Interview with Steven Honigberg: ‘I love to perfect whatever I am working on’


Steven HonigbergAs author and professional cellist, Steven Honigberg, complements his biography’s subject with a musician’s ear for language and the highest technical expertise. He currently plays on a 1732 Stradivarius (the “Stuart”), holds degrees from The Juilliard School, and combined with experience writing about legendary cellists, has produced a comprehensive first biography of America’s “first cellist.”

In 1984, the author was handpicked by cellist-conductor Msistlav Rostropovich to join the National Symphony Orchestra, a position he holds to this day. Within months, he graduated from college, presented his New York recital debut, appeared as soloist in Alice Tully Hall, and accepted the Washington job. And Leonard Rose died.

The author’s writing career began shortly after he settled in Washington, D.C. Most of his published work has focused on short biographies of renowned cellists. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for a professional music trade publication, he wrote a series of columns under the heading “Remembering the Legends.” A few subjects were Leonard Rose, Pierre Fournier, and Frank Miller (who was Rose’s cousin and during Rose’s teenage years, a mentor).

His latest book is Leonard Rose: America’s Golden Age and Its First Cellist.

You can visit his author page at http://leonardrose.beckhamhouse.com/.

Q: Thank you for this interview, Steven. Can you tell us what your latest book, Leonard Rose: America’s Golden Age and Its First Cellist, is all about?

Leonard Rose (1918 –1984), the great American cellist, was considered one of the most important teachers and musicians of the twentieth century. This biography portrays a complex individual during a period of tremendous individualism. I explore his sympathetic nature, his unyielding devotion to the cello, and, inevitably, his failings. Throughout, the reader sees Rose among the countless musical figures he affected as well as those who affected him.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?

Since Leonard Rose’s death in 1984, I waited for something substantial to be written about his life.  In October 2003, the great pianist Eugene Istomin passed away at 77.  Two years before, the venerable violinist, Isaac Stern, passed.  My realization that the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio departed my world jolted me. In 2004, I took it upon myself to do the necessary work to write this book.  Certainly I experienced ups and downs along the six-year journey.  I finally resolved that it didn’t matter how much time it would take, I felt confident that the book would be published.

Q: What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?

The very first thing I did was contact, by email, through the courtesy of the Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, those who studied with Mr. Rose.  After introducing myself, I asked if they cared to respond about their memories of Mr. Rose.  The replies were wonderful.  To my delight, some of students Mr. Rose taught in the 1940s & 1950s wanted to talk with me in person.  Also at my front door, courtesy of Mr. Rose’s daughter, Barbara, arrived the memoir Mr. Rose had dictated several years before he died.   In the ensuing months, I organized the cellist’s rambling thoughts and stories into categories.  Leonard Rose performed with and taught some of the most important musicians in musical history: Toscanini, Van Cliburn, Bernstein, Walter, Stokowski, Szell, Ormandy, Maazel, Mitropoulos, Rodzinski, Stravinsky, Bartok, Mennin, Schuman, Casals, Salmond, Rostropovich, Piatigorsky, Feuermann, Fournier, Miller, Ma, Harrell, Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Casadesus, Kapell, Arrau, Schnabel, Levant, Graffman, Fleisher, Serkin, Myra Hess, Istomin, Ax, Heifetz, Szigeti, Morini, Galamian, Corigliano, Fuchs, Milstein, Thibaud, Francescatti, Huberman, Menuhin, Neveu, Stern, Perlman, Zukerman, Laredo, Shumsky…  In addition I tore through books – biography after biography – of other cellists, pianists, composers, actors, even presidents.  And for several years I collected marvelous photos: from his son, from Juilliard and Curtis, Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library, and Library of Congress. I had shots of him from his childhood, adolescence, professional photos, a New York Times photo (with Bernstein at his historic debut), from the Stratford Festival with all kinds of shots with the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, and from the walls of Marta Casals Istomin which included a snapshot of Rose with President Kennedy at the White House, a mere 18 months before the president was assassinated.  Leonard Rose was a handsome man at 5’ 8” with slicked back black hair, prominent nose and a serious, no nonsense look.  At the back of my book, 8 appendices deal with the orchestra repertoire he performed and who conducted these works; the famous soloists with whom he collaborated – dates and repertoire; major orchestras in this country with whom he soloed – repertoire, conductor and dates; the music library he left for future generations; his complete discography – dates of recordings, conductors and critical reviews; Stratford music festival and performances with Glenn Gould; summer festivals with Roy Harris in 1948 and in 1949.  In chapter 14 – Rose’s Career Ignites – I chronicle a decade of concerts with repertoire and reviews from papers all over the country.

