INTERVIEW WITH CELLIST MARKUS STOCKER AT HIS HOME
with Braxton Neate
St Lucia, Brisbane
B: When and how did you know you wanted to become a musician?
M: As far as I can remember I was surrounded by music. I used to sit under my fatherŐs grand piano listening to his playing. He wasnŐt a professional pianist, but music was his hobby and his passion. I was the youngest of four siblings. My sisters played piano, flute and violin and it was obvious that I had to play the cello.
B: Who were your teachers?
M: I was lucky to have two excellent teachers until I finished my studies at the age of 25. My first teacher was Dieter Staehelin, a born pedagogue of great empathy, sense of humour and lots of patience Đ essential qualities when you want to succeed in teaching young children. From the beginning he planted in me the love for music. I was 10 years old and of course more interested in outdoor adventures than in practising my cello. At home my motherŐs exhortations helped me keep a certain discipline until I felt my own responsibilities. In our family, we often played chamber music and that of course gave me great personal satisfaction. Music became part of my inner world. At about 15, I started flirting with the idea of becoming a musician one day.
B: When did you change to your second teacher?
M: When I was 16, my teacher passed me to his former master, August Wenzinger. He was then the principal cellist of the Basel Symphony Orchestra and also had a class at the Conservatory. His former teachers were Paul Grmmer in Cologne and Emanuel Feuermann in Berlin. As a pioneer in early music, he was the leading viola da gamba player of his time, a sought-after conductor of Baroque music, and in 1933, together with Paul Sacher, they founded the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the world-renowned institution for research and practice of early music. For us cellists, his Brenreiter edition of the Bach Suites in the Bach year of 1950, is of utmost importance. In my opinion, it is by far the best edition and I am pleased to see itŐs now the most frequently used one. Wherever I teach, I can immediately tell whether a student is playing from a different version. Luckily we now have an edition in China as well.
B: Do you have any memories of Wenzinger himself performing Bach?
M: Yes, only once - it was the 4th suite. At that time he was much more prominent as a conductor and as a viola da gamba virtuoso. However, his cello playing remained fluent and secure, always of great musical taste and a refined culture. He was an extremely versatile musician and I still find it difficult to comprehend how many things he was able to master at the same time.
You asked me how I became a musician? Well, as I said I grew up in a musical household. But as you know, in high school you donŐt think much about your future profession and my parents were never too keen on my becoming a musician. IŐm though very grateful for that because I believe choosing music, as a profession needs a personal calling. When I finished high school, I didnŐt have that kind of assurance and motivation. The decision needed time to mature. So I first went to university and studied the Classics towards a Bachelor of Arts, continued playing lots of chamber music and helped out in different amateur orchestras. At the same time I had to do my compulsory military service and unexpectedly I was offered a promotion to become an officer. At that point, an inner voice told me to refuse the promotion and to follow my vocation for music. Without any hesitation, I enrolled in the Academy of Music in my hometown of Basel and started my cello studies at the late age of almost 21.
As my teacher went into retirement 4 _ years later, there wasnŐt much time left. I committed myself fully and I achieved, during that time, both my teacherŐs diploma and soloistŐs diploma - a task which, under normal circumstances, would have taken seven years. During my holidays, I attended masterclasses and orchestral courses. I was in Salzburg for two summers and then in Siena. In my spare time I earned my pocket money as a taxi-driver.
B: With whom did you study in Salzburg?
M: In my first summer I was principal cellist in the student orchestra, when Bruno Maderna directed the conducting class at the Summer Academy. Maderna was a model of a creative and spontaneous musician, the embodiment of an artist. Along side my orchestral work, I took masterclasses with the distinguished Italian cellist Enrico Mainardi. The following year I was in the class of Richard Krotschak, long-time principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1969 I went to Siena (Italy) and was accepted into the class of Andr Navarra. We were 24 active students and 40 listeners. For the first time I sat next to a great cellist who, by playing on my own cello, demonstrated how to produce a big and beautiful sound with the least necessary effort. Hugely inspired, I finished my studies in Basel and returned to Siena the following summer.
B: I have seen a video of a TV documentary from a masterclass with Navarra in Siena with you playing for him.
M: Oh yes, that was in 1970 during my second visit. That documentary shows how persistent Navarra could be, with how much perseverance he tried to make his point clear. He didnŐt give up until he saw a result.
B: What do you think made Navarra such a successful teacher?
M: First of all, he was a self-made man. He finished his studies at the Paris National Conservatoire at age 16 with Jules Loeb and from then on, never saw any other teacher. He was left to fend for himself - he had to earn money and he used every opportunity to play in chamber groups and in symphony orchestras, in opera and movie theatre orchestras.
By observing the great string players of his time he developed and refined his own technique. All that, he explained to me with great modesty in a private lesson.
Yes, modesty is the keyword. He considered himself first as a craftsman and only secondly as an artist. Thus he never displayed his superior status as a consummate artist, but stood on the same ground and level as his student. First he tried to teach the craft of cello playing, to build a solid base before expecting artistic results. In that sense, he was completely consequent and merciless and created excellent results. Moreover, he was a good psychologist and knew how to best connect with his students. His humour, his care for students and his great desire to share his knowledge and experience made him a magnet.
I donŐt know of any other master who produced as many useful and employable cellists as Navarra did. Only one could compare him probably with Julius Klengel, during the golden period in Leipzig. For many years he directed simultaneously classes in Paris, Vienna, Detmold (Germany) and Skopje (Yugoslavia) and still pursued a heavy concert career. I feel immensely grateful that I got under his spell when he was in his best years.
B: How did you find NavarraŐs teaching style compared to August Wenzinger?
M: As you can imagine, at that time Navarra was at the peak of his career, in full bloom so to speak. He was able to demonstrate every passage of any work you studied. His playing was so powerful and inspiring that words were barely necessary. Whereas with Wenzinger, I was his last student at a time when he was more prominent and busy in the field of early music. For example, I remember him conducting the St MatthewŐs Passion in Oxford for the large Bach Festival at which he invited me to join the orchestra. So I could say Wenzinger taught me more by reflection whereas Navarra by demonstration.
I was very lucky though with August Wenzinger because he trimmed and channeled my energies. At 16, I still was a boy, very impulsive, driven by emotion and instinct, so he immediately understood he had to discipline me, to cut back my tensions and ensure I gained more control in my playing. He also developed my awareness of my body movements and sharpened my sense for relaxation. Thus Wenzinger was the perfect teacher for me at that age and Navarra again the right teacher, when I was at the end of my formal studies, before moving to Paris. He actually wanted me to study with him in Germany, but I clearly felt that now I needed the Latin influence and therefore, after my first encounter with Navarra in Siena, Paris was my choice.
