Pianist  Carol  Honigberg
==  and  ==
Cellist  Steven  Honigberg

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Carol Honigberg received her master's degree in Piano Performance, at Northwestern University and her bachelor's at Roosevelt University. A few of her significant teachers and mentors include former teachers Rudolph Ganz, Cecile Genhardt, and Marguerite Long in Paris, France. She was formerly a Professor of Piano at Roosevelt University, and is currently the Artistic Director of the Pilgrim Chamber Players.

Ms. Honigberg has had the honor of performing numerous solo and chamber concerts throughout Europe and the United States, including Alice Tully Hall. Some of her solo appearances were with the Lake Forest Symphony, Grant Park Symphony, Highland Park Strings, and Chicago Chamber Orchestra. In addition to her performances in various concert halls and theater venues, she has also had the privilege to play live recitals on the Dame Myra Hess Recital Series at the Chicago Cultural Center.

She also has several recordings which include a 20th Century piano recital on the Pavane label, Beethoven Cello Sonatas and Variations, and Complete Works by Chopin for Cello and Piano with Steven Honigberg on the Albany label.

*     *     *     *     *

Steven Honigberg, hired by former Music Director Mstislav Rostropovich, joined the National Symphony Orchestra in 1984. That same year he presented his New York debut recital in Carnegie Recital Hall and performed Strauss's Don Quixote with the Juilliard Orchestra in Alice Tully Hall. In 1988, rave reviews accompanied the world premiere of David Ott's Concerto for Two Cellos performed with the National Symphony, Rostropovich conducting. The NSO programmed the work on two subsequent United States tours.

Mr. Honigberg is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music where he studied with Leonard Rose and Channing Robbins. Other mentors include Pierre Fournier and Maurice Gendron. In Chicago (his home town) he has appeared at the Ravinia Festival, and as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ars Viva Orchestra, Lake Forest Symphony, and New Philharmonic Orchestra among others. He appeared most recently as soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2008 in a performance at the Kennedy Center of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Cello Concerto.

From 1990 to 2009, Honigberg was principal cellist and chamber music director of the Edgar M. Bronfman series in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was featured as soloist with the summer symphony in concerti by Barber, Bartok, Bloch, Boccherini, Dvořák, Elgar, Goldschmidt, Haydn, Korngold, Popper, Saint-Saëns, Schumann, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Walton. In the summer of 2014, Mr. Honigberg was professor of cello in an International Course of study in Valbonne Sophia Antipolis, France. Honigberg is a member of Gerard Schwarz's All-Star Orchestra, which in August 2012 convened in New York City to record 8 one-hour programs for PBS television. He is also a member of the Smithsonian Chamber Society, the Phillips Camerata, and VERGE ensemble. As an author, in 2010 his first book was Leonard Rose: America's Golden Age and Its First Cellist. Honigberg performs on a Lorenzo Storioni cello made in Cremona in 1789.

Having known of the Pilgrim Chamber Players, it was a great pleasure for me to meet the Artistic Director, Carol Honigberg.  She had made a few solo recordings, and in the fall of 1993, when she and her son, Steven, were about to issue a CD set of the Beethoven Sonatas and Variations, it was the perfect excuse for an interview with them both.  I was able to use portions of the conversation a few times on WNIB, Classical 97, and later on WNUR.  Now the entire interview has been transcribed and posted on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie
:   This is very nice to be able to chat with both of you.  You maintain separate careers, and yet you come together whenever you can?

Steven Honigberg:   We make a point of coming together a few times a year.  We’re doing some recording projects together, so we’re using some of these concerts as preparation for some of the projects we’re trying to do.

BD:   Is there a huge difference between playing for a record and playing for an audience?

Carol Honigberg:   In a way, yes.  Not so much the playing, but the way you think about it.  You listen much differently.  You’re listening extremely intensely.

honigberg Steven:   They’re different experiences, and there are pleasures in both.  Performing gives you immediate gratification.  You’re striving for perfection, but in a recording you have a chance to do it over a few times.  Then you’re sure to get it.  You could make a mistake, stop, and start again, so as long as your time is lasting in the studio, you can keep doing it.

BD:   In performance, if you make a mistake, then that’s it and it’s just there, but it’s part of the fabric?

Carol:   Right.  You don’t focus in on the mistake, you focus in on the overall line.  You don’t stop and say,
Whoops!  You can’t do that.

BD:   Then how much of the overall line can you expect out of the recording, which you have cut-and-pieced together?

Carol:   That’s the trick.   I don’t know [laughs] but that’s what you’re striving for.  You hope that you maintain the overall line absolutely.

Steven:   Even when we record with the National Symphony, it’s not as easy as people think.  We don
t just start the orchestra and expect this fabulous finished product.  It’s grueling.  You play ten minutes, you break for twenty, then come back and play for five or ten or fifteen more, and break again.  The players have no idea what’s going on.  We’re just being used by the company and the conductor, and the finished product is marvelous.

