by James Forrest
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Fanfare Magazine, and is reposted by permission.
The American cellist James Kreger has been a figure on our musical scene for several decades. A Tchaikovsky Competition laureate, he has a large repertoire of chamber and solo music for his instrument, numerous concerto appearances to his credit, an interesting variety of commercially available recordings, and he is a member of the MET Orchestra. However he is known to another vast audience as a result of the Internet and what is referred to as social media. Many of James’s performances are posted on YouTube and listened to by thousands. As I write this, he has 5,000 Facebook friends. At the time he and I friended one another, some four years ago, that number was, if I recall correctly, under 4,000. So, his exposure has increased steadily.
If I may make a personal comment, James, you use your Facebook wall as a force to promote music: to expose your Internet audience to music, performances, recordings, and events of both current and historical merit. Tell us about this, how you began those activities and also your interests and motivations.
Thank you! Some years ago a colleague urged me to establish myself on Facebook. Initially I felt uncomfortable, due to all the negative publicity about privacy issues. Another old musician friend actually friended me, if memory serves, or at least invited me into the Facebook universe. From that moment it took me an entire year before I decided to take the plunge. I remain happy I made this decision.
One of the things I dearly miss is how friends used to get together and share recordings with one another (LPs and tapes, mostly, but occasionally the odd 78-rpm!). I remember when the CD medium was brand new and heralded as the future of recording. Friends started sharing CDs, and I remember some of us in the very beginning felt a kind of mysterious fatigue when we listened to them. There was not the kind of distortion we associate with LPs but something more intangible, as it were. A relative who was a sound engineer explained that unlike LPs, where distortion is limited to loud passages, the CD medium spreads out distortion across the entire sound spectrum, including soft passages. We don’t hear distortion, but rather feel it in the form of “listener fatigue.” He went on: “With CDs the body feels the distortion in our bones.” We know now there remained vast improvements yet to be incorporated into the CD medium. (Apologies for the digression!)
With Facebook the thing I most appreciate is the virtual worldwide audience of sharing music, mostly, and also ideas. The world is your living room, as it were, and on your virtual coffee table you share your ideas and items of interest. If you allow your posts to go public, then many people, even those who are not your friends, have the opportunity to view/listen to music you love and items of interest as well. For example, one of the most wonderful things is how people share quotes. My favorite is one by Furtwängler:
“One has to immerse oneself in a work of art; it’s a self-contained world, a world unto itself. This process is called love. It is the opposite of evaluating or comparing. It only sees the incomparable, the unique. It is this love, provoked by the work again and again, that enables us to grasp the work as a whole. And the whole is nothing other than love. Every part can be grasped by the intellect, but the whole can only be understood with this kind of love.”
A friend once photocopied the entire Furtwängler on Music book and gave it to me as a present. Several years ago I became distraught when I had misplaced it. No amount of searching turned up the book. Of course, it’s probably still lying around somewhere! Well, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to see the book, so as we know there’s nothing like the Internet to find what you’re looking for and then some! I found the book and paid a pretty penny for it as well.
This means of virtual sharing was not imagined when I was growing up on the West Coast, nor later as you entered your musically formative years at Michigan and Juilliard. I believe your interest in music started early and you were encouraged by family members. Tell us a little about that, and also what early opportunities you had for musical education.