B: DidnŐt you meet your wife in Siena?
M: Oh yes, destiny brought us together! Mei-Lee was also in NavarraŐs class to be prepared for her entrance exam at the Paris Conservatoire. Among 52 candidates in 1970 only two foreign students were accepted - she was one of them. It was a wonderful coincidence that she already was in Paris and I had planned to study there. I fell in love - it was fate.
I learned a lot from her about the way students were taught in NavarraŐs class, which made up for a lot of studies and technical exercises I didnŐt do in my time in Basel. Studies by Grtzmacher, for example, I never worked on them before, but now I learned those things because I saw Mei-Lee making big progress with them.
B: Who else did you study with at that time?
M: In summer 1971 I had the chance to take masterclasses in Zurich with Pierre Fournier and in Nice with Paul Tortelier. I was keen and curious to learn from masters who had impressed me so much on the concert stage. The acquaintance with these great cellists was the start of numerous encounters, also privately, and led to a precious correspondence of which I keep many letters as testimony of their humbleness and deep humanity. As always with such courses, you learn not just from your own lessons but at least as much from the way, how your peers perform and are taught in the class.
B: What was Tortelier like? He had such a unique temperament. I know Tortelier even referred to himself as a Don Quixote.
M: Ahh! He absolutely was a Don Quixote, also as a teacher. In a way, Richard StraussŐ tonepoem became his piece. DonŐt forget he performed it in Monte Carlo as the orchestraŐs principal cellist under the baton of the composer. And later he started his international career with the same piece in London under Sir Thomas Beecham. Like Rostropovich, Tortelier was a born masterclass teacher. He had a lot of charisma and he liked to flirt with it. But he was a genuinely inspired artist, up-front and honest. So I feel very lucky having been exposed to these great musicians and teachers.
B: DidnŐt you also study with Janos Starker?
M: Yes, already during my early studies, I was impressed by StarkerŐs recordings and I felt I needed his help, especially in regard to his left hand control. So I decided I would one day study with him and sent a copy of my soloistŐs diploma recital to him in Bloomington/Indiana (USA). I got accepted and after one year in Paris I visited the USA in the fall of 1971.
However, I only had a few lessons with him because at that time he started his sabbatical and I was transferred to his Viennese colleague Fritz Magg, who was Head of the String Department. We came along wonderfully and he made me his assistant with about eight students to teach. Winning the annual cello competition, I had the chance to perform as soloist with the university orchestra. An additional Swiss scholarship gave me the possibility to study for a third year abroad and I returned to Paris to prepare myself for auditions and competitions.
B: Was that when you won the ŇGrand PrixÓ at the Competition in memory of Marchal?
M: Yes, In December 1972 I participated in the Paris International Cello Competition in memory of Maurice Marchal. Marchal was the French cellist in the short period between the two World Wars. I remember Fritz Magg saying that at that time you could turn on the radio and would hear just three distinctive cellists: Feuermann, Casals and Marchal. Immediately one could tell who of them was playing. Marchal died in 1964 and in 1972 the Guild of French Musicians organized the competition in honour of that great French master cellist. I won the second ŇGrand PrixÓ.
B: Do you remember some of the other cellists in that competition?
M: Certainly, first came Frdric Lodon, whom I knew well since we attended the same masterclass in Siena, a prodigious talent and adorable colleague. Third was a Japanese cellist, I canŐt remember her name, and fourth Philippe Muller, who would later become a prominent professor at the Paris Conservatoire.
B: DidnŐt you also win the ŇDebussy PrizeÓ?
M: Yes, I owe that prize to the fact that I had a marvellous piano partner.
B: Was that the same pianist you recently performed again with in Brisbane?
M: Yes, Carolyn Gadiel. She is an exceptional musician from Canada, playing piano and violin likewise on the same high level. We both lived at the ŇCit des ArtsÓ in the middle of Paris and Carolyn was of great help for me. 40 years after our common success in Paris, I invited her to the Queensland Conservatorium for a joint recital. Of course we played again the Debussy sonata.
B: I enjoyed that recital very much. You both have such a definitive voice on your own instruments and understand the composerŐs intentions so well. It was obvious, even after 40 years, that it was so easy for you to work together.
What was the reason you returned to Switzerland after moving to Paris?
M: After three years of studying abroad, I finally needed some work and at the end of 1972 I went to Switzerland to audition for the principal cello position in the Winterthur Symphony Orchestra. The job was combined with the Winterthur String Quartet and the teaching position at the Conservatory. I was lucky to get that prestigious appointment, which offered a vast field for practice and experience. Before starting my new job, I won the Young Performers SoloistŐs Prize of the Association of Swiss Musicians, a sought-after award for Swiss musicians at the start of their professional life.
Looking back I must admit that I was extremely lucky having been taught and inspired by so many great teachers, supported by numerous scholarships and awards, encouraged and motivated by public and press acclamation Đ in the end one sees a mosaic and each little stone stands for an event, an encounter, a friendship, and the mosaic doesnŐt stop growing.
B: I think music is really about people and communication, isnŐt it?
M: Oh yes, absolutely! Painting for example isnŐt a communicative art, I mean not at the instance of creation. In contrast, music happens now and here! That is one of the most important notions I try to convey to my students. You must live now and here! Be prepared and make the best of the moment! I personally learnt that through music.
Communication is essential in music, which basically is a sociable occupation. Whereas for example in the visual arts, you can be a misanthrope and still become a great artist. But if you are a loner, if you donŐt like teamwork, if you donŐt like being around people and communicating, then music is probably not the right field for you. On the other hand, even if you have some contact problems, music can help you to open up. I see that with many people and somehow the most talented musicians, certainly the most interesting I met, were very often by nature introverted, rather shy people who used music as a means to communicate. Music helped them to open up.
B: Casals is a prime example of that.
M: Some people who never had this kind of experience would find it difficult to understand. This is the reason why one-to-one teaching is so important and irreplaceable. I had many students who obviously needed music to overcome personal difficulties and inhibitions. Here, music in most cases can help, if you are lucky to have the right teacher who is a good musician and who at the same time has the necessary psychological awareness and sensitivity.
B: I couldnŐt agree more. I remember being in your class at the Conservatorium once and you saying, when you play the cello everything is bare. You canŐt hide when you are playing the cello, everything about your personality comes out through the cello.
M: Oh yes, you have to learn this. ItŐs a hard discipline. You have to disrobe yourself when you play. In a way, everyone is naked on stage, but when you have the focus, the ultimate concentration, the strength to be yourself at that very moment, then you donŐt actually think anymore about your nakedness. The secret is to become one with the music and to forget about the rest of the world. This is the teaching of Zen.
