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A Cellist, On the Line
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on January 7, 1998. All rights reserved.
Sure, it’s pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s show when he solos
in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 to open the New Jersey Symphony
three-week Brahms festival. The four-movement work is a compendium
of pianistic difficulties that might slip by unnoticed, so well does
the music flow. The demanding piano part exists within a relatively
Yet pianist Ohlsson is not the only instrumentalist who faces a
part in the concerto. The piece opens with a horn solo. Principal
hornist Lucinda Lewis bears the unforgiving responsibility not only
of getting a sometimes finicky instrument to work, but getting it
to do its job at precisely the right moment. And in the third
a solo cello comes to the fore, providing one of the most richly
and hummable passages in the concerto. Principal cellist Jonathan
Spitz puts himself and his performing skills on the line at that time.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), conducted by Music Director
Zdenek Macal, pairs the piano concerto with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.
The program is set for Thursday, January 8, at 8 p.m., in New
State Theater. It will also be given on Saturday, January 10, at 8
p.m., and on Sunday, January 11, at 3 p.m., at Newark’s New Jersey
Performing Arts Center. Within a three-week period the NJSO mounts
all four of Brahms’ symphonies, as well as his concerto for violin,
the piano concerto, and the New Jersey premiere of David Noon’s
Fugit, Vivat Brahms." The programs fall within 12-month observance
of the 100th anniversary of Brahms’ death in April, 1897.
In a telephone interview from his Tenafly home, cellist Spitz explains
that the cello solo in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 has loomed large
in his life. "It was a crucial part of my history in getting my
current position," he says. Spitz played the Brahms concerto
when he auditioned to join the orchestra in 1984. He played it again
in 1991, when he auditioned for the position of acting principal
and then once again in 1994, when he auditioned for the permanent
post of principal cellist. (The older name for the cello, the
seems to be making a comeback, part of the period intrument movement.)
"We learn the solo to play for the audition," says Spitz.
"At the audition you play it by yourself. Then it’s a new and
different experience to play it in the context of an orchestra. It’s
more inspiring to play with a piano soloist."
"The cello solo is nostalgic," says Spitz. "Brahms has
a sad, dark quality. Though the solo is not underlyingly tragic, it’s
suited to the dark sound of the cello. When I think of the Brahms’
solo cello part, maybe `deep’ is a good word to describe it. What’s
nice about playing Brahms is that he understood the voice of each
instrument so well. The thing that makes the solo easy is that all
I have to do is to make my instrument sound like a cello while in
some cases the instrument has to sound like a human voice, or make
the sounds of nature.
"It’s the most famous cello solo in the repertoire," Spitz
says. "There’s not a principal cello in a major orchestra in the
world who hasn’t had to play that excerpt in an audition." He
describes as "standard orchestral audition fare" for cellists,
in addition to the Brahms piano concerto solo, a passage from Richard
Strauss’ "Don Quixote," and one from Giacomo Rossini’s
Tell Overture." Beyond that, Spitz says, orchestras tend to have
divergent requirements. Orchestral auditions for all string
he notes, always include an excerpt from a Brahms symphony or
Now 39, Spitz grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He remembers his
a pianist, playing recitals with a cellist when he was very young.
"I first saw the instrument when I was five," Spitz says,
"and I couldn’t stop talking about it. There was no Suzuki in
those days." Spitz’s interest in cello precedes the widespread
use of the Suzuki method developed in Japan, where children begin
their study of string instruments as toddlers, and a five-year-old
is classified as an older beginner. "I was given a cello when
I was seven," Spitz says, "and was always real eager about
it. By the time I was 14, I knew that was where I had to go."
Spitz studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, the
crucible of instrumental performers. He spent three summers at
the Vermont chamber music haven begun by pianist Rudolf Serkin, who
for many years was head of Curtis. Except for a three-year hiatus,
he has been a member of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra since 1988.
He made his New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital
Hall in 1990 as winner of the Artists International Competition.
