Reflections of Bernard Greenhouse on his life and music
by Laurinel Owen
Kronberg Academy Verlag

Reviewed by Robert Battey

Bernard Greenhouse is one of the great life-forces of our instrument today. Born in 1916 in New Jersey, he remains active as a teacher, and even a performer on occasion. His distinguished career has encompassed all aspects of the art of the cello, but with particular emphasis in the field of chamber music. In his lessons and masterclasses he passes down the highest standards of music-making, gleaned from his own studies with Feuermann, Casals, Salmond, and Alexanian, and honed during 70 years of professional experience.

The Kronberg Academy, in Germany, has been producing series of paperback books on the century's major cellists. This latest offering joins books on Rostropovich, Feuermann, and Starker. It is by Laurinel Owen, a professional cellist, teacher, and writer, though apparently not a former Greenhouse student. The book is 195 pages, but it presents the same material first in German then in English, with a selection of photographs separating them, so it's fairly short measure for DM 59,00 (about $27 when shipping to the USA is included).

. The text is basically a transcription of the artist's reminiscences. It contains little or no original writing or research, thus, there is little for a critic to say. I know Greenhouse, and it is certainly his voice in these pages. His story is an inspiring one, his musical wisdom invaluable. For these reasons alone, cello aficionados and students in particular should not pass this up.

Bernard Greenhouse was born to a Russian father and Austrian mother; he had three brothers and two half-brothers. Though neither parent had musical training, all of their children studied an instrument. Greenhouse started the cello at 9 (on a full-sized instrument!), and, with a detour for a brief career as a boy-soprano soloist, applied himself with industry to his studies. While not a prodigy, he performed actively in both piano trios and string quartets in high school, and when he auditioned at Juilliard, he was accepted straight into the Graduate School.

At age 22, Greenhouse's father had gone into bankruptcy, and he became the sole support for his family, including his older brothers who were still in college. Greenhouse took a job with the CBS radio orchestra. The work included orchestra, quartet, and miscellaneous sessions like jazz, and he was soon principal cellist. He made his first solo and string quartet recordings the following year (if only someone would reissue them!), and did freelance work for other groups. He recalls that a pick-up cello section in New York in those days often consisted of himself, Frank Miller, Leonard Rose, Samuel Mayes, and Harvey Shapiro! Greenhouse helped augment the cello section for the Toscanini/NBC recording of La Mer, and is heard on several Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra recordings from that period.

Despite attaining top professional standing and a lucrative income, Greenhouse's training had barely begun. He took as many lessons as he could with Feuermann, who lived out in Scarsdale when he was in the US. When the war started, Greenhouse enlisted in the Navy, and was stationed in Washington, playing in the orchestra and oboe in the marching band. As principal cellist, he had to perform regularly as soloist, eventually presenting 22 concerti.

Immediately after the war, Greenhouse began his most important formative experience, his studies in Prades with Casals. He had just made his Town Hall debut in New York, performing, among other works, the Vieuxtemps Cello Concerto, but felt that he could still improve with further study. For two years he spent large blocks of time in Prades, as Casals' only student, having two or three lessons a week, each lasting for several hours. Despite this immersion, he said of Casals, "I never quite understood how he made that sound." But he openly acknowledges Casals' profound influence on his music-making from then on, even admitting that he emerged playing like a copy. Clearly, though, he found his individual voice soon enough. At age 32, Greenhouse finally felt prepared for a concert career.

For eight years he was a barnstorming solo cellist, playing in small towns and large cities, keeping a base in New York, where he taught at Manhattan and Juilliard, and later at the Hartt School in Connecticut. In 1948, a little-known composer sought him out for advice on some cello music he was composing; the resulting sonata, by Elliot Carter, premiered by Greenhouse, has taken its place as one of the greatest duo sonatas of the century. That same year, Greenhouse joined the Bach Aria Group and performed regularly with them until 1977 and, in 1955, formed his signature ensemble, the Beaux Arts Trio. From its inception, the trio was the toast of the music world, and their recordings are the standard against which all others are measured.

In his semi-retirement, Greenhouse lives on Cape Cod, an avid sailor, and teaches, without charge, those who travel to see him. But much of the time it is he who is travelling; his masterclasses are eagerly sought-after all over the world, and he continues to go out and share his wisdom and artistry. At the Third World Cello Congress in Baltimore, the joint masterclass with his old friend Janos Starker was one of the high points of an amazing week.

As mentioned, the book is a straightforward, edited transcript of his reminiscences, so literary criticism is beside the point. The author could have used an editor herself -- misspelling Flonzaley (Quartet), (Alexander) Siloti, (Alan) Shulman, (Frank) Brieff, (Bernard) Herrmann, Calvet (Quartet), Isidore (Cohen), Rachmaninoff, and Guadagnini among others - and should have known that Piatigorsky never recorded the Schumann Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and that the Guarneri Quartet doesn't record for CBS/Sony. The chapter on how Greenhouse found his Stradivarius took up valuable space that could have gone to more useful detail in other areas.

Nonetheless, this book fills a clear need. Present and future cellists should learn about those who paved the way for them, professionally and artistically. Aside from his life and career, Ms. Owen draws her subject out in chapters on teaching, technique, and interpretation. Through it all, his warmth and humanity are writ large. Greenhouse always sought, and brought out, the best qualities in others. Nowhere in the book does he seek to settle old scores, though there are a few gentle digs here and there. We are fortunate to have had Greenhouse among us, and the book makes us appreciate him all the more. In short, the book is self-recommending to those who care about the cello, its history, and its great practitioners.

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