B: I think in the practice room, this disrobing possibly confronts us musicians the most.
M: Yes, because itŐs difficult to be absolutely honest - honest towards the music as well as towards ourselves, not to hear what we wish to hear, but to hear the objective result, here and now. On stage itŐs the public exposure, which forces and motivates us to give our best whereas in the practice room itŐs just me who has to put pressure on myself. We have to reach a state where we are completely naked and thus canŐt hide anything. It means total honesty. It requires my will and self-control to suppress subjective wishful-hearing and rather to assess the actual result of my playing in the most possible objective way.
To summarize: music doesnŐt start with sound, but with the inner hearing, the imagination of sound.
B: But of course the audience wants to see some of this rawness, they want to be connected with the artist and feel the same emotions.
M: Yes, on stage itŐs difficult to hide, the public can easily see and feel the true personality behind the performer. In that respect, we instrumentalists can learn a great deal from singers Đ we have to develop our acting skills. For example, when as a rather introverted, shy person you have to perform an outgoing musical theme, then you must expand your personality in ways and dimensions, which by nature are unfamiliar to you. You may have to fake and pretend, but at the same time your personality is growing and melting together with that outgoing role. The fusion between the expansive music and your own character will produce an unexpected result, which helps you to open up and gain more self-confidence.
Actually, in its purest form, a composition only exists untouched in the written score. As soon as it is performed, we are confronted with an interpretation which always is the result of a certain distortion or alteration caused by the simple fact that different musicians perform the same piece. Thus, you will never hear twice exactly the same music. ItŐs finally the fusion between the work and the performer at that very instant, which makes a musical execution unique and eventually interesting, exciting, and meaningful.
B: Do you think that today when people listen to recorded music more often than to live performances, this has an effect?
M: Certainly. The listening to a life performance cannot be measured and compared to a simple recording. In the earlier days, before the recording industry took over, you used to hear and see an artist once on stage, you were impressed and inspired, and this inspiration stimulated your desire to imitate the same sound. ItŐs not really copying, itŐs rather recreating a specific sound still ringing in your ears. That happened to me when I heard Navarra for the first time. I captured his sound, went home and tried to produce that characteristic sound.
On the other hand, when you have a recording and you just repeat, repeat, and repeat, then you end up by copying not only the sound but also the interpretation, and you finally think you have to achieve the same degree of perfection. Of course, in most cases this is not possible. But thatŐs the situation today: we have masses of well-trained young musicians who play almost perfectly well as a result of that copying process. However, as long as they donŐt invest the necessary time and effort to search and struggle for their own genuine interpretation, their performances will remain faceless and immature, they will lack personality and stay unconvincing, meaningless, even empty. We have to learn how to take risks and even make mistakes, in order to create a unique and distinct interpretation. In too many performances one can hear the effort to strive just for technical perfection. By avoiding mishaps we may succeed in delivering a technically flawless execution. Who cares? If there is no meaning and emotion behind it remains shallow. First we should be concerned about the contents, not the form and presentation. Good music always carries a message and itŐs our duty to serve as a link between the composer and our public. As an interpreter, I am basically a messenger. ItŐs like with a glass of wine. I am first interested in the wine, then eventually in the shape of the glass. However, itŐs also true: the more precious the contents, the more exquisite the presentation.
My simple advice is: first think of the message, then of the technique.
B: In other words, the music has priority and the technique has to keep up?
M: Exactly. The technique has to serve the music. First think and feel musically, then use the
appropriate technical means. Even when playing scales, exercises and studies, do it in a
musical, beautiful way, never fall into the trap of motoric, senseless, repetitive playing.
By lifting your aesthetic expectations you transform the tiniest study into a small piece of music. This is an essential part of good teaching, which should prevail from the beginning and lead to a standard where music and technique always keep in balance.
B: What other differences have you seen from your time as a student and today?
M: As I told you, I started studying music really driven by my love for music. I honestly can say music was my home. In a way I felt that the musical world was more real and significant to me than the outside world and I think this is true for the rest of my life.
In the interviews we normally hold during entrance exams, I noticed that many young people appear to be impressed by the prospect of career and success, glamour and fame which the music industry seems to promise. Like in the pop world, teenagers crave for stardom and celebrity. In our field, thatŐs obviously the unrealistic motivation. After all, the core of our music is by its nature not a worldly affair, on the contrary, it tries to transcend it.
B: There is a nice quote by Nadia Boulanger. She said basically if youŐre not willing to die for music, if you couldnŐt go on without it, then you shouldnŐt bother.
M: Yes, thatŐs the same as what Martin Luther King meant when he said: ŇIf you donŐt have ideas in your life for which you are willing to die, then life is meaningless.Ó
You know - Nadia Boulanger was driven by a holy fire till the end of her life. I was very lucky to have come under her spell when I attended her private classes in Paris. Her fire and enthusiasm were infectious.
When I have young people asking me whether they should become a musician, I reply that the question itself is already wrong. You shouldnŐt have to ask me that question. You should know if you have that inner calling. If not, then perhaps music is not the right thing to do. Just keep it as a wonderful hobby, thatŐs my advice.
I have many friends who went on to become doctors and lawyers and continued to play music on the side. Sometimes they would tell me ŇOh, I wish I had become a musicianÓ, but obviously they didnŐt have that calling at the time. Over the years they see that after all they have a better life as a doctor and most probably earn better money. On the other hand, I never say itŐs not possible to make a living as a musician. If you have the necessary talent, determination and perseverance then you always find a job, provided you keep being curious and working on yourself.
Back to what you asked me. What is the difference today?
I think, today the teaching at the conservatories is much more exam-, competition- and career-oriented. In the early years, I didnŐt even know what an agent was. I wasnŐt aware of the music business, the job market looked good and promising. We rarely had exams and competitions. Yes, there were auditions in order to play as a soloist with orchestra. But nothing compared to the amount of competitions we have now here in Australia. We certainly didnŐt have all these grading systems. That of course is inherited from England. Europe, in general, was a quiet place compared with todayŐs highly competitive job market.
B: From what I understand, traditionally at most conservatories you would have an entrance exam and then a final examination only when you exit. I think that gives you a lot of time to develop organically. Was it like that for you in Basel?
M: Yes, my first and only exam took place after four years, at the end of my studies for the TeacherŐs Diploma. Pedagogy and didactic skills were an important subject. After two years of teaching the same student I had to present that student in front of a panel. That was a demonstration of about 1/2 hour and then I had to give a one-hour recital. Those two marks decided about my practical results.
B: Whereas today, for example at the Queensland Conservatorium, you have examinations every semester.
