Musing by John Rosene:
“A charming young fellow, Lepauw,
Could play tunes on his grand pianauw,
He could use all the keys,
Just as nice as you please,
Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti, Dauw!”
Copyright The Journal of a Musician 2009
Interview with cellist Wendy Warner
© 2007 The Journal of a Musician
This interview marks my first conversation with Wendy Warner, more than a year before I had a chance to play with her. It was done for the print version of The Journal of a Musician, immediately after the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich died, in April 2007. Please comment!
Wendy Warner, who was the winner of the 4th International Rostropovich Competition in Paris, in 1990, is originally from Wilmette just North of Chicago, and is now on faculty at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has appeared with the world’s leading symphony orchestras and has toured extensively in Europe, Asia and the Americas.
George Lepauw: You play piano quite well, as did Rostropovich.
Wendy Warner: It’s so funny because now when I am teaching I think about him, because he hardly ever played the cello in any of the lessons. I think all pianists are lucky that he didn’t become a pianist. He was phenomenal! Technically he could play anything, the terribly difficult Franck sonata, Prokofiev piano sonatas, Chopin, anything. His sound was beautiful on the piano, and his knowledge of the repertoire was so vast, he could play entire scores of symphonies by memory. It was amazing.
George Lepauw: He must have appreciated your pianistic skills.
Wendy Warner: In Russia everybody is expected to play piano. It was not that impressive to him, actually, although everybody was impressed when I attended Curtis. All he said was, ‘ok, good, fine,’ because he asked me to play piano for him, to see if I was proficient. I played a Moskowsky etude, and the Bach d minor Prelude and Fugue, and he said, ‘ok, good, fine.’ And that was it.
George Lepauw: Tell me how you came to meet him.
Wendy Warner: The cellist Raya Garbousova, who passed away ten years ago, and for whom Samuel Barber wrote his cello concerto, used to teach at Northern Illinois University, and I used to play for her from time to time when I was young. Occasionally she would come to the North Shore to give masterclasses, and I played the Dvoràk concerto for her when I was twelve. When I was fifteen she told me that I should really play for Rostropovich, so she called him – this was 1988 – and told him he should try to hear me. My teacher at the time, Nell Novak, and I flew to Washington, D.C. where he was conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. I played the Shostakovich concerto for him.
I was intimidated by him, and I couldn’t understand a word of his English, which was the scariest part because I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I really couldn’t understand what he was asking me to do, but then at the end of the lesson he said, ‘I’d like to teach you.’ Those were his words. Of course I was like ‘wow, ok, what does that mean? How do we do this?’ So with my teacher we would organize a trip three times a year, wake up at five in the morning to go there and then come back the same day. And I’d be back in high school the next morning. It was kind of crazy! He wanted me to continue studying with him in college but he wanted me to go to Catholic University, or American or George Washington, but in my heart of hearts I really wanted to go to Curtis in Philadelphia, which was my dream. I was hoping I could go to Curtis and still have lessons with Rostropovich, and I was really hoping he’d change his mind. And amazingly he did! At the very last second, he did. So I went down to DC for lessons once a month, but they were FOUR hour lessons, really intense. Glenn Garlick, cellist in the National Symphony Orchestra, acted as my coach and took notes at my lessons.
George Lepauw: What were those like?
Wendy Warner: At that time there were already such high expectations and a lot of pressure, because he wanted me to be a soloist with the National Symphony right away when I got to Curtis. He also wanted me to enter his competition, which was a month after that, in November. There was a lot of pressure, and I was just eighteen, and he said to me, ‘if you do well, but only if you do well, I will promote your career.’ I think that meant only if I won! So it was a lot of pressure. Aside from that pressure, the lessons themselves were amazing, so inspiring. I would play Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for him, and he would sit down at the piano and talk about what Prokofiev would say, and he would show me sections of the score that made the music so alive to me. It was really powerful. I played that on tour with him in Germany and he was conducting, and it was electrifying, because he was carrying the music directly from the hands of Prokofiev himself. Of course I felt very influenced by him. And his personality was very strong.
George Lepauw: Was he tough during lessons? Did he make you cry?
Wendy Warner: Almost, once! But I think that was part of the Russian school. I don’t think you’re ever supposed to compliment someone, because it should already be understood that it is a privilege to be studying with this person. He would say things to me such as, ‘well you know how to play the cello, you have facility, but you have to develop your brain.’ But in a way he was right, because it’s not impressive to play the cello well, if you work hard enough, anybody can! He would say, ‘you have to study the score, you have to read, study languages, you should never be satisfied,’ and he always made me feel like it was never enough. He would make me feel hungry for more. I had to push myself to know more, as if there were no limits, which helped me to realize the bigger picture. I feel so grateful, that I had that chance. It was totally magical. I feel like that part of my life is a large part of who I am now. It was intangible and enormous. His influence is really strong. People always say what they want to say, that they can tell I studied with him, but the truth is it’s not about that, although I am glad people say that, but it’s more about how he inspired me to find myself.
George Lepauw: Tell me about his sound.
Wendy Warner: For me there’s no question that he was the best cellist, besides maybe Pierre Fournier or Jacqueline du Pré. When you hear other cellists, you are aware of the cello, but when you hear Rostropovich you are only aware of a voice. It sounds like someone singing. You’re only aware of the music. His Dvoràk or Bloch’s Schelomo with Leonard Bernstein – for me that’s the best Schelomo recording! Or his Schubert Arpeggione with Benjamin Britten accompanying him. Recordings like that where you can’t imagine anything better or any other way. It’s not even about sound, because his sound communicates something intangible. His beautiful sound is not what’s so appealing about him. His beautiful sound is to be appreciated but it’s not the goal, it’s just one more way of communicating music, just like technique, it’s not just an end to itself. When you hear his sound, it is the music that’s so special, and the way that he communicates music that’s so unbelievable. He would talk about this too, but he really does play like a singer, in his phrasing and his color changes.
