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Bonnie Hampton discusses and presents ‘virtual’ master classes for the cello

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Yesterday afternoon cellist Bonnie Hampton used her Faculty Artists Series slot at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to offer a presentation entitled The Legacy of the Cello. This was an examination of the work of the two “Giants of the Cello” of the twentieth century, Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich, which involved film and video footage of the work as both performers and teachers. She thus served to provide introductory material through which both of these major cellists could then “speak for themselves” to those of us sitting in the audience.

There was no shortage of memorable moments from these “virtual” experiences. However, I have to say that I was most struck by a common theme that arose in Rostropovich coaching students in two pieces that could not have been more different, the Opus 104 cello concerto by Antonín Dvořák and the cello concerto that Witold Lutosławski composed for Rostropovich between 1968 and 1970. In both of these pieces, Rostropovich explained to the student that the role of the soloist was to stand as a surrogate (my word, not his) for the composer in the act of making the music. In other words what the composer created and eventually documented as marks on paper must then be re-created through the act of performing by the soloist.

This is not, in itself, a novel idea. Indeed, it can be traced back (at least) as far as the role played by invention in those compositions that were probably created for pedagogical purposes by Johann Sebastian Bach. Rostropovich invoked the metaphor of the difference between the original of a painting by Vincent van Gough and a copy, to the extent that creation can never be a matter of mere reproduction. In coaching the Dvořák concerto, he went on to tell the student to imagine something around the music, rather than in it (meaning captured by those marks on paper). It is also worth noting that much of Casals’ coaching also involved this idea of “getting beyond making a copy” and was given vivid description in an interview that the cellist Bernard Greenhouse gave about learning Bach’s BWV 1008 solo cello suite in D minor from Casals.

Rostropovich elaborated the idea of imagining “around” the music with an anecdote about preparing a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 38 cello sonata in E minor (the first) with pianist Sviatoslav Richter. At one point Richter asked Rostropovich what he thought the weather had been like when Brahms composed the opening measures of this sonata. After Rostropovich replied that he was not in Vienna at that time, Richter suggested that it must have been raining. In terms of Rostropovich’s coaching, I would say that Richter had decided that it was the rainy weather “around” the music that informed how he would perform it.

This technique took on a far more personal light in Lutosławski’s concerto. In this case the composer told Rostropovich to play the music “biographically” (Rostropovich’s word choice). Rostropovich then explained to the student that the particular passage he was coaching was actually a representation of the Soviet Politburo reaction when, in 1970, Rostropovich used his own home to give shelter to the author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. The orchestra represented the blustering Russian bureaucrats, furious with Rostropovich and punitively restricting him from foreign touring and performing in Moscow, limiting him to little more than teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. The cello, on the other hand, was Rostropovich himself getting by to the best of his abilities. (He eventually managed to get out of the Soviet Union in 1974.) The fact that Rostropovich could talk about this so openly, even with a bit of humor, was a stunning experience, particularly for anyone who remembered what the world was like during the Cold War.

The result was a two-hour program in which those of us on audience side could begin to grasp, through Hampton’s guidance, the vivid and exciting extent of the understanding that both Casals and Rostropovich brought to the act of making music.

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