BD:   Is there any correlation between what you’d do on a record and what you would do in the practice room, when you are learning a little passage, and getting that right, and later fitting it into the rest of the fabric?

Carol:   I don’t associate it with practicing at all, no.

BD:   I mean about the stopping and starting?

Carol:   You stop and start to listen.  Someone is listening, but actually that’s not how we record a solo album.  For the orchestra it’s a different thing, but we play it straight through.  We do not do it in little sections.

Steven:   We do it straight through, and then we do little sections.  But what’s nice about recording with the duo is that you hear a marvelous sound.  The engineer has put together these mikes, and you sound like a million dollars.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  In today’s economy, is that good or bad?  [Much laughter]

Carol:   Part of recording is setting up the sound, and sometimes it takes the engineer an hour and half to get it right.  That’s a lot of time.  So, we’re waiting around, and doing practice things for him to set up the sound.  It’s really an interesting experience.

Steven:   We don’t just have one mike.  It’s a couple of mikes, and it’s positioning yourself.  Often we’re not seated together.  We’re very far apart because you want to get the separate voices getting on tape in a great way.  Then, when there is a certain sound from the ceiling, or a crack here and there, you have to stop.  We’re at the mercy of the corners in which we’re recording.

BD:   Staying with ideas of the sound just a little bit more, is the engineer trying to recreate what you would hear if you were sitting in the best seat in the house, or does he try to get something that is completely different?

Steven:   That’s a good description.  The best seat in the house would be a clear sound of each instrument, where you are able to decipher who has a melody.  Thinking about it now, it could be even better than the best seat in the house to get the ideal sound.  You could be sitting in the best seat in the house at Orchestra Hall, or at the Kennedy Center, and you may not hear a certain solo coming out in the winds with the brass.  Whatever it is about the recording, you will get to hear that solo because the engineers will make sure you do.  So, it
s even better than in a concert.

BD:   Better than the best?

Steven:   Perhaps, but it lacks the excitement of seeing the performers.

BD:   Is there an ideal sound?

Carol:   On recordings, or live?  You probably know that better than we do, because you’re listening to recordings all the time.

BD:   I try to get to lots of performances to balance that, but let’s explore this a little bit.  Is there a certain specific sound that you’re trying to get to, or are you trying to make it something that will be a little different for all the different people?

Carol:   No, balance is really what we’re trying for, so that you hear the instruments.  The piano doesn’t overpower the cello in this case.

Steven:   It
s also the dynamics.  The perfect situation is to capture the instruments dynamically at their best.  The softest sounds will be heard, and the loudest will sounds will be very present.  That’s difficult to do, because often you hear a recitalist or instrumentalist, and you will hear a wash of sound as if the microphone is far away.  We don’t want that, because our recording is more present.  There’s more presence in the instruments.  It’s what I like.  My ideal sound is having a presence.  You can hear the cello breathing.  You can hear the attacks, the changes of vibrato, and perhaps its closer than some like it.  Some people just like to be a little bit further away.

*     *     *     *     *

honigberg BD:   Now you’re recording the Beethoven material.  Is this even better than the sound Beethoven would have imagined?

Carol:   Not necessarily.  If he heard it in any small or large salon, hopefully it would be the same sound.

Steven:   He’d like it.

Carol:   He’d love it!  [Laughs]

Steven:   He’d like this sound, honestly.  Of course, the cello in those days had gut strings, and there were softer hues in the piano, so it was much quieter.  My emphasis is to play this kind of music in modern style, not trying to recapture how it was played when it was written.

BD:   Do you feel that Beethoven would prefer to have it on a modern cello and a Steinway, rather than a fortepiano and gut-strung cello?

Steven:   Right.
 Many cellists ignore the sets of variations of 1796.  They’re just charming, and I don’t know why they discount them.  Maybe they think they’re trivial-sounding, but they’re just lovely in a concert.  He studied the variation form all his life, and he loved them.

Carol:   Oh, he loved them!  That was the era when pianists would improvise on a theme.  That was part of their technique, so it was just very normal for him to do that.

BD:   Then, do you think he would progress into the Twentieth Century, and maybe even into the Twenty-First Century?

Steven:   I think he’d like this kind of sound because it’s more universal now.  Everyone is learning from the professors in the schools, and from conductors that come by.  They’re learning this kind of style, so it’s more universally accepted.  There is a cellist, Anner Bylsma, who plays on his Baroque instruments.  I don’t know if he plays Beethoven, but I know he plays Boccherini and Haydn, and all sorts of others.  I don’t know if Beethoven would have as much power on those softer-sounding instruments.  Jean-Louis Duport (1749-1819) was the most influential cellist at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, and he influenced Beethoven and the way he wrote for the cello in his 1815 sonatas.

BD:   Let me ask the same question about the piano.  When do we get into the era of the modern Steinway?

Carol:   It's when the iron frame was invented, between 1820 and 1830.  It held the strings so they didn’t break.  It was right at the end of Beethoven
s life, and it made a big difference.

