The cello business

By Rebecca Hein

Early in my cello career in performance and teaching, I got a glimpse into the mind of a cellist far above me in ability and position. Two of my students, both cello performance majors at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, were also there to see.

Cellist Ronald Leonard.
Cellist Ronald Leonard.

It was the mid-1980s and we were attending the Third International Cello Congress at Indiana University in Bloomington—home to one of the best and largest schools of music in the world.

Many world-class cellists were there, plus professionals and students like our little group. The featured guest that afternoon was Ronald Leonard, principal cello of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Everyone in the auditorium knew he was the equal of any international soloist because the principal chairs of major orchestras are among the best musicians in the business.

The topic was orchestral auditions. At some point, an audience member asked Leonard to demonstrate the notoriously difficult opening of the Offertorio section of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass.

At 19, while a sophomore music major at the University of Wyoming, I’d encountered this passage for the first time. Since the cello section couldn’t handle the part, I had to play it as a solo. It is completely exposed, and requires proficiency throughout the entire range of the cello; something I hadn’t yet developed. Getting through the rehearsals and performance was one of the most stressful episodes of my nascent career, although I played the passage surprisingly well considering my lack of experience.

Despite these difficulties I fell in love with the piece, for the same reason I loved so many other orchestral compositions: being immersed in the lush, exciting sounds of Brahms, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams and Mahler; the complex beauty of Bach; the pristine textures of Mozart. Sitting in the audience is great, but being onstage is even better.

As a young professional, about 10 years after my first performance of the Verdi Requiem, I was eager to hear a master cellist play the opening to the Offertorio. But Leonard refused. Disappointed and annoyed, I thought, Everyone in this room knows Ronald Leonard can play the cello. Would it be so dreadful if he had a tiny slip? How could something like that demolish his reputation? However, he wasn’t going to take the risk.

Cellist John Kirk. Wyoming Symphony Orchestra archives.
Cellist John Kirk. Wyoming Symphony Orchestra archives.

Maybe my job was easier than Leonard’s, because I didn’t have a stellar reputation to maintain. Over time, I have struggled to give him the benefit of the doubt: Maybe it had been five years since the orchestra had performed the piece, and I was perhaps naive to expect him to demonstrate, without prior notice, one of the most difficult passages in the repertoire. However, after more than 30 years, I still can’t quite forget what my students and I could have learned from this lost opportunity.

For my recently published history of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, I interviewed John Kirk, a fellow cellist from Billings, Mont., about his three years as principal cello with the symphony. After we were done, I couldn’t resist telling him about Leonard’s refusal to demonstrate that passage.

“Just think what all those students could have gained,” I lamented. “But instead, they discovered that the profession they were hoping to enter is a cutthroat culture.”

“They might as well learn that early.” John paused, then added, “It’s a terrible business—but wonderful work.”

Editor’s note: Read more about Kirk’s contribution to the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra in Rebecca Hein’s article, Quality vs. Community: The First Century of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. And since Beethoven’s birthday is usually honored today, December 16, consider revisiting her article, Beethoven’s Birthday in Wyoming, on how past Wyoming orchestras have celebrated the event.