M: Yes. Here itŐs too much, and there, not enough. Actually, when I was teaching at the Zurich Conservatory, I stipulated the policy of having after two years a mid-study exam. Too often I saw students failing at the end of their studies, obviously taught by teachers who were either lenient or didnŐt care enough.
At my time we had the opportunity to perform weekly in public student concerts. Hence we got the necessary performance practice and also the critical feedback.
B: In a way, in your time it was much more like an apprentice system where you are constantly working on your craft. I think it was a very good preparation for the real world.
M: Yes, I agree, for the academic subjects you need regular monitoring. But in my opinion not for performing, here the best thing is to be more liberal by offering frequent opportunities of having public exposure as often as possible. Some students do need exams as a kind of pressure and it does make it easier for the teacher not to have the sole responsibility. But in the end, regular exposure and having continuous challenges, are the most efficient ways to develop performing skills.
B: Yes, aside from performance experience, I think if you have a good teacher whom you respect then your weekly lesson is a constant examination.
M: Absolutely. When I was a student every lesson meant a lot of pressure, because August Wenzinger was very demanding, rather academic and distant. I also knew that he was a widely respected authority. Before every lesson I was terribly nervous! I was trembling! But I learnt through that experience, first of all to control my nerves, secondly to be prepared to give my best which finally never was 100%, not even 90%, perhaps 80%, and that prepared me for the real life.
If your teacher is too friendly and lenient you may end up by losing respect for her/him, attending the lessons unprepared and eventually getting used to the teacherŐs comment Ňfine, well done, see you next weekÓ. Where is the challenge?
However, with my students I always try to build down their nervousness. After all, as a teacher one has to be demanding, therefore one automatically creates a certain level of expectation and tension but with psychological tricks we should always find ways to accommodate and relax our students. I think a student is like a lemon and it is my job to squeeze it in a gentle way to get out the maximum of the potential in a minimum of time. In general the students notice very quickly whether you put pressure on them in the interest of their development, according to their talent. I never learnt to be lenient with my students. You have to challenge them by being at the same time friendly, supportive, critical and honest.
Of course there always remains a certain distance because usually we are from different generations. But in music we have to learn to overcome this distance, after all we drink from the same well, so to speak. I always consider my students as my younger colleagues. You should be able to build up a fellow-like, friendly relationship as long as there is mutual respect. On the other hand, I never thought that carelessness deserves any respect, especially not in our field.
B: I think that the class environment we had at the Queensland Conservatorium in many ways facilitated that kind of collegial respect, with fourth year students helping first year students. ItŐs similar to what you mentioned you experienced when attending NavarraŐs class and learning from what his regular students were doing.
When you see each other play, you realise every one has the same difficulties, just on a different level or with a different severity.
M: Yes, I attended many masterclasses in my time, but not only to learn from the teachers. I would say I learnt an equal amount from watching and listening to my peers. Of course, another great thing is that you make friends and learn about the whole music world. I still have friends I met in masterclasses many years ago. ThatŐs the beauty with our profession - we are part of a big family!
B: During your early time in Basel, then in Paris, Bloomington, living and teaching in Zurich and now in Australia - what are some unforgettable performances that you have heard?
M: Not only performances, also rehearsals! I often attended orchestra rehearsals in my hometown, maybe because there were no more tickets, but also itŐs more interesting to observe a conductor in a rehearsal.
As a student I went to as many concerts as possible. For example, I was 16 years old when Pierre Fournier performed the Dvorak cello concerto. That was the first time I heard that work life Đ unforgettable! My teacher was the principal cellist and because they knew each other personally Fournier made the effort to greet him on stage. I found it moving to see how these two men showed in public their respect for each other. Never before have I heard this kind of singing tone for which Fournier was so admired. Those are the moments I treasure. At that time I also heard the famous jazz pianist Erroll Garner and I was deeply impressed by his infectious vitality and power of imagination. Other great performers were Menuhin, Milstein, Francescatti, Grumiaux, Szeryng, Segovia, Backhaus, Rubinstein, Serkin, Richter, Fischer-Dieskau, Tortelier and from 1966 on regularly Rostropovich. He performed every year in Basel because my Conservatory Director was his close friend and sponsor.
Unfortunately, I never met Casals, I was too young. He gave some of his last masterclasses in Switzerland when I was a teenager.
B: You did meet his assistant and work with him though?
M: Yes, I was lucky to meet Rudolf von Tobel at the end of my studies in Basel. Von Tobel was a very close friend of Casals. He always followed him like a shadow, they called him Casalino Đ or even more pointedly in French: Ôle Matre et le centimtreŐ. In fact, he was an excellent cellist from Berne, captivated at a young age by the genius and overpowering personality of Casals, staying close to his Master and attending all his Festivals in Prades.
Casals used to send him ahead as his double to prepare orchestras and conductors. People thought of him as a copy of Casals, which of course is not possible. He just was heavily influenced by CasalsŐ way of thinking and that came across in his playing and teaching.
He gave me some private lessons, where I learnt a great deal about relaxation, clarity of rhythm and articulation, things Casals was adamant to teach. Rhythm is especially important and has a lot to do with relaxation! Casals insisted very much on respecting short values. When you listen to his recordings you can hear every little note, simply because he relaxes in-between the values. Therefore his playing is so transparent, effortless and always speaking. ItŐs just miraculous how he was able to perform the Dvorak at age 85 and Bach until his last days!
Other great performancesÉ? Yes, I remember wonderful performances during my two summers in Salzburg. The only time I heard Jacqueline du Pr was then. Together with her husband Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic she played an unforgettable Dvorak concerto. In one of his last public performances Wilhelm Backhaus was soloist in the 2nd Brahms piano concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Bhm. I heard Karajan many times and even sneaked in into his rehearsals. Those moments I will never forget. Despite standing far away I felt his hypnotic power. Later Eberhard Finke, the principal cellist, would confirm that same sensation although Karajan kept his eyes closed most of the time. It was his power of utter concentration and resolve which created a formidable medium.
B: Yes, I have heard that even him just entering the room at the back of a concert hall with another conductor on stage, you could feel his presence.
M: There was absolutely something special about him! At first, it has nothing to do with music itself, it is just that huge power of concentration and desire of communication which made him so magnetic. You know, he performed the whole Ring cycle by heart with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which basically isnŐt an opera orchestra, but due to his will for perfection they played better than any opera orchestra in the world.
I heard people saying he never conducted one bar of true music in his whole life. ThatŐs of course nonsense! The music world is full of jealousy. For some people it obviously was difficult to accept that Karajan was at the same time deeply interested in all kinds of technical refinements and developments, notably also in financial success. He was a pioneer in the video business and made a fortune for himself and his orchestra. What is important today is the music he left and by listening you will appreciate his outstanding achievements. By the way, I know from one of his conducting students that he offered him clandestinely financial support without making great fuss.