Q: If a reader can come away from reading your book with one valuable message, what would that be?

Naively, I grew up wanting to be a soloist – not knowing a whole lot, I wanted to be just like Leonard Rose.  That lifestyle, I firmly believed, was the quintessence of life:  glamorous, the overflow, adoring audiences, the fantastic orchestras, the famous conductors, recordings, parties, fancy limousines, hotels etc.  After reading this book, you will find that this is simply not the case.  To be the kind of soloist Leonard Rose was entailed tremendous hardship and sacrifice.  Imagine how difficult it must have been for his wife and two children (later his second wife), who needed him when he was off in some small town perfecting his craft; Rose returning to another grungy, smelly dressing room, returning to yet another middle-of-the-road hotel or awkwardly again a guest in someone else’s home.  Even worse, he probably returned to his abode hungry after concerts because not enough food was served at the obligatory receptions.  Perhaps today’s soloists are treated differently?  I don’t know.  For most of them, probably not.  The lifestyle is so very lonely…

Q: Can you give us a short excerpt?

“Well, I feel sorry for you.” And with that comment, Kates— at the time something of a cellist’s bad boy—unintentionally struck a nerve that may have epitomized the inner life of Leonard Rose. When Rose was Kates’s age, he was not exposed to a large variety of musical interpretations. In fact, Rose’s fear of and later his stilted professional relationship with his teacher, Salmond, may have circumscribed his musical adventurism. As a student, Rose would have unquestioningly practiced with a goal of perfect sound and flawless technique, yet he wouldn’t have been drawn to or curious about different interpretations the way Kates—and most cellists of the generation—did. Although Kates may have exhibited careless etiquette in his provocative dialogue, it reveals something about Leonard Rose’s emotionally rigid and precocious musical, disciplined nature that had been his motif in his teaching life to that point. The last thing Rose desired was to set free one of his most talented undergraduates. Leaving him no other option—which left the pedagogue in a state of anguish—the incident reveals Rose’s tough rigidity, or possibly his acute jealousy of Rostropovich, regarding a wide variety of interpretations perhaps reflecting on his own childhood, which lacked exposure to a diverse range of cello playing.

Q: In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today?  How did you do it?

I made a list of around 20 agents and publishers that I contacted by phone and by mail.  Some were so very nice but I always received the same kind of answer; your biography is fascinating, and well organized but we don’t think it fits well with our future plans.  Even after 8 months or so I didn’t lose hope.  Someday, I reassured myself, I was going to get this book published.  Along came Barry Beckham from Beckham Books.  His interest was immediate.  I have appreciated his staff and his expertise in the field from day one.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

I am a cellist first and foremost.  I am always practicing repertoire pertaining to symphony, chamber music and solo: unaccompanied, with piano, and concerti.  I love to perfect whatever I am working on.  Yet I have a passion for writing.  For this book, I loved meeting people and visiting the country along the way.

Q: What’s next for you?

I am researching stories about the intriguing life of the great violin-maker Antonio Stradivari.  What was he like?  What were his motivations?  How was he viewed during his lifetime?  I hope to find these answers and more.  I have a trip planned to Cremona, Italy in the summer of 2011 to see his home, where he worked, to talk with other luthiers about him. I want to hike in the forests of Tyrol and to dip my toes into the Po River where he found some of his wood.  I can’t wait.

Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Steven.  We wish you much success!

Thank you very much.  Please visit me at steven-Honigberg.com to find out more about me.

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