BD:   Do you adjust your playing, knowing that Beethoven wanted
or at least wrote fora slightly smaller instrument than the one you’re playing?

Carol:   Beethoven was a very progressive composer, and he would have loved the modern piano.  That’s my feeling, and for a pianist it’s for us to get as many colors and degrees of gradation that we can.

BD:   Now I asked the question a minute ago if there’s an ideal sound.  Let me change the question around a little bit to the music portion.  Is there an ideal way to play Beethoven, or Boccherini, or Haydn, or any of these great composers?

Steven:   My ideal way would be the most personalized way I can present a piece on my own terms and in my own way.  What I don’t like, as a cellist, is when I hear a musician playing a sonata with very little personality.  They play what’s on the page, what’s in the dynamics and the markings, and they’ll do what the music says, but without putting a tremendous amount of himself or herself into it.

BD:   So the notes and markings on the page are just the beginning, not the end?

Steven:   Yes, just the beginning, but many people take that, and those people seem to do very nicely.  It’s the ones that have the intense personalities that try to put a little bit more into it that have big success.  I’m not saying we’re looking for that kind of success, but it’s much more pleasing to sit down and practice every day because you’re looking for something new every day.  I’ve never come to a decision that,
“This is how I’m going to play this Beethoven sonata, period!  Every day I look at it and say, “Maybe I can do something different here, and so you drive yourself crazy.  [Both laugh]  That’s basically how you stay crazy.

BD:   Is this a good crazy, or a bad crazy?

Steven:   I think it’s a good one, because it keeps you motivated to get to that practice room.

Carol:   Right, it’s a quest!

BD:   For each set of performances, do you start with a clean score and look at it anew?

Steven:   We just did a recital yesterday, and today we sat down for about an hour and listened to it.  We thought it went well, but we came up with about a dozen things we’re going to do differently next time.

Carol:   When he did the Dvořák concertos recently, he told me that he started with a totally clean score.

Steven:   I just wanted to forget the earlier one when I sat down to do the next one.  I hadn’t played it in four years, so I started all over again, because there’s no sense to go back to those phrases and markings of years ago.  I wanted to be fresh.  But just talking from performance to performance, often I’ll see an artist play with the National Symphony the same way four nights in a row.  It’s uncanny.  How do they do it?  But others come out and play differently.  Rostropovich is a prime example.  He’ll come out and conduct the next subscription performance completely differently that night.  So, it’s his mood, or maybe it’s his genius, but soloists that do that just have it in them to do it, and they’re exceptional.
*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re one of the regular cellists in the National Symphony.  How do you divide your time between playing in the orchestra, and working on a solo career?

Steven:   I’m definitely juggling this occupation with chamber music, and the solo career.  This is my tenth season with the Orchestra, and we have a liberal policy that gives the musicians time off without pay to pursue what comes into their interest.

BD:   If you get a good offer, you can say you’ll take a certain week off two months from now?

Steven:   Right, and it’s generally allowed in orchestras today, because the players now entering these symphony orchestras are trained at these conservatories to be soloists, and to be more than just orchestral players.  I’m not knocking anybody who just does orchestral music, because that is in itself incredibly challenging, and a full-time job.  To me, I must go out and play some solo concerts to keep me interested in the development of the cello.

BD:   Is it a completely different technique, playing in the orchestra and playing solo?

Steven:   No, I wouldn’t say it’s completely different.  You have a cello solo for all twelve of you starting the second movement of Brahms’s Second Symphony.  You’re all going to sing out as if you’re playing the solo.  That’s the beauty of it, because then you all can say what you want to say, but it’s a wash of twelve cellos out there.  It’s wonderful, but we don’t get a chance to have that many solos.  It’s mostly in the violins.  [Laughter all around]

BD:   [To Carol]  Being a pianist, you have a completely different kind of idea, because you have your own full orchestra in your two hands, and yet sometimes you play with an orchestra behind you, or you play in chamber groups.  How do you divide all of this?

Carol:   It keeps it interesting to do various things, and I like it.  I love to do chamber music, and I also love to do duos, not only with Steven, but with others as well.  I just played with a violinist for the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series.  It’s very special to work with just one person, and you really learn about each other, and try very hard to really understand.  I try as a pianist to understand the other musician, and to really do an ensemble together to make it as one.

BD:   A cellist will take their instrument with him or her.  You can’t pack up your piano and move it around.  So, when you come to a new instrument, how long does it take before it’s your instrument?

Carol:   It takes a while.  I like to try it out the day before the concert, and, if not, a good half-hour before, because even the height of the keyboard and the height of the music rack is different, and, of course, the pressure on the keys is different for every instrument.  All this affects the sound and the evenness.  A good piano will be even all the way up and down.  In other words, if you use one pressure on one note, giving the next note the same pressure will produce the same sound.  But sometimes they could stick out if it’s not well regulated.  You try to learn the piano, and how much pressure to use.

BD:   Do you try to see the technician beforehand to make it a little less, or little more?