"I’ve always been open to anything that crosses my path that seems
interesting in ways not necessarily limited to the cello," Spitz
says. He has looked into various mind-body works over the last 15
years — self-hypnosis, yoga and sensory awareness, a practice
of German origin. "Yoga is part of my life," he says.
Spitz is an avid golfer.
Principal cellist of the NJSO since 1991, Spitz describes his duties,
first and foremost, as deciding on bowings. In other words, he works
out whether the members of the cello section should draw their bow
across the strings of the instrument, "downbow," pulling away
from their body, or "upbow," pushing toward their body. The
sound is slightly different when the direction changes, with downbow
generally sounding stronger and upbow generally sounding lighter.
Sometimes, for effect, string players use a succession of upbows,
or of downbows. For a uniform sound within the section all players
must move their bows in the same direction. Consistent bow directions
within an instrumental section contribute more to a consistent sound
than do uniform right hand fingerings or playing in the same place
on one of a string instrument’s four strings, or even playing on the
same string. In developing bowings Spitz coordinates with the other
string principals, to produce the desired musical effects.
"Working out the bowings is very time consuming," Spitz says.
"We cover so much repertoire in a season. There are a lot of
in music in our library, but if it’s not something I went over
in the past, I like to reconsider."
As he looks over Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, which appears on the second
of the three NJSO Brahms festival programs, Spitz marvels at the
of the task. "It’s remarkable to me," he says, "how
it is to work out the bowing in terms of rhythm, intonation, and
because of the way Brahms writes the part technically. He’s similar
to Beethoven: every note in every part is important; there’s no
Brahms is very full. He’s contrapuntal and dense. A lot is happening
in all the different voices. You have to play your part in a way to
make it clear, but in a way so it doesn’t obliterate the other parts.
It’s a lot like playing chamber music. But fortunately there’s a
in whom we have a lot of faith to guide us through. While each of
us has a vision of the piece, it’s important to commit oneself to
playing the conductor’s version.
"Bowings differ with different conductors," Spitz says.
wants a rich, cantabile sound, so with him you need to use more bow
than with some conductors." To make the full, singing sound that
Macal desires, the bow must be drawn over the string more quickly
than for a flightier sound. When the bow is moved more quickly, the
player reaches its extremes earlier than when the bow is moved more
slowly, and a change of direction from upbow to downbow, or vice
must be made relatively frequently.
Macal’s musical taste affects bowing in another way,
Spitz explains. For him, there is a big difference between a passage
marked "piano," meaning "soft," or
meaning "very soft." "With Macal," says Spitz,
is very soft, but `piano’ has a big range. `Piano’ is soft, but not
wispy or too delicate. Macal’s `piano’ uses more bow than many
so you have to change bow more frequently."
Selecting bowings is only one of the tasks of the principal, says
Spitz. "It’s a more amorphous thing," he adds. "It’s hard
to define. You’re really concerned with getting unanimity of phrasing
within the section. And you have to work at integrating the section
effectively into the orchestra. Sometimes the cellos accompany a
wind passage, sometimes they take charge of the orchestra. You must
be responsive to what the orchestra is doing, and what the conductor
wants. The artistic guidance for a section is subservient to the
needs, but it’s still a leadership role.
Spitz has learned that the cello section of which he is the principal
is considered one of the strongest in the country. "I get that
feedback from guest conductors who’ve been around," he explains.
As principal, Spitz also has tenure. Tenure is awarded after two years
in the position. "If I start to do a lousy job, they could get
rid of me," Spitz says, "but there has to be a strong
Seating within the NJSO is a matter of permanent assignment, with
more accomplished players occupying chairs at the front of the
While skill, not seniority, determines the seating, players who sit
further back in the section are not permitted to challenge higher
ranked instrumentalists for their seat, as happens in summer music
In addition to his position at the NJSO, Spitz performs with other
orchestras, among them Orpheus, the chamber orchestra spotlighted
on public television recently. "Orpheus is a great education
there’s no conductor," says Spitz. "We each bring our vision
of a piece to the orchestra, but you have to move the rehearsal
along, and not just use rehearsal as an ego trip. Orpheus has affected
how I handle being principal of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
The responsibilities are similar. You learn a certain combination
of leadership and autonomy. With Macal there’s always a sense of
but he brings much flexibility to romantic music. My experience in
Orpheus reinforces the skills you need to keep a good sense of time,
but stay flexible."