During the 1960s, Alfred Wallenstein was one of the conductors for the AFM Congress of Strings. Along with Feuermann and Piatigorsky, he was a student of Klengel and at one time was the very great principal cellist, along with concertmaster Mishel Piastro, of the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini, and he performed under Bruno Walter as well. Piastro, a student of Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, made his Carnegie Hall début in 1920 and had toured as a soloist with Glazunov, performing the composer’s Violin Concerto with the latter on the podium. During the 1921–22 season, Piastro was chosen by Richard Strauss to perform with him in sonata and trio concerts on the composer’s only tour of the United States. On April 7, 1932, Wallenstein, Piastro, René Pollain (viola), Thomas Beecham (guest conducting), and the New York Philharmonic made what was to become a legendary recording of the Strauss Don Quixote. In the summer of 1964, during the Congress of Strings sessions, Wallenstein conducted the orchestra; Mishel Piastro also conducted and was a member of the faculty, as was Theo Salzman, student of Julius Klengel and principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg (1952–1976). Salzman, who made his début in Pittsburgh in 1954 at age 18, had been solo cellist of the Vienna Symphony in his native Austria and for 11 years played there under Richard Strauss. One day after a rehearsal, Wallenstein invited me to his hotel to play his Strad cello. One thing he told me above all stuck: “Listen to as much Lieder as possible.” That summer, when I performed the Brahms C Minor Piano Quartet, op. 60, Salzman lent me his Gofriller cello for the occasion. Piastro related some special, inspiring commentary about the grandeur and lyricism in the slow movement with the famous cello solo. That performance of the Brahms, fueled by the multiple realizations and inspirations from Wallenstein, Piastro, and Salzman, turned out to be a defining moment in my life, although I probably didn’t realize it at the time. When Wallenstein urged me to listen to as much Lieder as possible, I did that and more. Already thanks to my great uncle, a poor, Russian-Jewish bookbinder, I learned about the weekly Met Opera broadcasts. Without fail every Saturday afternoon “Pop” had the radio on in his tiny pine-paneled bedroom in my Uncle Henry’s house. The music was intoxicating and addictive and everything else you could possibly imagine! That was my entrée to the Met. When Wallenstein urged me to listen to Lieder, it took time to realize what he meant and just how important it is for any musician. The Lieder singer has no costume, scenery, etc. to lean on, as one would in the opera. For the Lieder singer everything must be produced by the voice alone, and that includes, but is not limited to, telling a story, building and contrasting characters, spinning out a musical line, acting, drama, etc. That concept of everything emanating from one’s sound would become the most important connection for me in music. It would apply to any playing I would do from then on.
My musical education started with a bunch of old 78-rpm records my mother had in our apartment. Among them were Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony; the Violin Concerto with Heifetz and Toscanini; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Hazel Scott, the jazz pianist; and others. No one played those records. One day I became curious and put Beethoven’s Fifth on the Victrola. It blew me away. I was smitten!
In grammar school I was very fortunate, as the Nashville Public School System had a band program, and also (something exceedingly rare in our present day) a string program! I was asked which instrument I’d like to learn and chose the saxophone, probably because I had heard it in the band on the WSM-TV noontime show and loved its mellow tone. I was told the school had no saxophones to lend me. Would I like to try the cello? They convinced me it also had a mellow tone similar to the saxophone. That was my beginning. Soon I started taking private cello and piano lessons. Both my cello teachers, Dorothy Withrow and later Joan Mack, a pupil of Luigi Silva, were excellent. My wonderful piano teacher was an 80-plus-year-old lady, Mrs. Henry Fulton, who had connections to a bygone era. What a tone she produced on the piano! She had an old Mason & Hamlin, considered in those days to be a very fine instrument. Occasionally at my request Mrs. Fulton would play Copland’s The Cat and the Mouse. But on other occasions, when there was more time left over at the end of our lesson, I would ask if she would please play the first movement of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. She did, and every time I was transported! At her recommendation I immediately purchased the London (now Decca) LP of the Wilhelm Backhaus rendition.
It seems to me we are in a dichotomy today, in that the technical training for instrumentalists has never been better, but the opportunities for general musical education, what used to be called “music appreciation,” are extremely limited by funding cuts - a seemingly universal situation. Your thoughts - perhaps you do not agree with my assessment of the technical level of young performers?
That’s an important question and a very difficult one to answer. “Technique” is not taught today the way it was in the past. I seriously doubt that most people understand what “technique” is. For one thing, “tempo rubato” is not understood, nor is it taught. In terms of general musical education, we must never forget that music speaks directly to the emotions.
