PERFORMING ARTS An Artist Finally Gets It on Record Cellist Nathaniel Rosen has a Tchaikovsky gold medal and a long list of performing credits, but it took a chance meeting with a music-loving lawyer to launch him toward CD fame. By Daniel Cariaga, Daniel Cariaga is The Times' music writer.
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 14, 1995 Home Edition Calendar, Page 57 Type of Material: Profile
A couple of weekends ago, the high-rise LAX Doubletree Hotel was vibrating to the latest Stereophile high-end audio show. Crowded into 12 floors of suite/salesrooms, the audio-obsessed crowd, mostly male, listened to speakers, tried out paraphernalia, talked, argued and compared notes. As befits a convention devoted to sound, it was noisy everywhere.
Except here, in the second-floor theater. As cellist Nathaniel Rosen lifted his bow and began to play, this corner of the convention became an instant oasis of calm and serenity. Throughout Bach's C-major suite--the "happy one," Rosen told the audience--you could have heard rosin melt. The audience listened deeply, savoring each 16th-note.
The 46-year-old Rosen--born in Altadena, schooled with the legendary Gregor Piatigorsky, winner of the gold medal at the 1978 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow--wasn't surprised. "There are a lot of engineering freaks at this show," he had noted, just before he went on stage. "Also, some people who really like music."
Even so, what was a world-class cellist, a respectable touring artist, doing at a trade show ?
"Well, I'll tell you," Rosen--everyone calls him Nick--said imperturbably. "I'm doing it for John Marks."
Marks, a Rhode Island environmental lawyer turned record producer, is the person Rosen credits with rejuvenating his career. Marks has accomplished this through releasing, so far, three attention-grabbing Rosen CDs on his label, John Marks Records. For the first time in what has been a solid but not star-level career, Rosen--who will be a soloist in next Sunday's Chamber Music/LA Festival--has achieved a recorded presence.
"John is the most important person in my professional life," the cellist said emphatically. "Through him I have the ways to further my career. I would do anything John Marks asked me to do to promote his records."
On the Doubletree Hotel stage, wearing an unsubtle, French vanilla ice-cream suit with a dark maroon shirt and an aggressive tie, Rosen was proving his point. While the convention roared on around him, he played winningly, with the complete concentration of a mature artist at work.
Marks and Rosen first met when Rosen's friend, violinist Arturo Delmoni, brought the music-loving lawyer and onetime violin student backstage after Rosen had played Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto in Providence, R.I., in 1990. Delmoni also invited some executives of a small Providence recording company, North Star.
The next day, according to Rosen, "John took me round to North Star Records and helped me find my way to an agreement--a very advantageous agreement--with them."
In 1992, Northstar released "Orientale," which became a solid seller in this country and a big hit all along the Pacific Rim. That same year, Marks started his own company, with Delmoni and Rosen as his first two artists. "Underappreciated American string players--that's my specialty," Marks said in a phone interview after the Stereophile weekend.
From Rosen's perspective, Marks' timing was perfect. Rosen was touring from his home base in the New York City suburbs, where he lives with his second wife, Margo, and their two children, now ages 2 and 4. While his two-decade-old career wasn't in trouble, it wasn't exactly booming, either.
Rosen started playing the cello as a child, inspired, in part, by his father, an amateur viola player, and the Coleman Chamber Concerts in Pasadena, in which his parents were active. "From the time I was about 5," he recalled, "I heard the Budapest Quartet, the Smetana, Quartetto Italiano. What memories!"
He studied with Eleonore Schoenfeld at 6, went to Piatigorsky at 13 and graduated from the USC School of Music in 1971. While still at USC, he became a founding member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and, three years later, its principal cellist. By 1977, he had been named principal cello of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Then, in the summer of 1978, he hit the big time, taking the gold medal in Moscow, the first American to do so since Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky victory 20 years earlier.
"The next two seasons were frantic," Rosen remembers. "My management did a good job of accepting engagements, but the phone just never stopped ringing. I had engagements coming out my ears."
So, with plenty of prestigious solo concerts, Rosen left his "day job" in Pittsburgh and played worldwide. Later, still busy, he created a base of operations at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he taught for six years.
Beyond touring, he said, "no one was thinking of this career in the long term. That was when we, the management and I, neglected the recording aspect of the career.
"Of course," he noted dryly, "I realized this many years later."
The North Star CD gave him an inkling of what he had been missing. The reviews were strong, the sales encouraging. And the first two JMR releases--a concerto program, played with the Sofia Philharmonic; and both Brahms sonatas, played with his longtime associate, pianist Doris Stevenson--solidified that with more good notices. The current release, his third, which contains all six solo suites of Bach, has done even better. The Stereophile critic, for instance, noted that the works "unfold beautifully and lyrically, impelled by a technique that is at once virtuosic and un-self-conscious."
That review earned Rosen his invitation to the Doubletree. And however willingly he played there, he wasn't shy about calling the promotional end of his new recording career "very hard work." On that trip to Southern California, for instance, he not only performed three times at the convention, he also appeared at Tower Records in Pasadena.
And the personal appearances won't be ending anytime soon. Rosen has a fourth CD due from JMR later this year, though this one isn't a solo performance.
"Guess what it is," he commanded mock-mysteriously, right before he spelled it out: "Christmas carols, played by a string quartet. In four-part chorale arrangements, just as they are sung. The music is actually very beautiful." The first violinist on the record is his old friend Delmoni.
Wait a minute. Like concertizing at an airport hotel, aren't Christmas carols with a pickup ensemble a little, well, tacky for a gold medal cellist?
Not according to Rosen. "Piatigorsky used to say, 'Isn't that a cellist's job, to play everything?' " he said.
" 'Deliver the goods,' Piatigorsky said. 'Does a tailor refuse to make a suit for a customer just because he may not like the customer's body? No.' And he was a great believer in performing things you thought you didn't like, because if you played it as if you loved it, you might just start to love it."
From Rosen's point of view, that sort of dedication and hard work has always paid off, even before he became a recording star.
Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times, 1995.
Cariaga, Daniel, PERFORMING ARTS; An Artist Finally Gets It on Record; Cellist Nathaniel Rosen has a Tchaikovsky gold medal and a long list of performing credits, but it took a chance meeting with a music-loving lawye., Los Angeles Times, 05-14-1995, pp 57.