B: What you were saying earlier about interpretation and the personality of great artists is very true for Karajan. If you hear a recording of KarajanŐs on the radio, you can tell instantly that itŐs him conducting.
M: Yes, even such a distinct orchestra as the Vienna Philharmonic he was able to mould.
You know, I always disliked people talking badly about other musicians. I feel this is a serious illness among musicians, and I know exactly where it comes from. You see, with doctors and scientists for example, they have plenty of topics to discuss, new methods, new technologies, new medicines, you name it. In their field, every day there is new development. In music however, what can you talk about? How do you talk about music? You end up by talking about people. For me thatŐs gossip.
I already felt that when I was a student and even more so when I worked in the orchestra. In the end I hated having breaks because my orchestra mates would always tear down the conductor, the soloist, the program, their colleagues etc. Finally, everything was rubbish! So I kept away. Otherwise I got along very well with my peers, but that aspect of being a musician I never liked. At the core of music there is no such thing as competitiveness. There is actually no such thing as the Ôbest cellistŐ. ItŐs a silly question to ask who is the best?
I never reply to this kind of questions.
B: Most of the time it has nothing to do with the actual performance, itŐs just political.
M: Who is the best composer? Who the best singer? Well, in the music business probably the best is the one with the highest feeÉ
B: Or the one with the best agent.
M: Yes, by pushing the fees shamelessly up, the agents are building a spiral, which is one of the reasons why the great majority of our society perceives classical music as elitist and highly prestigious. Reminded of the great composers who mostly died sick and poor, I only feel contempt for this shallow world, based on money and prestige.
One of the greatest gifts I got from my parents is that they lived a life without prestige and rarely spoke about money. I learnt from them not to be envious and jealous of other people with more money or talent. In a way, in that respect I was brought up navely. Therefore, I never was tempted to choose a profession promising good money.
B: Yes, I think prestige destroys music.
M: Early on, I saw through the ugly business machine, I enjoyed my modest career, being ambitious in that I always tried to do the best with my life. I am ambitious by nature, I think thatŐs a good thing. You should make the best use of your talent. If you were lucky like me to be motivated and encouraged by great musicians, then you should feel obliged to share that treasure with the next generation. In life everything turns around give-and-take, itŐs a constant exchange.
Either you are in a discussion or you do business, you give and you take. Therefore chamber music is such a wonderful thing, reflecting real life. Sometimes though you have the feeling some people are only prepared to take. In music making you can immediately hear and feel whether people serve the music or rather themselves. For orchestral musicians it instantly becomes evident whether the conductor thinks first of his ego or rather of the common goal. I never could put up with the egoism of many conductors and therefore found it sometimes hard to do my job. I was so lucky that my teachers were great musicians, some of them world-famous, with a profound sense of modesty and humbleness.
B: Were there any other great performances you remember? Did you hear Piatigorsky?
M: No, I never had the opportunity to hear him life because he didnŐt perform anymore in Europe. However, Fournier and Tortelier regularly performed in Switzerland. Tortelier I remember vividly; I was 16 when he played a recital in Basel. He started with Sammartini followed by the 4th Bach suite and the A major Beethoven sonata. After intermission he played one of his own compositions and finished with the Debussy sonata.
I heard the legendary Spanish guitarist Segovia, I was 15 when he played the Chaconne by Bach. His sound filled every corner of the big concert hall.
I always encourage my students to attend as many concerts as possible but often I am disappointed to see how few young people are at concerts. The lack of life experiences ultimately influences their playing: if you limit your listening to only technically perfect recordings, more and more you will sound like everybody. At the time we had different, distinct personalities like Kreisler, Enesco, Menuhin, Heifetz, Oistrakh, today we donŐt have anymore that colourful spectrum and variety of artists.
B: In a way, when you were studying the cello, it was a kind of golden age. Particularly in, which had such a huge tradition from Duport onwards.
M: Yes, it was the end of Paris being the centre of the cello world. At the same time Moscow emerged with Rostropovich creating a class of unheard richness and concentration of talents. Many of his students followed later the example of their master and settled in the West. Today we donŐt talk anymore of schools like in the past.
B: and America?
M: The arts, sciences and the business world all profited heavily from the influx of refugees as a direct consequence of the persecutions and the two World Wars. In that respect you may see Janos Starker continuing the Budapest school of Popper and Gregor Piatigorsky the Russian school of Davidoff, both establishing themselves as very influential pedagogues in the New World.
B: Later on you got to perform with many great artists as well, IŐm thinking of people like Martha Argerich?
M: Yes, the violinist Ivry Gitlis (today at 93 still playing!) invited me to take part in his Festival in Vence in the South of France. We played the Schumann piano quintet with Martha and together with her I performed the Beethoven A major sonata at midnight on the Col de Vence on an altitude of 1000m. It was freezing coldÉ
I donŐt want to enumerate now all the great artists and conductors with whom I was lucky to perform. Again, name-dropping is a weakness of musicians, almost part of their struggle for excellence and survivalÉ All I can say is that often we meet musicians who are not world-famous, but still perform like those with great names.
B: Tell me more about your orchestra job.
M: That was the reason why I returned to Switzerland. The Winterthur Symphony Orchestra, although small with a restricted repertoire, was an ideal place for me to start as principal cellist. The orchestra has a long and illustrious history, being EuropeŐs oldest philharmonic organization, founded in 1629. Throughout its history it was supported and sponsored by the local nobility, being the pearl in its societyŐs crown. I very much felt that when I took over the job. It could have been embarrassing, but for me it rather was amusing. Part of my position was to play in the venerable Winterthur String Quartet where I was surrounded by old foxes, two of them former members of the Israel Chamber Orchestra of Ramat-Gan. At the same time I was given the main teaching position at the Conservatory. I much enjoyed my various activities and was fully occupied with my duties and engagements.
However, soon my outside solo work collided with the orchestra job. I therefore quit my position after only three years and expanded my teaching schedule by taking over an additional cello class at the Zurich Conservatory. With two important teaching positions I stayed in high demand as a teacher and as a performer.
B: Did you ever perform with Mei-Lee at that time?
M: Yes, we often joined forces to play the quintets by Schubert and Boccherini. Then we played regularly when we went back to her hometown Penang in Malaysia, but later on with our children it became rather rare. We performed the duo repertoire, but only occasionally for birthdays and celebrations.
B: Maybe this is a personal question, but just like the TortelierŐs, how did you find being married to another cellist?