Great music touches the emotions in an unforgettable, life changing way. One doesn’t need to be “educated” to appreciate and be moved by great music. One simply needs to be exposed to it. On the other hand, when I learned that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had instituted obligatory fine arts education in the Chicago public school system as an experiment, I couldn’t have been happier. To the best of my knowledge New York, our largest city, has yet to bring back the arts on a grand scale, and it should for the sake of all concerned! Virtually from the beginning of time history tells us the future of mankind and civilization on this earth has one hope - the arts. And the greatest of these is the universal language of music.
Now, back to “technique” and “general musical education.” It’s true that music goes straight to the gut, the emotions. When it communicates, potentially it can lift us up and transport us to another time and place: a cosmos of emotion and color. A wall, which usually has two dimensions, becomes a door opening onto infinite dimensions and layers - a universe of worlds, a world of universes. Anyone can experience this magnificence, this grandeur, with absolutely no “education,” unless of course one equates “education” with “exposure.” So you ask, what’s the key? The key is “technique.” Of whom, where, what? It’s up to the performer, the player, the one who sends the music out. If the signal is true and honest, it can reach infinity and that means just about anyone...anywhere. Here’s where words become useless. One would think that a strong signal should reach deepest, but not necessarily. The sound is the signal. Sound has layers, dimensions, colors, and ever so many more qualities. But here’s the important thing: Sound has no meaning. It just means itself. But, it does have a certain quality that can and often does elicit meaning in the beholder, the listener.
You had the benefit of work not only with various cellists, most notably your mentor and teacher, Harvey Shapiro, but also exposure to a great number of musicians (including Serkin on piano, Casals on cello, and Szigeti on violin), who coached and critiqued. I recall you were at Marlboro, and also had opportunities for what we might call postgraduate work in Europe. But really, those were performance opportunities, real music-making. Those influences take the technical expertise and meld them with artistic development, do they not?
Of course they do.
With that in mind, since chamber music has been a major part of your musical and performing life, would you care to discuss how playing with other musicians influences your own performances? I think readers would be interested in your thoughts of that influence in chamber works, but also some thoughts on orchestral playing, and, of course, anything you might wish to say about conductors. You are readily available in print on the subject of Carlos Kleiber, but perhaps you have some more general thoughts on the influence of a conductor in operatic and symphonic performance.
Playing chamber music is the most wonderful thing about being a musician. It is the essence of music and music making. Even if one is not playing “chamber music,” per se, one still is playing chamber music! No matter what one does, be it playing as a member of a string quartet, or of an orchestra, or even as a soloist, at one’s absolute best one is always playing chamber music. The “chamber music connection” is what ultimately elevates any musical performance to its highest level, including in the orchestra and opera. When the right combination of players gets together, wonderful things can and invariably do happen. In the orchestra, depending upon which players one is sitting next or near to, chamber music and consequently magnificent music-making often transpires. Players feed off each other, as it were. It doesn’t matter if they are sitting near each other, though. When one hears beautiful, inspiring playing from another player sitting on the other side of the orchestra, chamber music dialogue can still be triggered. The great conductors find a way to “invite” the orchestra to join them in what is essentially chamber music in the best sense of the word. A conductor must never get in the way of the players’ natural sense of listening to each other, “singing” a musical line or other maximum expression. The minute a conductor inflicts his will upon an orchestra or tries to stop/crush the natural group emotion, or, God forbid (!), the orchestra’s own internal group pulse, disastrous results may occur. I remember a famous conductor once discouraging “Romantic expression” in the orchestra. Loud/soft, fast/slow, etc. was fine, but “emotion” to him made the music sentimental, which he wanted to avoid. Unfortunately, the final result was nothing but boring.
Often some players think they like a conductor very much, because he lets them play but discourages what he calls “sentimentality,” only to realize later they haven’t made music at all. They feel very “comfortable,” but that’s about it. Usually, when music has been made, people in attendance feel it. The most important thing in music - and indeed in all creative expression - is to elicit an emotional response in the listener, the beholder. An exciting and impressive performance, but one with little depth of honesty of expression, will soon be forgotten.
I know that you enjoy playing in the MET Orchestra. It is my impression that although you teach, it has not been a major element of your professional life. Do I err? And do you have any future plans or goals in that regard?
