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American cellist and teacher Paul Olefsky dies aged 87

June 3, 2013

US cellist and pedagogue Paul Olefsky has died at the age of 87. During his long career he was a member of several American orchestras and a recitalist in North America and Europe. For almost four decades he taught cello and chamber music at the University of Texas at Austin.

Born on 4 January 1926 in Chicago, Olefsky began studying the cello with Johann Lingeman, first cellist of the Chicago Civic Opera Orchestra. At 17 he received a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied cello with Daniel Saidenberg and Gregor Piatigorsky, and chamber music with William Primrose.

In 1947, his graduation year, Olefsky was accepted into the Philadelphia Orchestra’s cello section, where he remained for five years, becoming the orchestra’s youngest ever principal cellist. While serving with the US Navy during the Korean War, he had a chance to study with Pablo Casals: ‘When I first went to him, I deliberately played Bach without any vibrato in a rather naive attempt to be stylistically “authentic”,’  he told The Strad in a 1989 interview. ‘Casals wisely told me to stop play-acting and be myself.’

After completing his naval service, Olefsky was offered the position of first cellist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where he spent six years, though he continued to perform as a soloist. He joined the faculty of the University of Iowa but left after just 18 months to extend his solo engagements: he gave the first US performances of works by Kodály, Lutoslawski, Henze and Ginastera.

In succession, Olefsky taught at the Peabody Institute (1963–68) and Hartt School (1968–74) before settling at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974. He remained there for the rest of his career, where his students included Louis Lowenstein, John Sant’Ambrogio, Carolyn Hopkins, Stephen Gates and Hai Zheng, whom he later married. He was later granted the title of emeritus professor at the Butler School of Music. Another former student, Gregory McCoy, established the Paul Olefsky Cello Scholarship at the Butler School.

In 1987 Olefsky organised the first Feuermann International Cello Competition at the University of Texas, Austin. ‘Although I had enormous respect for Piatigorsky, it was Emanuel Feuermann who was my idol,’ he said in 1989. ‘His mystique has haunted me all my life. I never forget his maxim: “the complete cellist must be a perfect blend of head, heart and fingers.” I had only one lesson with Feuermann but its shattering impact is always with me.’

Commenting on the work of teaching cello, Olefsky said: ‘A true pedagogue should strive for quality teaching with fewer pupils. There are only so many hours in a day, and only a proscribed amount of time, energy and intellectual force at a teacher’s disposal, and he should resist the temptation of over-extending himself whether it be for money or reputation engagement. It is the obligation of the teacher to make the student independent of the teacher as soon as possible.’

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