and was more or less to the effect that on hearing Piatigorsky play, Strauss had now heard the piece as he'd imagined it for the first time. (See Piatigorsky's autobiography, Cellist, page 146).

The subject of singing versus talking came up differently - many years earlier - and did not involve Strauss and "Don Quixote," but rather the great Russian basso, Feodor Chaliapin. Piatigorsky, while a young student at the Moscow Conservatory, was hired to play in the intermissions in Chaliapin's recitals. Piatigorsky encountered Chaliapin one day and told him brashly, "You know, you talk too much and don't sing enough." If you've ever heard a recording of Chaliapin singing Boris Godunov, for example, you'll hear that he sings, but he also shouts and speaks, sometimes with no musical tone, with great histrionics (listening to these recordings, sometimes I can almost visualize him snorting and spitting too), but all to very great dramatic effect. To this, Chaliapin replied, "No. You sing too much and don't talk enough." For a while the teen-aged Piatigorsky pondered this without really understanding what Chaliapin meant, but eventually, he came to realize that his (Piatigorsky's) approach had been to play everything beautifully without regard to the dramatic meaning of the phrase. What Chaliapin meant was that being an artist wasn't necessarily only about singing a line beautifully, but rather giving one's maximum toward fulfilling the expression - often quite dramatic expression - that the composer intended in writing the particular phrase or line. If you listen to Piatigorsky's recordings (i.e., the Schumann Concerto, Schelomo with Rodzinski, some of the air checks of concerts - I remember once hearing an air check of a brilliant Elgar Concerto) you'll hear that he took this to heart. Indeed, this proved to be one of the most important pieces of artistic advice anyone ever gave him.

© 2004 by John Koenig


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