Carol:   No, because there’s not usually a technician around.  I just have to learn it really quickly.

Steven:   We were just in Russia with the National Symphony.  We were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then we went to the Baltic states.  We were touring with Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the son of Alexandr.  He was playing a Shostakovich Concerto with the orchestra, and Rostropovich conducted.  I bring this up because the pianos in Russia were awful!

BD:   Because they weren’t maintained?

Steven:   I don’t know.  They weren’t regulated, or maintained, and were out of tune.  This was in 1993, and we were in the biggest cities in Russia.  I kept thinking to myself,
Here we are on tour, and I just can’t believe the quality of these pianos.

BD:   Were these Steinways and Baldwins, or were they
locally-made instruments?

Steven:   I have a feeling that they were big-name instruments, but I never did go up to them to look.  But what crossed my mind is they have such a rich tradition of turning out these wonderful pianists for fifty years or more, going back to Rachmaninoff, and further back than that.  So, what’s going on there?  I couldn’t believe it.  They did not have an ideal piano for the soloist.

Carol:   Even in Moscow?

Steven:   This was in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Carol:   You were also in Riga...

Steven:   In the Baltic states there was one like when you go hear a soloist with the Chicago Symphony, or the Kennedy Center, where they’re perfect.  They’re in tune.  The pianist might not always agree with how the action is, but at least they’re in tune, and they sound full.

BD:   But the ones in America are kept in the hall, and they have tuners and technicians that regulate them all the time.

Carol:   Right, and there’s heat that is maintained, whereas over there I’m sure the heat goes on and off.  [To Steven] Where were you that they didn’t have any heat in the hall or the hotel?

honigberg Steven:   Vilnius [Capital of Lithuania].

Carol:   Under those conditions, the piano is useless.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Moving from the instruments to the people, in a condition like this where it’s oppressive, and there is poor nutrition, poor economics, and maybe depressed souls, does that make the music even more special when you can bring something that can immediately touch these people’s hearts?

Steven:   When we played there in 1990, with the National Symphony, Rostropovich had been exiled for something like sixteen years.  This was his return, and it was incredible.  People were on the edge of their seats.  He had come back to play the Dvořák Concerto with us.  There was excitement that’s hard to describe.  He
s been back several times since 1990, but when we were just there this year, 1993, I didn’t feel that they were as excited.  We played a world premiere of Alfred Schnittkes Symphony that had just been written.  It was a terrible piece, and we ended the program with it.  People clapped slowly [demonstrates a slow, soft clap], but then they got into the rhythm-clapping when Rostropovich came back.  They love him.  He’s a hero there.  He’s a hero no matter where we go in the world, but on that second trip I saw many more people who were well dressed, with nicer clothes.  I didn’t see that the kind of poverty that I seemed to sense the first time there, although I know they’re going through some terrible times right now.  But I sense that there’s an elitist kind of society that has money, and that come to concerts regularly.

BD:   [To Carol]  You tour in the United States, and in Western Europe.  Do you get over to the old Eastern Bloc?

Carol:   I went with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra and Dieter Kober to Leipzig and the Gewandhaus, and to Czechoslovakia.

Steven:   How was the food?

Carol:   The food was okay...

Steven:   Because that’s a problem.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you mean the preparation, or just the amount?

Steven:   It’s both.  You have a lot of meat and potatoes, and water.

Carol:   You got that with the orchestra.  We weren’t necessarily fed meat and potatoes because we weren’t fed as a whole group.

Steven:   Anybody in Russia knows what I’m talking about.  The food is not like here.  They do not know about pasta.  It’s not been brought over there yet.

Carol:   Don’t worry, it will be, because pizza places have been open there.

Steven:   Yes, that’s right.  There’s a Pizza Hut in Moscow.

BD:   [Despite salivating...]  Bringing our discussion back to the topic, does music help to feed the hearts of all of these people, and is this part of the mission of music?  [Pause for a long moment]  You’re both nodding...

Steven:   I would like to think so.  I dedicated my life, and we’ve dedicated our lives to music, the making of it and performing of it, and aiming for perfection, and trying to challenge ourselves with new repertoire and interesting projects.  I like to think that I’m going to learn something to play for the pleasure of people.  I don’t want to sound like I’m way up above others, but there are many cellists today who are striving for this kind of realization that they can learn new works by living composers
friends of theirsand perform it to an audience who is interested in hearing it.

BD:   When you challenge yourself, are you also challenging the audience?

Steven:   Absolutely, yes.  When hearing a piece by a composer who happens to be in the audience, they listen a little harder.  Or, if the composer is not there, they know that it’s of our society today.  I don’t think it’s necessary to speak to the audience, and tell them what style they’re about to listen to
as some people like to doand tell an audience what they’re about to hear.  But maybe they could talk about it afterwards, and have some people come up and engage you in conversation.  It might startle you how much they want to know about what went into learning the work, and what you felt about it.  Then, they can tell me how they felt about it.  That’s fascinating to me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   As an orchestral player, Steve gets all kinds of music put on his stand, and he has to do those works because that’s what the orchestra is playing.  As a pianist, you have perhaps more choice in selecting your own material, especially if you are playing solo recitals.

