Full Speed Ahead - Bernard Greenhouse at 90

Interview by Laurinel Owen

The Strad, January 2006 Vol. 117 No. 1389 page 54

Bernard Greenhouse is one of the last surviving links with Salmond, Feuermann and Casals, yet as he celebrates his 90th birthday he’s more interested in the future than in the past. Laurinel Owen meets a cellist for whom there is no such thing as retirement.

‘I used to think that when I got old, I would relish looking at the old photos I had saved. I thought that I would sit back in my rocking chair and remember the various moments in my life. But now I find that it is the future I am interested in – my work, my playing, and my teaching. I never look back, I always think ahead.’ It is this sentiment, as well as his vast knowledge and experience that keeps the cello world clambering for Bernard Greenhouse. Celebrating his 90th birthday this January, he is still going strong – traveling the globe to give master classes, teaching ‘anyone who will make the arduous trip’ to his home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, playing chamber music and practicing – every day!

Author, Laurinel Owen with cellist Bernard Greenhouse in Prades, FranceAuthor, Laurinel Owen with cellist Bernard Greenhouse in Prades, France

His achievements are legendary. A student of Felix Salmond, Emanuel Feuermann, Diran Alexanian, and Pablo Casals Greenhouse went on to teach at such illustrious music schools as the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School, the Hartt College, and State University of New York at Stony Brook. He became first cellist of the CBS Symphony and free-lanced with other New York orchestras working under the direction of such legendary conductors Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner and Bruno Walter. When the United States entered the Second World War Greenhouse enlisted and played principal in the US Navy Orchestra performing twenty-two different concertos with the group. As soloist he recorded concertos by Dvořák, Haydn, Boccherini, and Victor Herbert. Impressive, yes, but he is undoubtedly mostly known as founding cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio, an ensemble with whom he concertized for over three decades, making over 100 recordings including the entire standard piano trio repertoire as well as the complete Haydn Trios (43 in a box!), and miscellaneous other chamber music.

Charming, charismatic, a born raconteur Bernard Greenhouse at age ninety is still driven. ‘I don’t want to part with making music,’ he admits. ‘I work to keep my own playing at a respectable level, even though at 90 I find it more of a challenge. With age there is a tendency to exaggerate. The real problem is to ignore physical conditions and over-come difficulties. I have to be open to change and find new techniques. The vibrato slows and widens, so I have to use the wrist as the hand stiffens. In the bow there is a lack of control and it has become harder to sustain sound, so I must add energy to the bow. Everyday I do serious work – I don’t just play. This week, for example, I practiced Locatelli Sonata and the last Rococo Variation. One by one I come to conclusions that brings results and keeps me fresh. As I search for answers the beneficiaries are the students who play for me. It is endless – for me there is no retirement.’

Though Greenhouse does not spend time in his rocker pouring over old photographs, reviews and letters maybe he listens to his favorite recordings. ‘No, I never play my recordings,’ he muses. ‘I probably have favorites, but I haven’t listened to them. Frankly I get angry when I hear my old recordings. The balance between instruments was not good. When the trio was recording for Philips in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland we had too many people who were obsessed with the piano and pushed aside the violin and cello. The Tonmeister has the last word, yet all he has to do is turn a knob. Many of the old records were unfair. Isadore Cohen and I both played Strads yet the sound is harsh. All I hear is a glorious Steinway, so my old records sit on the shelf. They used to say that I had no sound, but I proved in a hall I was equal. After we recording we were not consulted and they released the records without me hearing the master first. The remastered recordings seem better, but if I had a say I would hope they re-release the Beethoven Trios and make us equal.’

During a career of nearly seven decades Greenhouse must have seen changes in music making. ‘Of course I have seen changes!’ he reasons. ‘There is less latitude in personal expression. I listen to Kreisler, Elman, Heifetz, Casals, and hear a certain liberty in their use of glissandi and rhythmic freedom, for example. Today, to some extent, this is on a lesser scale than 50 to 75 years ago.

‘Now cellists are taught “the instrument” and purity of technique,’ he continues. ‘It is not the same as in my early days. There are so many young people whose technique is on par with Feuermann or Piatigorsky. Many aspiring cellists today have that ability and skill. However, I feel they don’t have the freedom and have a limited range of expression. I do admire the purity of their playing and only hope today’s youth can develop into players beyond technique.

‘In my view this goal of technical perfection started because every kid has to measure up to Rostropovich, Gutman, Gueringas, Starker, and Noras. These people have developed an advancement of cello technique that every youngster aspires to. But not all those who have reached this physical prowess have the ability to communicate the emotions to the listener. There is a technique that enables players to reach out in a manner that allows the music to express an emotional high whether it is exuberance or sadness. Unfortunately, many today do not spend enough time on learning this.

‘We can use timing so that the rhythm is not disturbed and allows the performer to bring out the high point of the phrase. I make slight deviations of motion within the phrase: move the impetus forward towards the top then recede to make up the time so the balance remains, but without keeping to the strict time.

‘Also the use of glissandi is important. The quality of a slide can bring a feeling of quiet or impending drama. This is a question of interpretation. During the shift tension in the hand has to reflect the music’s emotional content. A feeling of calm can be realized if the tension of the left hand is released while moving up or down the string, while strength is increased in one or even both hands in order to project great energy at the top of a phrase.

