Bernard Greenhouse: Cellist who was one of the finest chamber players of his generation and co-founded the Beaux Arts Trio
Wednesday 25 May 2011
The cellist Bernard Greenhouse was one of the most distinguished chamber music players of his generation. A founder member of the celebrated Beaux Arts Trio in 1955, he stayed with them until 1987. He was also a fine teacher, who held professorships at many universities in the US; he made many highly successful recordings and gave master-classes world-wide right up until his death.
Greenhouse was born in Newark, New Jersey into a family where music was ever-present. His three older brothers played piano, violin and flute, so he had no choice but to accept his father's command to play cello. He had his first lessons aged nine and fell in love with the sound of the instrument. He attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he was a pupil of Felix Salmond, the British cellist who emigrated to the US after the disastrous first performance of the Elgar Concerto which had been written for him. Greenhouse then spent two years with the legendary Emanuel Feuermann, who he found "very demanding" but who gave him just what he needed in terms of handling the instrument.
Greenhouse then embarked upon a successful professional career. He was Principal Cellist with the CBS Symphony Orchestra from 1938-1942 and also a member of the Dorian String Quartet from 1939 until 1942 – the year that changed his life.
Feuermann's early death had left him without a teacher, and in 1942, when the US entered the Second World War, he joined the Navy, with whom he served for three years as Principal Cellist of the US Navy Symphony Orchestra and member of the Navy String Quartet. After the war he began studies with Diran Alexanian, a student of Pablo Casals and one of the most controversial teachers of his time. Greenhouse did not agree with all his ideas but for the most part he felt his studies with him had been of great value. He considered Alexanian to be "a musical genius and pedagogue, but not a good cellist." The two became close friends and shared many interests, including an appreciation of fine food. Alexanian would never take a fee from Greenhouse, so in order to repay him he would take him on gourmet tours throughout Europe.
In 1946 he achieved his ambition to meet Casals, the icon of all cellists. After many fruitless attempts, Le Maître, as he was known, finally agreed to hear Greenhouse provided he donated $100 to the Spanish Refugee Fund. The outcome was two years' study with Casals – Greenhouse was one of the first of many who had tried to study with the great man and he remained eternally grateful for the opportunity. He told me: "I think I learnt from Casals that music is creative, not a question of repetition."
He cited an example of how Casals made him learn one of the Bach solo suites indicating precise bowings, fingerings, dynamics and phrasing. He gave him three weeks in which to learn it from memory. When he played it with every detail just as the master had ordered, Casals told him to change every phrasing, dynamic, fingering and bowing. Greenhouse was completely floored. "I was astonished that the man could remember for weeks what he had told me and then change everything just to show me that playing a Bach suite was a creative process."
From this point Greenhouse followed an active solo career, and in his New York recitals he always tried to include a first performance of a work by a modern composer. But chamber music was always an important part of his musical life; he was a member of the Harpsichord Quartet from 1947-51 and the Bach Aria Group from 1948-76. He told me: "I enjoyed many years of solo playing, but I did not feel I was the sort of person who could be satisfied with the very limited repertoire and at the same time meet the demands in that field. I was very keen to explore the quartet literature and for many years I played in many ensembles, one of which was with the violinist Oscar Shumsky. We also played the Brahms Double Concerto together."
It was in 1955 at the Tanglewood Summer School that the group that would achieve international fame as the Beaux Arts Trio started quite casually. Three soloists, the pianist Menahem Pressler, violinist Daniel Guilet and Greenhouse on cello got together for their own pleasure. They then undertook a few performances while still following their solo careers, but when Columbia Artists asked them to play in a series of 10 concerts which eventually extended to 80 in a season, they decided to establish the group officially. At the time there were only a few quartets on the main concert circuit, so to make a living with a trio was thought to be impossible.
Following their success in the US they decided to try their luck in Europe. However, when they played at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 1958 to an audience of only 300, the critics were not impressed, one describing them as "a pale trio". Fortunately, on this occasion the critics were proved wrong. They subsequently played all over the world, giving some 130 concerts a year in the US alone, as well as making numerous recordings. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in 1985 and two years later Greenhouse retired to devote more time to teaching.
He had always found time for teaching. Over the years he held professorships at the Julliard and Manhattan schools of music in New York; State University of New York, Stony Brook; New England Conservatory of Music, Boston; Rutgers School of Music at the State University of New Jersey; and as visiting professor at the Indiana University School of Music at Bloomington.
Bernard Greenhouse had a warm outgoing personality and was well-liked by his colleagues. He enjoyed taking part in congresses and any events where he could meet up with his fellow cellists. Many years ago I asked him what he would do when he retired and without hesitation, he replied: "I would like to start a cello colony for people who have finished their doctoral or master's programme at university to have somewhere where they can settle down and practise their instrument. I'm planning to have eight or 10 cellists come to work during the winter. They would have the chance of being in a lovely setting which I think would be a little different from teaching at university, where students have the problem of working on five or six academic subjects besides their music. I would be available for advice and there would be a pianist in residence."
He finally realised that ambition and always kept an open house for any cellist wishing a lesson who was prepared to make the trip to his town of Wellfleet in Massachusetts. When I last spoke to him he said, "They have to be adventurists to come to my home, but for me it means less travel and I still keep contact with the young talents. During my so-called retirement, I have never asked for tuition fees since my long playing career has brought me all the comforts I need."
Greenhouse was the recipient of many awards including the PrixMondial du Disque, Union de la Presse Musicale Belge, Gramophone Record of the Year and Stereo Record of the Year. He received the American String Teachers Association Teacher ofthe Year Award in 1982; the USPresidential Citation in 1982, the US Presidential Medallion 1985 and was awarded an honorary Doctorate at the State University of New York, Stony Brook in 1988.
Bernard Greenhouse, cellist and teacher: born Newark, New Jersey 3 January 1916; married Aurora de la Luz Fernandez y Menendez (died 2006; two daughters); died Wellfleet, Massachusetts 13 May 2011.
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