Carol:   Right, that’s true.

BD:   From the huge array of literature, how do you decide what you’re going to play, and what you are going to get under your fingers each season?


Carol:   I don’t think there’s a real answer.  It depends.  A lot of things go into it, so maybe it
s by chance!  [Laughs]  That’s not really true, but for instance, I play Joanna Bruzdowicz [shown in CD above] because I met her...

Steven:   ...and you believed in her vision.

Carol:   Yes, and it’s been wonderful.  
Steven:   That’s how I feel about the work I’m doing with David Diamond.  I’ve done a couple of his works now, and he wrote a piece for me which was completed in June.  I commissioned it, and he wrote it in three months.  It’s a solo sonata called Concert Piece.  [Steven recorded this work on the CD Homage to Rostropovich which is shown farther down on this webpage.  Also, the Potomac Quartet (of which Steven is the cellist) has recorded the complete String Quartets of Diamond on four CDs.]  I’m on the phone with him every other week.

BD:   Talking about the problems of playing the cello?

Steven:   The interpretation of the work.  I believe in his music.  I like it.  It’s different.  He’s had a very long career.  He’s seventy-eight years old now, and he just had his Eleventh Symphony performed by the New York Philharmonic this past season.

Carol:   He’s amazing.

Steven:   I hope he keeps getting played.

Carol:   Right.  Steve’s going to give the world premiere of this piece next Sunday at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.  We will give a recital, and this is an unaccompanied piece.
Steven:   He’ll be there.  These things mean so much to a composer.  I’m not so much interested in a composer that says, Okay, I’ll write you a piece, and my fee is $15,000.  I’m interested in one who will write a piece, and talk about the commission later.  That’s the way Diamond was.  He said, I want to write this for you.  I like your sound, I like your style, so here’s your piece.  We’ll talk about the money later.

BD:   Is it going to be inherently different, or just slightly different, that he wrote for you as opposed to Rostropovich, or some other cellist?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Lukas Foss, and Gunther Schuller.]

Steven:   He heard me play his piece called Kaddish.  I had put it on my American CD [shown at left].  It’s originally for cello and orchestra, composed for Yo-Yo Ma and the Seattle Symphony in the late 80s, and I loved it.  I heard a recording of it, and I just knew there’s no way I was ever going to play this with orchestra, so I recorded it with piano.  I didn’t know Diamond at that point, and I sent him a cassette of this recording with my pianist.  To my surprise, he called me, and he said,
This is just great!  I have a concert at the Kennedy Center in honor of my seventy-sixth birthday, and I want you to play this on the program.  I was really floored.  I was really quite surprised.  That’s why he had my style and my sound in mind when he wrote the solo sonata.

BD:   Does this mean that once you’ve played the piece, it shouldn’t go to other cellists?

Steven:   No, my hope would be that it would be played by many different cellists, and I’ll be the first to come and hear it.  I’d love to hear someone else do it because I’d like to hear all sorts of interpretations.

BD:   What advice do you have for a composer who wants to write music for the cello, either an experienced hand like David Diamond, or perhaps a young composer?

Steven:   My advice would be to gather your musician friends, and get somebody that believes in your style, and who will help you premiere your works.  I know that everybody has to make a living, and money is important, and these composers that live and die with their commissions I feel horrible about.  But perhaps composers that have other jobs, or who make their money some other way can bury themselves and write a great sonata, or a piano trio, or a solo piece, and then give it to their friends to perform. 

Carol:   Schubert was one of those who did performances with his friends.

Steven:   At parties?

Carol:   Yes, right.  At get-togethers.

BD:   Schubertiades, exactly.  Should we revive that idea?  Have a Diamondiade!  [Laughter all around]

Steven:   He’d love it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us turn to the piano now.  That’s perhaps a more difficult instrument because you have everything under your fingers.  Rather than just one single beautiful line, you’ve got to bring out all the lines.  What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the piano, either as a solo or a concerted instrument?

Carol:   You just really have to know the instrument that you’re composing for.  A lot of composers do play the piano though, and the more you know the instruments that you’re composing for, the better that piece will be.  Then you know the limits, and you know how to get around it.  You may challenge the performer, but, on the other hand, you know what you can do.

BD:   You say to know the instrument.   Should you also know the pianist?

Carol:   Not necessarily.  Why not challenge the performer?  I’m all for that!  [Laughs]  It’s nice when you can work with a composer.  Steven has played the Double Concerto by David Ott.  They worked with the composer, and it was a very special relationship.

Steven:   I have good memories on that one.  Is Ott known in Chicago?

BD:   There’s just one record, his Symphonies #2 and #3 with the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Symphony, led by Catherine Comet.  [The Double Concerto would subsequently be recorded by the Milwaukee Symphony, led by Zdenek Macal, with cellists Daniel and Wolfgang Laufer
, a son-and-father duo.]

