The Orion String Quartet founder learnt the importance of the link between language and music from the two legendary cellists


I come from a musical family - my grandfather played the cello as an amateur and my mother taught the piano. In my fourth grade at school I discovered the cello when we were sent for musicianship tests. My first teacher was Wendell Margrave and eventually I had lessons with John Martin, who was principal cellist in the Washington National Symphony.

But undoubtedly my main teachers and influences were Luigi Silva and Bernard Greenhouse. I started learning with Silva at the Juilliard pre-college division. He had a fantastically organised and systematic approach, with exercises that clarified every aspect of technique, from practising double-stops to perfecting up-bow staccato. He also instilled in me a strong sense of how to practise. He followed a three-tiered strategy that comprised exercises and technique, first of all developing a system of reflexes necessary to play with the left hand; this was working in abstract on technique in its purest form. The second stage involved studies or virtuosic short pieces such as Fauré's Papillon. These études provided a synthesis of issues that bridged the gap between extraction of technique and pieces. The final stage was 'real-life' pieces, in which one explores the harmonic progression and musical flow while still focusing on accuracy of technique.

Silva died suddenly and I was devastated - completely in mourning for him. They asked Greenhouse to take over his teaching at Juilliard, which was difficult for me initially because I had been so enamoured with Silva. At my first lesson with Greenhouse I vividly remember going into the foyer of his house and waiting while he finished a lesson with another pupil. I was overwhelmed by the beautiful sounds I heard coming from his cello - it was such a strong emotional impact. This gets to the root of what he brought into my cello playing. He straddles quite a remarkable tradition of cello playing, having learnt with both Feuermann and Casals; but I think his strongest influence comes from Casals's teaching, through which I have a strong awareness of the concept of communicating sound.

Greenhouse started by looking at Bloch's Schelomo for loosening up my shifting and developing a singing tone. He always emphasised the importance of resting the hand on the fingerboard as opposed to using too much pressure. The other elements connected with this are vibrato and expressive intonation. Intonation is a constant aesthetic balance and Casals's teaching encompassed such issues. All decisions rest on the equilibrium between the expressive potential of the horizontal line and the vertical aspect of harmony. They also depend on whether it is essential to adhere to tempered pitch, for example when accompanied by piano, or whether one can take a more flexible approach when playing with other stringed instruments. But even in Bach's solo suites there are issues of fine adjustment. For instance, you can heighten the third in a major chord, which has the effect of brightening the sound, but too much sharpening of this note and the result errs on the dissonant side.

Greenhouse was a strong advocate for taking the inflections and rhythms of speech as a model for articulation in music; the same elements of speech convey emotion and meaning in music. This is no doubt one of the underlying mysteries of why music 'speaks' and has such powerful communication potential. Through this intensity of tone and timbre we convey how we feel. Casals had always been interested in this idea of language and musical expression. I remember an incredibly formative experience for me when I played for him in a masterclass. As Greenhouse did, he emphasised the link with speech, saying that learning new music should be like discovering a foreign language. The initial stages of learning are deliberate, but you should already have all the inflections and subtleties at this juncture. Then you repeat until it becomes a comfortable part of your vocabulary.

I guess one of the fundamental principles I picked up from both my main teachers is that the basis of music and technique is rhythm, not only harmony. Your tone should vary according to the harmonic and rhythmic impulses of the music. Yet overall the most vital lesson - and Greenhouse emphasised this throughout my studies - is that technique is only the servant of music. How we express music is the important issue.

This article was first published in The Strad's November 2003 issue

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