‘There is no question that Casals developed a reputation as a great musician. His approach to making music, little innuendos, a manner of glissando or the turning of a phrase, was completely different from what we would expect. There are so many musical moments that are impressive.

‘When I studied with him I was so in awe that I tried to emulate his every gesture. After a year of lessons I returned to New York from Prades and went to play for Alexanian. He said to me: “You copy Casals very well. Now take what you have learned and become your own musician.” At that point I decided that I didn’t want to copy. Developing an imagination is a different kind of work and I try to open students’ eyes to this.’

Greenhouse is a regular favorite at the festivals presented by the Kronberg Academy in Germany. The director, Raimund Trenkler, a cellist, wants him back every year. ‘Bernie’s use of technique is really in service to the music so that when he transfers an idea he proves to the student that they must love the music more than themselves,’ Trenkler confirms. ‘We try for affects or play to fulfill our own emotions. But Bernie is not interested in that. In him I feel that art and humanity are inseparable. He doesn’t teach just technique or phrasing, but also an attitude: musicianship, discipline, respect and humanity.’

Brooks Whitehouse, cello professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro School of Music, organized a Cello Celebration last year with concerts and master classes with Bernard Greenhouse and former students, many well-regarded performers. ‘Greenhouse gave an impromptu performance of Song of the Birds at the UNCG Celebration,’ Whitehouse remarks. ‘He has performed around the world with the greatest artists of the twentieth century, and still shows his enduring ability to captivate an audience with no more than a folksong.’

Selma Gokcen, a director of the Violoncello Society of London, spearheaded and produced a DVD “Bernard Greenhouse at Wigmore Hall”, which was released in September 2005. Including interviews with violin expert Charles Beare and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum the film documents Greenhouse teaching six students in front of a sold-out audience. ‘We are yet another generation removed from the great composers we play,’ Gokcen comments. ‘We need to hear how to sustain the phrase, how to start and end a note, to create color in the sound, to find the dramatic gesture, and to do so not as a surface effect but from a place of deeper understanding. Mr. Greenhouse has cultivated that depth through long years of exploration and performance.’

Commenting on the film Greenhouse chuckles: ‘My intention was not to become a matinee idol! I am pleased to see that there is no hesitation on my part, despite the fact that I had 300 people and cameras watching. Probably not all will agree with what I say, but the most important thing is that the six students learned something.’

Is there any final advice this master can offer us? ‘I believe in enduring persistence and love for work,’ Greenhouse says. ‘It doesn’t matter at what stage you are or where your career takes you. Music can be a vehicle for a happy life and has such enormous depth that it keeps you involved endlessly. Believe me – I’m too old to make it up.’

Time Line

January 1, 1916: Born in Newark, New Jersey (registered as Jan.3)
1933: Attends Juilliard, then called Institute of Musical Arts. Studies with Felix Salmond
1938: Graduates and becomes Principal Cello of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Orchestra and joins Dorian String Quartet
1939-40: Studies with Emanuel Feuermann
1942-45: Principal Cello in US Navy Orchestra and 3rd Oboe in US Navy Band; studies with Diran Alexanian
1946-47: Moves to Prades, France and studies with Pablo Casals
1947-55: Establishes solo concert career, based in New York
1948-76: Cellist of Bach Aria Group
1955: Debut of Beaux Arts Trio, withDaniel Guilet and Menahem Pressler, in all-Beethoven Concert at Tanglewood
1955-87: Cellist of Beaux Arts Trio; plays c. 150 concerts per year
1987- continues teaching and playing

Greenhouse Plays… Side Bar:

Always noted for his sonorous tone Greenhouse’s voice has been expressed since 1958 through the Countess of Stanlein Ex Paganini Stradivarius cello of 1707.

 ‘When the case was opened and I saw the cello, I decided immediately, without even playing it, that this was my great love. The shape was so beautiful. It was something magnificent to look at, with reddish-brown varnish, But when I put the bow to the strings, it sounded terrible! Instead of being disappointed, I said to myself that something as beautiful as this must have a glorious voice.’

But it was a while before Greenhouse was able to buy the instrument; and when he finally purchased it and had it repaired by Fernando Sacconi: “I put the bow to a string and out came a sound that was incredible! When he first hard the cello, Sacconi said: “All the cellos in the world should sound like this.”

“I always traveled with that cello, buying seats for it on every flight. I took very good care of it and am determined to pass it on to the next generation. It went all over the world with the Beaux Arts Trio. It was a very reliable instrument and I always enjoyed the sound. It was my voice! In fact, it was better than my voice. I have laryngitis on occasions, but my cello never did.

‘This cello is a masterpiece, even though there were many poor repairs in the past. The ribs were doubled with wood, which interfered with the vibrancy. There was a sound post crack on the top like an open wound that had to be filled with glue every five years. So several years ago I asked René Morel to restore it and all the wounds have healed now.

‘An unusual feature is that the scroll is open in the back. The old viola da gamba had an open scroll that facilitated replacing strings. Perhaps there was an imperfection in the wood and Strad decided to leave the pegbox open instead of finding another piece of wood. Or maybe an amateur was having trouble with the strings and had it cut open, but that would have happened in the 18th or 19th century.’

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