Steven:   I’ve yet to hear that.  I know that the Double Concerto was performed here with the Chicago Symphony and two members of their cello section, so it has gotten around.  But that’s another composer I believe in.  He always writes for the purpose in mind, and for some very personal reasons I find it moving.  We had a chance to work with him on the creation of this piece.  He didn’t know much about the cello, but after the whole creative process, he knew a lot about the cello [laughter], and his symphonies have terrific parts for the cello section as a result.

BD:   Have you played the Symphony #2 of Ellen Zwilich, because she calls it a Cello Symphony?

Steven:   I have not played that piece yet.  I probably will, though.

zwilich Ellen Zwilich conceived her Symphony No. 2 to "exploit the artistry and virtuosity" of the cello section of a modern symphony orchestra. In the score program note, the composer wrote, "To me, the cello is the quintessential singer among string instruments, encompassing, as it does, the entire human vocal range from the lowest bass voice to the highest soprano. Another aspect of the cello that fascinates me is the enormous range of expression, so I wanted to explore a wide gamut of techniques and dramatic moods. Additionally, I find the sound of multiple cellos thrilling. For these reasons, I decided that I would combine concepts of symphonic development with a concerto attitude." She continued, "The work bears the subtitle Cello Symphony because it is a symphony in which the cello section is the protagonist. In fact, the piece is virtually a concerto for the cello section, calling for highly virtuosic playing and exploring the full range and scope of the instrument. The first movement even has a cadenza for the cello section!"

The work was composed in 1985 on a commission from the San Francisco Symphony. It was first performed on November 13, 1985, by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Edo de Waart, to whom the piece is dedicated. The symphony has a performance duration of roughly 24 minutes and is cast in three movements in the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto form.

BD:   I assume that most composers would know about the piano, but do you need to introduce them to what the cello can do?

Steven:   If a composer is writing something?

BD:   Yes, or maybe to get him or her to write something.

Steven:   I would give that person a list of works that they could listen to for ideas, a whole array of works.  Rostropovich is the master at working with composers.  There is a slew of Russian cello concertos that are out there on records because he worked with everybody.  There’s Jolivet and Dutilleux and Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and Myaskovsky.  When you listen to these concertos, you can hear a little bit of Rostropovich’s influence.  He had time to introduce the technique of the cello to these composers.  So, I would say that’s important.

honigberg BD:   When you’re asked to play one of these pieces that was written with him or for him, do you have to be a little bit like Rostropovich, or are you still completely Honigberg?

Steven:   You can’t ignore the fact that it was written for Rostropovich.  You just know you have to have it in the mind.  I have worked for the man for years.  He’s there.  He looms very big.

BD:   Will this give you a leg-up on your performing any of these?

Steven:   I think so.  I like to think I have a connection there because he has made us feel like family.  I know that this is his last season with us, but we’re doing the Ott concerto one more time in Louisiana with him conducting.  So, I have another chance to be with him again on a very personal basis there.  I can’t learn enough from him, and I just feel like it’s an honor just to be around him.  He’s enormous.  He’s bigger than life, and every time I read about somebody else who has worked with him, and he’s then come to perform with this orchestra, or he’s passed through this town, they are all just speechless because he’s such a big personality.

BD:   Is that him, or is that his music?

Steven:   It’s a combination.

Carol:   Yes, it’s both.  He is an engaging person.  People just love him.

BD:   And rightly so.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Krzysztof Penderecki, and Robert Starer.]

Carol:   Yes.  He’s effusive and very warm.

Steven:   He has good humor, and likes the contact with people.  In evidence of people who have been conducted by him, he looks at players to coax emotion out of them.  Some conductors come by and close their eyes, and conduct a whole concert that way.  You play, and you wonder why you can’t have some contact.  Rostropovich is looking at you, and he smiles, or makes awful gestures according to what the music is.  But even if you’re in the back stands of the cello or violin or viola sections, he’ll look at you and make you play out the way he wants you to.  It makes you feel like you’re part of what’s going on.  I like that.

BD:   It gives you much more of a feeling of immediacy for the music?

Steven:   Right.  It makes you come to work knowing that you’re going to be called upon no matter where you’re sitting.

BD:   When you’re playing in the orchestra, you’re feeling the conductor, and you’re feeling the other players on the stage.  Do you also feel the audience that’s there?

Steven:   I don’t feel the audience as much when I’m playing in an orchestra as I do as a soloist.  As a soloist, you feel them immediately.  You
re conscious of how they’re listening to you, and whether they are interested.  As an orchestra player, I will tune them out a little bit, and be very much more concentrated on listening to what’s going on around me, and then assess the performance from that.

BD:   Does Rostropovich put the cellos on the outside, on the right?

Steven:   He does.

BD:   Does it make a difference for you if you’re sitting inside or outside on the stand?

