Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Blogger: Steven Honigberg, Author of Leonard Rose: America's Golden Age and Its First Cellist

Today's guest blogger is Steven Honigberg, author of Leonard Rose: America's Golden Age and Its First Cellist.

Leonard Rose (1918 – 1984) the great American cellist, was considered one of the most important teachers and musicians of the twentieth century.

Author Steven Honigberg, who studied at The Juilliard School from 1979 to 1984 in Leonard Rose’s final class, examines the multifaceted American artist and the classical music context dominating Rose’s twentieth century.

This eagerly awaited biography portrays a complex individual during a period of tremendous individualism. Honigberg explores 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.

Meeting an Idol by Steven Honigberg

I was 16 years old, visiting my friend in Michigan AND hearing my idol, the great American cellist, Leonard Rose, with the Lansing Symphony performing Dvorak’s magnificent cello concerto. I was terribly excited. I had only heard and seen him on record covers, and I was in awe. His music-making spoke to me in mysterious ways. At home in Chicago, I had worn out several records of his, trying to fashion my style like his: long bows, lovely vibrato, both of which produced scores of luscious colors.

His walk on stage was confident. I was breathless for a moment immediately struck by how handsome he looked as he adjusted the endpin of his unique 17th-century Amati cello on the raised platform in front of the large audience. His trail blazing beautiful round, smooth sound and accurate technique struck me. Little did I know that he had just 5 years to live and that I was hearing him at the tail end of his superb career. Unexpectedly an oboe missed an entrance toward the end of the second movement, only to have Mr. Rose play the missed woodwind entrance himself. Clever move – as if he had done this before. Backstage, heart fluttering, in an unattractive fluorescent light-filled room, I approached him. I could barely speak as he put out his cigarette into a Styrofoam cup, slightly burning his hand in the process.

“What?” he asked me.

“That was wonderful,” I stammered. “My name is Steven Honigberg, and I will be playing for you tomorrow. Where shall we meet?”

The next day from 2.5 feet he listened to me play for 20 minutes. I can’t remember what I played or whether I played well. I just remember his encouraging words to come to Juilliard right away to study with him. How could I? In 4 months? I had one more year of school remaining at Highland Park High School.

The audition studio at Juilliard was filled with smoke and with illustrious cellists: Claus Adam, Lynn Harrell, Channing Robbins, Harvey Shapiro and Leonard Rose. After I played I received a note that I had succeeded in getting into the school and that I was expected to become a  "great player."

"The more you learn about the cello and the miracle of great music, the more you will want to learn. We must always strive for perfection, knowing that perfection is almost impossible.”

It was written by hand and signed by Leonard Rose. It was the start of something special and at times somewhat frustrating. Leonard Rose was a famous artist, which meant that he still performed around the world. He was at Juilliard to teach yet he heard me infrequently. His personality was tough to figure – once he invited me to his house to try bows and the next instant the date was cancelled. One time he played on the stage of Carnegie Hall with a student from the class – that was not me. He was generous, complimentary, passionate, insecure, cynical, and bitter. I was young and didn’t have the capacity to sort it all out. All through these moments I never forgot who the Master was, sitting 2.5 feet in front of me.

As 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

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