Spitz maintains flexible boundaries about the repertoire he plays.
"The range of music I deal with," he says, "is the best
part of my life. It’s so big, it’s impossible to have any sense of
boredom or routine. The more that I do, the richer I feel
I love the standard orchestral repertoire, and my pleasure has
as I continue to play it. I love the chamber repertoire and the
works I play with Orpheus."
In 1995, Spitz soloed with vocalist Bobby McFerrin at the NJSO
of a Vivaldi concerto for two cellos, an event difficult to classify.
Spitz played his cello; McFerrin vocalized the second cello part.
Spitz delighted in performing with McFerrin. "It was a tremendous
feat vocally," he says. "It didn’t sound like two cellos.
It gave greater clarity to the counterpoint. I loved the flexibility
that was forced on me. We had one rehearsal and had to sound like
we were playing the same piece."
Last season Spitz enjoyed himself as soloist with the NJSO in the
Dvorak cello concerto. "It was an opportunity to make my own
about a piece that is a standard part of the repertoire. I felt
and fired up"
Spitz is also cellist with the Leonardo Trio. His wife, Erica
a freelance violinist active in New York, joins him in the ensemble,
along with pianist Cameron Grant. Kiesewetter comes from a long line
of violinists with an ancestor in Schubert’s circle. At the turn of
the century, an ancestor’s Stradivarius violin became known as the
Kiesewetter Stradivarius; it is now played by Russian violinist Maxim
Spitz’s six-year-old daughter, Gabriela, plays cello
and studies with a Tenafly teacher. "I practice with her, but
I don’t pressure her," says Spitz. "I never say a word to
her about cello that her teacher hasn’t said." Son Sebastian,
age two, Spitz reports, "gets very excited when we start
cello. My wife and I will try to steer him away from the cello,"
Watching his young daughter at the cello helps Spitz identify what
he considers to be the hardest characteristic of the instrument —
what he calls, "the changes over time as one’s skill level
"First of all," he says, "it’s hard to draw the bow so
you get a clean sound. The next obstacle is playing in tune on an
instrument that has no frets, no guideposts. It becomes a combination
of muscle memory, being guided by your ears, and a certain amount
of luck. The idea is to try to make luck as small a factor as
The chief difficulty in cello is shifting from low to high on one
string." In other words, the problem is to slide downwards along
the string, stopping at precisely the point that will produce the
Spitz has developed a method for accomplishing this. With luck,
Gabriela’s teacher will explain it to her so Spitz can pursue the
matter when he practices with her. "It’s sort of like Zen and
the Art of Archery," Spitz says. "You have to have a very
strong focus on the target note. You need an image in your mind of
the pitch, and a memory of what that note feels like. You need to
practice the note you’re shifting to, where your shoulders and arms
are, and what the vibrato feels like. You need a good awareness of
what your bow is doing. It’s important not to be too preoccupied with
how to get from point A to point B. That can make the target foggy.
The mechanics of the shift are secondary to your awareness of the
target. What I like about this method is that it works under pressure.
The way I articulate it is my own, but I suspect that it’s an amalgam
of many people’s ideas."
Like the smooth big cello solo in the Brahms Piano Concerto, mastering
Spitz’s shifting technique is not as easy as it appears. "It takes
a half hour to explain it," he says, "and a year to get
— Elaine Strauss
State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. Featured artist is Garrick
Ohlsson on piano performing the Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major. $10
to $48. Thursday, January 8, 8 p.m.
State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. Violinist Gil Shaham is
featured in Brahms’ Concerto in D Major. $12 to $52. Thursday,
January 15, 8 p.m.
State Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. Zdenek Macal conducts
Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 3. $10 to $48. Saturday, January
31, 8 p.m.
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