Yes, I love playing in the MET Orchestra. At its best it’s grand chamber music. Vis à vis that connection, something very special happened recently in our final orchestra concert this season at Carnegie Hall. The program included the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D Minor, op. 15. James Levine conducted. The soloist was the superb artist Yefim Bronfman. In the relatively short but concise slow movement, marked Adagio, there is an extremely beautiful and quiet moment a little more than halfway through. I’ve performed the piece a number of times but only now had this realization. Brahms gives the strings a slow almost step-like pianissimo passage with unique harmonies enveloping a diminished chord. In all our rehearsals this moment brought such tears that I was unable to see the music, but somehow I played the part from memory. What was going on? Why now and not before? The strings played the pianissimi as if they had lived countless times the most spiritual moments at the end of Wagner’s Parsifal. I felt as if I had been lifted up to Heaven and the strings were the angels slowly marching with reverence toward the altar of God. The way in which the strings of the MET Orchestra played the pianissimi felt as if we were transported to some elevated plain, and somehow we all were celebrants in a quiet epiphany. This kind of moment only happens when everyone is connected, like a great string quartet. It takes years and thousands of hours of playing/living the music together as one. I was thinking to myself when all this was happening: Only the MET Orchestra can play this passage with such quiet transport, the way it should be played, because so many times we all have lived through Parsifal. But the most amazing thing is that the section in the Brahms I refer to seems to be an exact copy of that most spiritual epiphanic moment at the end of Parsifal. The notes, rhythm, harmonies are amazingly identical.
But the Brahms came first! Wagner must have heard the Concerto, op. 15, which received its first performance in 1859. Is it possible - even probable - that Wagner recognized something special about the passage in question and jotted it down in a sketchbook perhaps? He probably had already begun writing Parsifal, which took him 30 years to complete. As is usually the case with such moving moments in my experiences with the MET Orchestra, by the time the concert rolls around, I retain the feeling from that special moment in the rehearsals, but the tears disappear, and I am finally able to see the music.
Teaching has occupied a significant part of my life. For several years I was Leonard Rose’s assistant at Juilliard, although at that time teaching was just too new for me to make a respectable contribution. When I began studying with Harvey Shapiro, a relationship of four decades ensued. During that time I believe I became more aware of the fine points and intricacies of what teaching is all about. Shapiro appointed me his “assistant” early on (although he always preferred to call me his “associate”). I taught at Juilliard for 30 years.
James, to conclude, I would like to touch on a topic you and I have discussed now and then, another impact from changes in the way music is distributed. As discs have moved from 78-rpm to LP to CD and now to forms of technology that do not need discs as an intervening medium, so broadcast presentation has changed. The AM broadcasts of the old Met and symphonic broadcasts improved with FM technology, but now are online: such outlets as SIRIUS, HDTV, and of course the amazingly successful Met cinecasts in theaters. Those have definitely changed the sound, due to both use of microphones and also the greater frequency response of today’s equipment.
Here’s the thing: Old time radio broadcasts especially, but even the old telecasts by their very nature, somehow provided a greater vent to our imagination. Today recorded sound and video have advanced to such a degree of clarity and accuracy that there is less room for the imagination.
I find, often, that in old broadcasts, while the sound could not be described as “better,” we often get a more individual sense of a voice or an instrument and its relation to the total aural image. Of course it is entirely possible that this sense is emphasized by the fact that the experience on screen brings us closer to the performers than when sitting in the hall. Another factor is that any microphone pick-up is a constructed thing and not the same as in the hall.
I agree. Furthermore, I don’t know how much I support the idea of trying to make recorded sound replicate the sound of a concert hall. Regarding HD, when video and music are combined, we are essentially being told by the producer how to conceive of the performance at hand. The greatest producers will make every effort to remain faithful to the composer’s intent, thus allowing space for multifaceted interpretation and meaning, even ambiguity. That quality by its nature may provide tremendous staying power, thus eliminating a need for the constant new “flavor of the month.” The greatest art, the classics, stand the test of time largely because they possess in their DNA infinite variety of expression and depth of meaning, a monument to the grandeur of man.