Interview – Conversation with Zara Nelsova – by Tim Janof
International Cello Society Newsletter – June 2, 2000
TJ: You’ve also worked with some famous composers, like Ernest Bloch. How did you get the privilege of playing Schelomo with him?
ZN: I often practiced Schelomo and the other pieces he wrote for us. One day I was talking to Colin Hampton, cellist of the Griller String Quartet, who knew Bloch very well and had performed his chamber works. He said, “You’ve got to meet Ernest Bloch. He is an extraordinary man, a great composer, and I know he would love your playing.” So Colin arranged our meeting and I went to Oregon, where Bloch lived with his wife and cats. I had been on the bus for about three hours when I arrived at the bus station at night in the pouring rain. A man waiting for my bus to arrive, with an umbrella over him and a little beret on his head, turned out to be Ernest Bloch.
He and his wife made me feel so welcome. They put me in a guest flat that they had built over their garage. Downstairs was the equipment that Bloch used for his agate polishing hobby, using agates that he collected from the beach. He used to stand in the garage and polish agates while listening to me practice upstairs. Very often I would hear the tramp of feet coming up the steps and he would suddenly appear wearing his hip rubber boots and his little beret, saying “No, no, no, not like this, like this!” And then he would sit down at the piano with those rubber boots and we would start to work together. We worked on Schelomo, The Voice in the Wilderness, and Three Pieces from Jewish Life.
Soon after that a Bloch festival was organized in London and he invited me to come as his soloist in Schelomo. Right after the performance we recorded it together, which was re-released about a year ago, with Bloch conducting, as well as our recording of the Three Pieces.
We developed a great friendship over the years. Once I asked him if he would write an unaccompanied cello sonata? “Oh,” he said, “I don’t know … how would I do that? Play me something.” So I sat down and played him a little of the Kodaly solo sonata. “No, no, that’s not my style.” Then I played some of the Reger Second Suite. “No, no, that’s not my style.” Nothing would please him.
Soon after — I think I was in Europe at the time — I received a letter from him saying that he was at work on an unaccompanied suite. He ended up sending me three suites, one at a time, the first two being dedicated to me. The third he meant to dedicate to me, but he sent it to me in Europe to edit and I didn’t get it in time. He didn’t hear from me so he assumed that I didn’t like it. The work remains undedicated. All three suites are very beautiful, but I play the first one more than the others.
TJ: It sounds like Bloch was very particular about how his music should be played. Did he ever talk about how much vibrato he wanted?
ZN: No, we never discussed vibrato. He certainly didn’t object to my use of it.
TJ: Steven Isserlis, who has also recorded Schelomo, often minimizes his use of vibrato in this piece, using bow expression instead.
TJ: You don’t seem agree with this approach. Why?
ZN: If you listen to my recordings of Schelomo, I think you’ll find your answer. Bloch and I worked together very closely. I understood what he wanted, and he seemed to be happy when we played together. He once said, “Zara Nelsova is my music.”
I recorded Schelomo three times, first with Bloch, second with Ansermet — the great conductor of l’Orchestra de la Suisse Romande — and third with Maurice Abravinel and the Utah Symphony. I must have been doing something right to be asked to record it again and again.
The second generation of a distinguished Russian musical family, Ms. Nelsova was born in Canada, educated in England, and is a citizen of the USA. She made her debut with the London Symphony at age 12, and since that time has regularly toured every continent, including her triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1966 as the first to be made by an American soloist.
Zara Nelsova has appeared with virtually every major orchestra in North America including those of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. She has appeared with numerous European orchestras including the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Royal, Berlin, and London Philharmonics, the BBC and London symphony orchestras, and in Warsaw and Poznan with the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. She has collaborated with such eminent conductors as Bernstein, Boulez, Barenboim, Mehta, Haitink, Solti, Boehm, Rostropovich, Ozawa, and Steinberg. Her many international festival appearances have included Tanglewood, Hollywood Bowl, Aspen, Caramoor, Ann Arbor, Lucerne, Casals, Prague, Gstaad, and Bergen.
She has collaborated with many well-known twentieth century composers. Samuel Barber chose her for the recording of his Cello Concerto, as did Ernest Bloch for his “Schelomo.” She performed Sir William Walton’s Cello Concerto under the baton of the composer as well.
Ms. Nelsova is the recipient of Canada’s Centennial Medal of the Confederation “in recognition of valuable service to the nation,” and the Jubilee Medal from Canada in honor of the Silver Anniversary of the accession to the throne of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Ms. Nelsova is a fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, a member of the faculty of The Juilliard School, and chair on the Board of Governors as professor of music at Rutgers University. In 1992, she received an honorary degree from Smith College.