M: By practicing the same profession, striving for the same skills and knowledge you automatically develop a deep and refined understanding and perception of each other. On the other hand, because of that tight professional union and association you easily find reasons for arguments and disagreements, and therefore frictions are programmed. When you practise next door, working so close to each other, that can easily stress your nerves. On the other hand, being a critical observer you learn a lot from each other, again: you give and you take.
By the way, I met Mei-Lee exactly 45 years ago last Saturday. I actually never thought that I would end up by marrying a cellist. But then I fell in love! We complement each other very well and build an excellent working team. Well, thatŐs the beauty of walking the same path: you constantly look into your mirror and have to stand up to your partnerŐs criticism. Also musically: Mei-Lee remains my fiercest critic. I like that. Other musicians are used to adulation. For my part, I prefer intelligence and honesty.
B: Having experienced you both. Your playing and teaching styles are quite different.
M: Of course, we had a completely different upbringing and have separate personalities. Compared to Mei-Lee though, I have many shortcomings. She started playing piano when she was five. Then she learnt to play the violin and later the viola. When the quartet needed a cellist she took up the cello at 12 and played after only 1_ years BeethovenŐs A major sonata and the Boccherini B flat concerto. She still accompanies her students on the piano. On top of a rock-solid academic base, she has a perfect pitch and photographic memory. In my next life, if I only have half of her musical equipment I shall be a conductor!
As you see, Mei-Lee learnt many instruments in minimal time whereas I learnt just the cello with the Feuillard method, a well-written course of teaching going step by step, systematically developing a healthy foundation and securing the basics of cello playing.
B: Oh yes Feuillard - you and Mei-Lee have contributed a lot to the spread of his works in Australia. Can you tell me something about Feuillard?
M: Louis Feuillard was a contemporary of Casals and became the main cello pedagogue in Paris. He taught and prepared the young talents for the entrance exam into the Conservatoire, one of them was Paul Tortelier. Feuillard didnŐt have a solo-career, he was a born teacher and very active as an editor. We owe to him so many things, the method I mentioned, countless collections, arrangements, transcriptions and especially the famous book of ŇDaily ExercisesÓ. Maud Tortelier could endlessly talk about him - she played on FeuillardŐs cello.
B: Yes, Tortelier inherited all of FeuillardŐs posessions, didnŐt he?
M: Feuillard didnŐt have a family. In a way, he adopted Paul Tortelier who eventually took over his Paris apartment.
B: You mentioned before some other great performers. Tell me more about them.
M: Other great performers? Yes, Arthur Rubinstein. As he refused to perform in Germany it always was an event when he gave a concert in Basel, my hometown next to the German border. Additional chairs were put on the stage behind the piano and thatŐs where I sat in a distance of about 7 metres. I still see his complete control of his face expression, an almost frozen exterior with a burning hidden inside. Unforgettable his discipline and self-control!
Rudolf Serkin was my hero and a great influence, I loved his uncompromising, divinely- inspired Beethoven playing, just out of this world. He was able to perform in a state of trance and left the impression of being the voice from another world. I felt very much attracted to him and decided I had to attend his Marlboro Festival. Through a personal introduction by Paul Tortelier I received the green light, but I still had to do an audition in New York for the violinist Felix Galimir. By the way, in Marlboro I had an interesting exchange with Serkin touching the notion of trance and enthusiasm, both qualities firing up his holy-inspired performances. With his wife Irene, Adolf BuschŐs daughter, I spoke by the way in the Swiss-German dialect of Basel where Irene grew up and finished high school before marrying Rudolf and emigrating to the USA.
B: You met so many great musicians!
M: Yes, by living in Switzerland, studying in Paris and in the USA I had everywhere access to the greatest performers. Rostropovich e.g. I heard the first time in 1966 offering the six Bach Suites as a gift to celebrate the 60th birthday of his friend Paul Sacher, my ConservatoryŐs director. It was a memorable experience, most notably because of his unmatched ability to give the impression of fully improvising this old Barock music right at that moment. One could completely forget that this music was set and written down 250 years ago, so fresh and powerful was his recreation. Although his romantic Bach style was just the opposite of what I was taught and used to, I simply had to admire his artistic freedom and creative vitality. It was a great lesson for life!
B: You have also done this several times yourself since?
M: Yes, for every string player itŐs a constant challenge to perform Bach, a boundless satisfaction to merge with his musical cosmos. For the first time I played the cycle when I was 35. Here in Brisbane I did it twice. By the way, Bach himself was about 35 when he composed these solo works, a miracle, when you consider the richness and depth of this music!
B: I know you had many concert tours to America, Russia, Israel, South Africa. But in particular you have had a strong connection and many visits to the Far East.
M: As my wife is a Chinese from Malaysia I visited my future parents-in-law in 1974. That was in Penang, the second largest city of the country. I was received with open arms and quickly became part of their circle of Chinese friends. Immediately I felt familiar with their friendly spontaneity, outgoing temperament, but also down-to-earth pragmatism. Mei-Lee and I played concerts together and the next visit saw me performing in Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong.
In 1978, I happened to be the soloist in the very first public concert three years after the Vietnam War in the old French Theatre of Hanoi. Today I can say that this was the most significant concert in my life as a musician because I could feel the existential importance of music for these people at that very moment of their lives. Here music was much more than just a commodity, it was nourishment for the soul. Never again did I feel so compelled to give my utmost to people in real need. In fact, there was such a thirst for music that the dress rehearsal was declared public and the concert had to be repeated. Soldiers came backstage and confessed this was the first time since many years they could listen to music undisturbed because in the fields with the transistor radio they always were interrupted. As during the war their music library had been destroyed I had to send them the orchestral parts well in advance so that they could copy them by hand. It was a deeply moving experience for me in a historical context.
B: Can you tell me the program of that concert?
M: Yes, it was a joint concert, the first half a recital with a fine Vietnamese pianist, the second half the Haydn D major concerto. Some of those first Vietnamese friends are still alive and itŐs always a great pleasure and profound joy to meet them again.
B: What other countries in Asia have you visited? I know you have had a great relationship with China and return to teach there regularly.
M: I was several times in Taiwan, Korea and Japan, but since my first visit to China I return there on an annual basis. In 1984 I was one of the first Western musicians to perform with the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra. Those concerts in Beijing and Shanghai built the foundation for old, growing friendships.
As I am now retired, I visit the Chinese Conservatories as a guest professor several times a year. I feel privileged to be able to witness the miraculous development this country and people have achieved over the last 30 years and I am thrilled by the fact that I am given the opportunity to help young Chinese musicians to grow and find their way into the Western world of thinking and feeling. I like to build bridges and to facilitate the professional contacts between China and the West. It gives me great satisfaction to guide the enormous amount of young talents and to place some of them according to their abilities in Western Conservatories.