Steven:   It does only when you’re sitting on the outside of the stand.  Then you are a little bit more aware of the audience because you’re always sitting right there.  But when you’re sitting on the inside, you’re a little bit more relaxed.  For my first couple of years with the Orchestra, the cellos were on the inside where the violas are now sitting.  Sometimes we were right in front of the bells and the brass, and I didn’t like it.  I know this is the way that Chicago plays, and I feel for them sometimes.

BD:   Some of the players have Plexiglas around them.

Steven:   The violists wear two earplugs back there.  That’s no way to go to work.  [All laugh]

Carol:   No!  Who wants to go to work with earplugs?

BD:   As a pianist, you don’t have quite those problems because even though you’re embedded in front of the orchestra as the soloist, it’s not blasting all at you.

Carol:   No, I don’t have that problem.

BD:   Are you more aware of the audience that is on your right?

Carol:   Yes, I’m definitely aware of the audience when I’m soloing with an orchestra.  You’re listening to everything that is going on around you, because the piano is really surrounded by the instruments.  It’s not just sitting all by itself.  You’re right in the orchestra.

BD:   Have you also occasionally played in an orchestra as their pianist, where you
re back by the harps?

Carol:   Sometimes, yes.

BD:   Does that give you a completely different feeling?

Carol:   Yes, because you’re part of the orchestra, and you better watch the conductor.

Steven:   That’s a tough job.  You have to be ahead of the beat.  We have many piano entrances that sound a little late.  You almost have to really anticipate.

BD:   Let them take lessons from the double basses.  They’ve got to get the string vibrating just a little bit early.

Steven:   That
s right, because they’re so far away.  Often times, you feel that an entrance was a little early, but the Principal Bass knows what he’s doing.  You don’t question that.  It sounds a little early, but that’s because the sound has to go so far to be heard.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of playing as a family, the two of you together.

Steven:   [Laughs]  Only joys!

honigberg Carol:   It’s a very special arrangement.  First of all, we speak the same language.  Often, you really can’t really speak with your children in the same language, can you?  As they grow up, they’re doing something else, and they’re on to another life almost.  The communication is different.  In this way, we really are speaking the same language, which is music, and we can really pull it apart as far as we want to discover every aspect of the music.  This is not just the performances, but the emotions that go with itthe ups and downs that music has that you can’t help that come with it.  There are disappointments, and the wonderful thrills.  There’s a lot surrounding a musician, and a career.  It goes up and down, even though an outside person doesn’t see it.  It’s a very difficult profession, actually.

BD:   [Looking at Carol]  Don’t look at him as you’re answering this next question...

Carol:   All right.

BD:   Have you spent his lifetime training him both as a musician, and to play with you as an ensemble?

Carol:   No.  Steven isn’t my only child.  I have four children, and my philosophy is just to let them do whatever they like.  Obviously, music has to be started very young, and all the children started young.  Steve started cello when he was about six.  My other son started on the violin, but I never would push them.  It’s a very difficult profession, and this was his choice.  Around aged thirteen, Steve had a number of successes, and he suddenly realized that was the direction he wanted to go.  He wanted to be a musician.  He wanted to play the cello.

BD:   Is he the only one of the four that has pursued it to a professional level?

Carol:   Yes.

BD:   Is that especially satisfying, or is it just different satisfying?

Carol:   He’s brought the whole family a lot of pleasure.  We’re all his fans.

BD:   Is there any jealously amongst the other children... he’s working with Mom, and all I’m doing is practicing medicine?

Carol:   No, they really support him.

Steven:   They realize how difficult a profession this is, with so many good cellists, and your ups and downs.  They know.

BD:   Is music too difficult a profession?

Steven:   No, I wouldn’t say that.  If you can speak and communicate on your instrument, and you can get around on your own with all the different personalities out there, it’s very rewarding.  It’s wonderful.  But getting back to your point about the music, I’ve held in tremendous respect the cellists of the past, and the great cellists of today, just as my mother has of the great pianists.  When we sit down and do a Beethoven sonata, we’re well aware of Casals, and Rostropovich, and Rose, and Harrell, and the pairings such as Barenboim and Jacqueline Du Pré.  Because of recordings, you are very well aware of what was going on in the past, and we’ve learned a lot from hearing these great artists.  We’re just trying to make as wonderful a working relationship as we can.  We’re not trying to put down the best Beethoven that’s ever existed.  If you start thinking you’re going to make the best recording ever, I don’t think you’re going to be a success.  We’re going to put down what we have to say at this time in our lives.

BD:   It’s the best you can do at that point?

Steven:   We’re healthy, and we have good facilities to work with, including nice engineers, so let’s go ahead and do this while we can.

BD:   Now don’t look at her when you answer this question.  I’m assuming there was a point when it stopped just playing with Mom and she became a musical collaborator, an equal.  Was that a very special moment in your life?