George Lepauw: Would he sing at lessons?
Wendy Warner: Oh my gosh, he could not sing at all! That’s the one thing. That was a frustrating thing because in my lessons he would say, start here, and he would sing it, but everything sounded like the same pitch to me, and I couldn’t tell what he was singing, so then I would try to fumble around different bits of the piece to see if he would say, ‘oh, oh, stop, right there, right there.’ But because I would do that he thought I had a problem with transposing or with my ear, like I had muscle memory only instead of ear memory, so then he insisted that I practice Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante transposing it in all the keys! He couldn’t keep the pitch, which is so weird because he had perfect pitch! But he would talk about his wife who was a magnificent opera star. He would worship her, and talk about her when she was younger and the way she would sing, how incredible it was. He really admired her and he would say, ‘I learned this from my wife,’ and that was really touching.
George Lepauw: What do you think about the Bach solo suites recordings he made in Vézelay, France?
Wendy Warner: They are so interesting, especially in the movies, when he talks about his interpretations. For example, in the Fugue from the Fifth suite, I never really thought about it before but it’s so true, he said, there are so many different entrances of the voices that happen but don’t continue. Psychologically, however, the voices do continue in a kind of mumble in the background, even though Bach doesn’t write out a complete four-part fugue. So then Rostropovich sits at the piano and says that, had Bach written it out, this is what it would have sounded like. And on the spot he plays this completed fugue! At the end he turns and says, ‘well of course I am light years away from Bach!’ I asked him at a lesson if he wrote the fugue out ahead of time, and he said, ‘no, no, no, I just played it.’ He is a genius! (Pause) Was. I keep saying is.
George Lepauw: When did you last see him?
Wendy Warner: In 2006. He was conducting Correspondances of Henri Dutilleux’s in Washingon. I went backstage to say hello as I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, and we started talking, and he asked me what I was doing, and then, he pulled me into the green room and we ended up talking for two hours! I had the weirdest feeling, that I wouldn’t ever see him again. Only after that did someone tell me that he was really sick.
George Lepauw: Did you have a good conversation?
Wendy Warner: Yes, it was a good conversation. It felt good just being with him. My relationship with him was complicated, because I knew him when I was so young, and he helped me so much, and my career so much. Then he stopped after a certain point, with no explanation. There was no communication, and for a while it was kind of bizarre to me, and I didn’t know what was going on. It was hard, at twenty-two. But I think he did it for a reason. Everyone knew me as his student, and I think he wanted me to become my own self. For a while I had very strange feelings toward him, but when I saw him a year ago, how happy I was to see him again! Talking to him, which wasn’t just about the cello. It was about life too. I am glad I had that time with him. The thing is, he comes from Russia, where there is such a different mentality, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand it. It’s about survival. Everybody has their own struggle, but I don’t think he saw any room for error. He saw things in black and white. He was very tough. He was very unforgiving. If you were weak, or struggling, or new or inexperienced, I don’t think he could understand that. You had to be strong all the time. He was really tough, but he was that way with himself. I saw it! He would stay up all night, I saw that, and he would bring his dog along, on the tours too. He always had this miniature dog, then he brought that dog along on tour to Germany, and he would stay up all night reading scores saying ‘my dog and I are going to suffer together.’ He would say to me, ‘it’s good to suffer, you have to suffer, you need to know what that is,’ and that’s very Russian. I never felt like he had that empathy for me. It was really hard, but our last talk was a little different. He was a little softer.
George Lepauw: Do you have a particularly fond anecdote, or memory?
Wendy Warner: There are so many! It is very emotional for me, actually. One thing that I was always moved by was his amazing humanitarianism, in the global sense, and everybody knows he’s done all of these things. But he used to do little things to help people he didn’t even know, things that nobody really knew about. It was just amazing. He would just help people time and time again, to no end. He was just very kind hearted.
I played Schumann for my Carnegie Hall debut, and I was so nervous, sick to my stomach, I thought I was going to faint! I had never felt that nervous in my life and so I said to him, ‘I don’t think I can go out there, I am really nervous.’ And then he said, ‘why are you afraid? What is there to be afraid of? Don’t you love this music so much? Don’t you love Schumann?’ And I said, ‘oh yes, I do!’ So he said, ‘then there’s nothing to be afraid of, you just think about how much you love this music. And it’s not about you any more.’ He said that and actually it really helped. He said you just have to play for the music, not for yourself. And I forgot about my nerves.
Another time, we were playing the Vivaldi double concerto together in France, and it was so cute, because he could memorize anything! However, when we played the Vivaldi he used music! Unbelievably, he put a fingering above every single note. He had told me to play from memory all the time. And there he was using music. He said that I was making him nervous! Because I wanted to practice this piece more than him. It was really funny. He had this insecurity. I remember I went to see him play the Haydn concerto, and I sat right in the first row, right under his nose. He was really angry! He said, ‘why do you sit in the front row, you make me so nervous! Why do you have to sit right in the front row!’ It’s funny because it is hard to imagine why someone like that is going to care! It was like he had a vulnerability, and it’s hard to imagine a genius with this kind of vulnerability. So when I saw that I thought, oh good, it’s a relief.