B: With your teaching experience in China, what do you think the musicians there need most from a Western teacher?
M: Freedom and imagination. For todayŐs tourists China seems to be a country of unlimited possibilities. The city population earns enough money to move and to choose as consumers in complete freedom, the supermarkets are full and bursting with the latest gadgets. Wherever you go you see people in a happy mood, having fun and looking for entertainment. Of course, on polluted days in Beijing this picture can change! Luckily I am not just a tourist but have the chance to look behind the scenes.
As much as I admire the oriental school discipline and academic results I am in the position to be a critical observer. You see, the Confucian system imposes from a young age on a severe school routine which demands full commitment, without mercy and compromise. The one child policy pushes the parentsŐ ambition to the limits and they try everything to get their child into the best available school and university. There the child doesnŐt primarily learn to think on its own, to question, to contradict, to develop its own fantasy and to create own ideas. Finally, the kids are the product of that strict education and political system which isnŐt designed and suited to form independent and creative personalities who learn to build and express their own opinion in a free and personal manner. Nevertheless, their education is more vast and profound, their academic knowledge more comprehensive and substantial in comparison to our Australian, even to European standards. However, as a consequence of being part of a monolithic mass society they find it difficult to recognize and appreciate their own individual personality and uniqueness, they are easily drowned in the ocean of an immense population where the single existence doesnŐt seem to count. One would think that under these circumstances the Chinese would seem to be rather restraint and suppressed, but itŐs just the opposite. I am always astonished to see how they are able to behave and react in a spontaneous, uninhibited and open-hearted way which reflects their temperament and love of life.
B: What about the teaching now?
M: The left hand technique is normally not the first concern. As you know, the Chinese have acrobatic skills and fast reflexes, they adore speed and precision. Hence I usually start to focus on the bow technique, the shaping of the sound and phrasing, the expression, the expansion of imagination and the need for creativity instead of dutifully repeating something learnt. I make them question the meaning and emotional content of a piece or for that matter just of a phrase or a note. I explain to them that technical perfection is not the end, but the beginning of the search for beauty, truth and excellence. This questioning approach is usually a new challenge for them, but as they are still young and normally fast and flexible, some of them are able to make a huge progress in a short time.
B: How do you convey your ideas?
M: With children the best way is always demonstration. With mature students itŐs worth to talk, to illustrate with pictures, often from daily life, and to make them discover a whole palette of different colours and feelings. I try to convince them that the practice room is in fact a laboratory where they have to do research instead of repeating without end. In China you find many young talents who move on their instruments with an agility of monkeys, with instincts and reflexes, which are by far superior to the average Western skills. As in most cases intonation and dexterity are not the initial problems, Western tutors are often prone to be impressed too quickly and have some difficulties to find the right advice for improvement. At that point, however, the real challenge of teaching and guiding begins.
B: What do you think this enormous pool of Chinese talent means for the Western world?
M: I didnŐt mention yet the other 50% of Chinese character features: their extreme working capacity, their diligence and their extraordinary degree of commitment. I often ask my Chinese students about how many hours a day they practise. For a 12 year old the normal answer is 5 hours. And this on top of a school day with 8 hours of classes! You see, in Australia one must be content when an 18 year old music student practises an average of two hours a day. In the Chinese middle school, which is equivalent to a normal secondary school, this means underperformance.
So my answer is: the Western world is underperforming on the whole and will be overtaken in no time by the mighty Chinese working machine. Not only do they work more and harder, they also have nerves of steel and therefore in any competition they will have their noses ahead. I can see half of the orchestral positions in Europe and America being occupied in the future by Chinese and other oriental players. At the same time, I am pleased to see that in China more and more new symphony orchestras are founded, giving work to the growing number of well-trained musicians in their own country.
B: What is your aim as a teacher, where and how would you like to guide your students?
M: I believe the first thing is to try to establish an atmosphere of mutual understanding. This sounds easy, almost trivial. Teaching music is not just a simple transfer of skills and knowledge. You can teach a class of 250 law students by transferring knowledge and facts, you can win their attention and interest by pepping up your lectures with fun and jokes, but you will never be able to touch their soul - and you are not required to do so. In contrast, teaching music in a one-to-one situation requires from the teacher a completely different approach, and because of that intimate environment it allows you to approach your student in a personal way in order to open your student up. If I want to give my maximum to a student I need her/his soul. To achieve that, you have to be able to create total confidence. Only then is mutual communication possible on the highest level. That rarely happens, but it is a precondition for a happy, fruitful collaboration. I remember Paul Tortelier saying in a class: ŇIf you want to learn from me, you must love me.Ó Music starts with love!
But for now, letŐs be more objective. In the beginning I am content to feel passion for music and respect for me. If the playing is insecure it often reflects not just a weak technique, but a lack of confidence. As a teacher, you now have to find ways to foster the self-confidence of your student by providing the feeling of progress and success. The first thing to observe is the all-round body posture, the sitting position, the left arm position and the bow-hold. Then you must choose the appropriate repertoire, which allows the student to develop in an organic and continuous way. The progress on the instrument will then also reflect in the personal self-assurance. Again, we have here the pattern of give-and-take or if you prefer: invest and earn.
In general, the most important thing is to teach your students how to practice and how to become your own teacher. By showing how I create my own exercises on the basis of a difficult passage, I encourage them to experiment like scientists in their laboratories. This kind of consistent and constructive work will finally accelerate their progress and foster their self-confidence.
To be frank, I always was pleased to see my students, at the end of their studies, leaving as a more confident person rather than just as a strong performer. Anyway, it goes hand in hand. For me, I first see the person, then the student.
To answer your question in one sentence: I see my teaching as preparing my students for the real world. When I hear that a student is offered a job, then I am pleased and satisfied.
B: Did you find many differences in teaching your students in Zurich and in Brisbane?
M: Yes, there is a big difference. In Switzerland, like in Germany, you finish high school at only 19, whereas in Australia already at 17. Here we have the advantage of getting the students at a younger age, unspoilt and undisturbed by all that hard school work which squeezes lots of unnecessary stuff into their heads. Arriving from Europe, I found it refreshing to see all these kids relaxed without any school weariness, as I was used to in Switzerland. They are without complexes and more open, although a bit nave compared to their older European peers. The body posture and tensions were not in the foreground.