Steven:   I remember when this happened, as a matter of fact.  I was in Scheveningen in Holland at a competition.  I was getting very hot on stage, and I decided I’d take my jacket off.  It was a very intense atmosphere, and put my jacket down on the chair.  As I turned around, I saw my mother taking my jacket and hanging it on the back of my chair so I wouldn’t wrinkle it.  The audience saw this and laughed.  We’ve gone on from that time, from being a mother and kid, to being colleagues.  Now we get together and have healthy rehearsal sessions, one in which we’re not afraid to say what we think.

BD:   Individually and together, are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

Carol:   I can’t answer that.

Steven:   I can answer that.  Right now, at this point in my career I’m doing what I want to be doing.  I have a very full musical life in terms of playing in the orchestra, and I play quite a bit of chamber music on the side, and I have some solo engagements
probably two or three concertos a year, and a recital program or two.  So, with all of this that’s happening, I don’t know if I could take on much more.  The next step for me would be to become interested in a position of leading an orchestra cello section, or even become a little more interested in conducting.  I’m slightly interested in that aspect of music, but I have a long time to investigate those.

BD:   It seems that from Toscanini on, every cellist has wanted to be a conductor.  [Also, Frank Miller, Principal Cello with the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, and the Chicago Symphony under Solti, was Music Director of the Evanston Symphony.]

Steven:   Yes, perhaps.  Lynn Harrell is doing that more and more.  I don’t know that Yo-Yo Ma has ever picked up the baton, but certainly many of them have, and there’s always Rostropovich.

BD:   Heinrich Schiff is doing some conducting now.

Steven:   Is he really?

BD:   Yes.  Is there a competition amongst cellists?

Steven:   Do you mean to conduct?

BD:   No, for solo appearances and the like.

Steven:   I don’t think so.  I don’t like to look at it that way.  There are enough orchestras in this country to support as many cellists that want to solo.  I know I’m one of many.  Playing with conductors that you like, or organizations that know you and like you is a big part of the scene for me.  I like being welcomed in.  It’s a very powerful feeling to sit down and have the Dvořák concerto right there at your fingertips.  You’re ready to lead the conductor and orchestra into how you envision the piece, and that is a very powerful feeling.  That’s why I don’t give it up.  For some people, it’s out of their thinking to be doing that, even with some professional cellists in orchestras, so they never do it.  I’ve done it for so long that I’m only gaining more and more pleasure out of it as I get older.

*     *     *     *     *

honigberg BD:   [To Carol]  Your career divides a little differently because you’re also doing some teaching.

Carol:   I do part-time teaching at Roosevelt University, and in Lake Forest at the Music Institute.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you hear coming from the fingers of the students?

Carol:   I love to teach, I really do, and I don’t think I would ever want to give it up.  I get a lot back from my students, and it’s a growing experience.  I’ve taught for many, many years, and I really love it.

BD:   Has the teaching of the piano changed at all, as life changes over the years?

Carol:   When I was growing up, one of my prime teachers was Rudolph Ganz, and Mollie Margolies [his assistant], among others, but as I remember, I was told how to do something, whether it was a mordent, or anything in music.  Now, in all teaching, you want your students to learn how to think for themselves, and to be able to tell you how to do it, so they can do it on their own.  That’s how I try to teach.

BD:   Are you waiting for them to discover how to do it right?

Carol:   No, I always tell them why I’m telling them to do something a certain way, and hopefully that catches on.  Then, in their practicing, when they come to a similar place, they can use the knowledge that they supposedly have learned
[laughs] which doesn’t always stick.  That’s the whole point of teaching, really.

BD:   This doesn’t lose
tradition by not letting them hear or see you do it correctly?

Carol:   Not at all, because the teacher is still there then, hearing what’s coming back in the lesson.  But still, you can’t be a student forever.  You have to start thinking for yourself, and if you have been taught how to think, that’s what it’s all about.  That’s why I like to teach.

BD:   Is teaching fun?

Carol:   Yes!  It’s grueling, but it’s fun.  You use a lot of energy to teach, but I like it.

BD:   Is playing the piano fun?

Carol:   Yes, I love it.  I always say it’s my Mount Everest.  Tackling a piece, and trying to do it the very best, finding all the little ins and outs, and thousands of decisions on every page, that, to me, is my challenge.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  And yet, if you got to the top, you’d find there was another mountain beyond that.

Carol:   Probably.  Another piece for sure, or another performance.  It can be a great challenge.

BD:   [Same question to Steven]  Is playing the cello fun?

Steven:   It’s fun in its own way.  I’m working for specific goals and concerts, and I get a great sense of pleasure when that goal or concert has been achieved.  I might have been working on that concert or goal for many months, and in some cases a year or more, and when it’s completed I feel good about it.  I’m more goal-orientated in my solo and chamber music career than I am in the orchestra.  The orchestra is something I’m doing for a living.

BD:   Thank you both for being musicians.

Carol:   Thank you.

Steven:   Thank you for having us.


See my interviews with George Perle, Robert Stern, and Benjamin Lees

© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 15, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1997, and on WNUR in 2005, 2009, and 2017.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.