On the other hand, I found the laid-back attitude and the lack of serious commitment a real barrier. The Queensland environment is obviously too pleasant and too tempting to waste time on practising. In general, the communal standard of teaching is on a poor level. There is a deplorable lack of commitment and a great deal of indifference. This prevents a serious development of young talents. In the end itŐs often the oriental students who excel because their parents, being ambitious, look for the best available teacher. I believe the Australian music institutions would be well advised to make pedagogy a compulsory course as it is the norm all over the world.
B: Yes, that makes sense, as all musicians will end up teaching in some form. I like that the equivalent of your Bachelor degree was a TeacherŐs Diploma.
M: Of course, they should have something similar here. Why are Russian musicians usually so strong and well trained? Because in Russia, the teaching experience is a pre-requisite for continuation. David Geringas told me he studied for eight years and for that whole period he had to prove teaching experience. And you see the results of his teaching!
B: ItŐs an excellent measure to understand the technique and what you are doing yourself.
M: Just by verbalizing you get more awareness because you canŐt put into words a process unless you understand the exact mechanism. First I have to ask myself what do I do wrong? Why doesnŐt it work? Therefore: first identify the problem, then analyse it and look for a solution. As a teacher you have to try to find an answer for every specific problem by demonstrating the process to your student. ThatŐs the way of positive teaching. All students need this kind of instruction which is providing awareness of the technical process. Even Jacqueline du Pr needed guidance.
Rostropovich once said, sometimes he doesnŐt really know what his fingers were doing, he just thinks music and his fingers move the right way. Of course, thatŐs ideal, but itŐs the privilege of a genius, who by the way worked a great deal when he was young!
B: You were the principal cello teacher at the Queensland Conservatorium for twenty years and have contributed so much to the cello community in Queensland. How would you summarise your time here?
M: After 20 years of teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium I am looking back with great satisfaction and fulfillment. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and not only me, my whole family. Working before in Switzerland for 22 years, combining a heavy teaching load with a concert career, I felt I needed a change and it was a fantastic coincidence that Antony Camden, director of the Queensland Conservatorium at the time, asked me at the end of 1992 whether I was prepared to take over the cello position. I came four times as a guest professor and in 1995 I moved over with my family.
For me it was a welcomed challenge. The cello class then was neglected, but its potential was evident. I was able to lift the standards in no time and to attract students from all over Australia and New Zealand. I never had a shortage of students and enjoyed teaching a full class. At the same time, Mei-Lee was teaching part-time at the Young Conservatorium, the Queensland Conservatorium and the School of Music at the University of Queensland. So together we were looking after a substantial number of cellists. I donŐt have to mention that we loved the warm, sunny climate, the friendliness of the people, but still we kept in close touch with Europe, returning to Switzerland every year.
I appreciated the freedom of teaching and the company of an appealing international staff.
Right at the beginning I visited all the Conservatories in Australia and in New Zealand, and by lecturing and performing, I got acquainted with my new colleagues and their classes. Surprised by the lack of performing opportunities for the students, I introduced the weekly student concerts, a series I most successfully ran for 13 years. Chamber music was my special interest and I was in charge of organizing the course over many years. As a founding member of the ŇGriffith TrioÓ, I regularly performed with that piano trio for 15 years, and by making use of my various contacts in the Far East I organized several great tours. I also was instrumental in bringing the ŇWenzinger LibraryÓ to the Queensland Conservatorium, a unique and priceless collection of Baroque music for cello, viola da gamba, chamber music and orchestra. Also through my initiative, a beautiful clavichord found its way from Switzerland to our collection of rare keyboard instruments.
To summarize: it was a happy and fruitful time for me, for the Conservatorium, and for my family.
B: What do you think about the future of our Australian Conservatories?
M: The amalgamation with the universities brought certainly some advantages, but in hindsight caused more unresolved and unresolvable problems. Unfortunately Australia is following the education policies of the USA. One bad tendency is turning the music into an academic graduate profession where the lecturers need to have a PhD or DMA in order to gain a position and to climb up the academic career ladder. Instead of appreciating and honouring artistic achievements (performing, recordings) it now appears that the writing about your activity is more important than the activity itself. This is a deplorable development, watering down the true talents by giving mediocre people the opportunity to advance their career. Since my arrival in Australia I observe an on-going decline of artistic quality and genuine appreciation of music. I am therefore not optimistic and predict that in the Australian Tertiary education classical music will soon face serious problems of justification and survival.
B: Together with your wife Mei-Lee you produced the monumental Cello Galaxy concerts. When did the idea of a ŇCello GalaxyÓ first come about?
M: Already in Switzerland we arranged class concerts and formed cello orchestras. When we left Switzerland we organized a farewell concert, combining our students to a Cello Gala program with over 80 cellists. It was a great success, also a very sentimental event. Here in Brisbane we started our First Cello Galaxy in 1999 with 57 students and finished the biennial event in 2011 with the Seventh Cello Galaxy of 130 cellists. By creating a real cello community we lifted the local interest in cello playing enormously. Of course, it meant a huge amount of preparation, first the arrangement and transcription of so much music, many of them done by ourselves, then the task of preparing every single student aged 7 to 60, and finally holding weekly rehearsals six Sundays in advance. All the concerts were sold out and, as you know, extremely successful.
B: It is perhaps unique for one couple of cellists to organize such an event.
M: For Australia it certainly was unique, probably even worldwide. At least I have never heard of anywhere else in the world where one single couple achieved to gather an orchestra of 130 cellists, all their own students. But in the end itŐs not the numbers that count, itŐs the enjoyment and excitement of the whole process and ultimately of the performance. All the CDs and DVDs give testimonies of a pinnacle of cello playing which remains unique in Queensland. At the core, besides her dedication as a teacher, it was Mei-LeeŐs outstanding drive and her talent for organization which made these mammoth projects possible. We got enthusiastic echoes from around the world, including Marta Istomin- Casals, Maud Tortelier, to mention a few. Janos Starker too was deeply impressed and commented on every concert.
B: Now that you are retired, what are your plans for the future?
M: My family has the luxury of living in two worlds Đ Switzerland and Australia, myself even in three, taking into account my regular visits to China. Although I was accustomed to perform on a regular basis in Australia - over 100 concerts alone at the Queensland Conservatorium in 20 years - I have no problem to accept the fact that my local concert agenda has come to an end. I still have my public in Switzerland and in China, where I perform wherever I teach.
Next year sees me three times in China. In May 2016 I am judging the China International Violin Making Competition in Beijing and shall perform as soloist at the National Centre for Performing Arts. After having taken part in the first one in 2010 itŐs now the third event with the addition of bow making. I am very excited about the prospect of playing dozens of excellent new instruments. In this field as well, the progress and achievements in China are overwhelming.
To answer your question in geographic terms: I came to Australia to work. As my work here is done, nothing holds me back anymore and I feel free like a bird.