Sunday, September 23, 2018

Leonard Rose: Interview with Steven Honigberg

Credit: Steven Honigberg
Leonard Rose

Interview with Steven Honigberg, author of Leonard Rose: America's Golden Age and Its First Cellist.

Leonard Rose (1918 – 1984) the great American cellist, was considered one of the most important teachers and musicians of the twentieth century.

Author Steven Honigberg, who studied at The Juilliard School from 1979 to 1984 in Leonard Rose’s final class, examines the multifaceted American artist and the classical music context dominating Rose’s twentieth century.

This eagerly awaited biography portrays a complex individual during a period of tremendous individualism. Honigberg explores his sympathetic nature, his unyielding devotion to the cello, and, inevitably, his failings. Throughout, the reader sees Rose among the countless musical figures he affected as well as those who affected him.

This is the exciting premise of Steven Honigberg’s new book, Leonard Rose: America’s Golden Age and Its First Cellist. We had a chance to interview Steven about his book. Enjoy!

Thank you for this interview, Steven. Can we begin by having you tell us what your new book, Leonard Rose: America’s Golden Age and Its First Cellist, is all about?

Steven: Sure. Leonard Rose’s exquisite artistry as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player touched the lives of thousands of musicians and music lovers—yet none so profoundly as the roughly two hundred and fifty individuals entitled to call the great cellist, “my teacher.” I am among those so privileged. In a musical household, my first encounter with Leonard Rose came by way of the family phonograph and LP collection. I repeatedly listened to recordings Rose made after leaving his position as the New York Philharmonic’s principal cellist and bursting onto the solo scene. I recall peering into the jacket photo’s focused, deep-set, dark eyes that looked straight at me with the gaze of a tireless performer who appeared direct, sensitive, and passionate. In adolescence, I didn’t comprehend the emotions and thoughts the man’s sober expression conveyed. But his playing tugged at my heart. Its soulful beauty enthralled me. The tone was large and robust; his technique was impeccable. As a young cellist, an inexplicable desire to play for and to follow this man who so naturally produced this beautiful sound consumed me. This book examines the multifaceted American cellist and the classical music context that dominated Rose’s twentieth century. Professionally, the era during which he achieved greatness and the direction he chose to pursue could not have been musically richer. While Leonard Rose is a more than worthy solo biographical subject, he felt that the story of his inordinate contact and collaboration with his era’s most renowned musicians was especially valuable for posterity. So my aim in this volume was to showcase Rose among the countless musical figures he affected and those who affected him.

Interesting book, Steven. I understand you met Mr. Rose before he died. Can you tell us about that meeting?

Steven: I was 16 years old, visiting my friend in Michigan AND hearing my idol, Leonard Rose, with the Lansing Symphony performing Dvorak’s magnificent cello concerto. I was terribly excited. I had only heard and seen him on record covers, and I was in awe. His music-making directly spoke to me. At home in Chicago, I had worn out several records of his, trying to fashion my style like his: long bows, lovely vibrato, both of which produced scores of luscious colors. His walk on stage was confident. I was breathless for a moment immediately struck by how handsome he looked as he adjusted the endpin of his unique 17th-century Amati cello on the raised platform in front of the large audience. His trail blazing beautiful round, smooth sound and accurate technique struck me. Little did I know that he had just 5 years to live and that I was hearing him at the tail end of his superb career.

What was it about the man that intrigued you enough to write a book about him?

Steven: He was my teacher and inspiration AND he was so very famous. When I was growing up, the most celebrated piano trio on stage and in the recording studio was the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio. Their recordings and performances were legendary. Listening to their recordings as a young cellist meant a great deal to me. Somehow they made me understand what music was all about – the excitement, the beauty, and the depth. When the last surviving member, Eugene Istomin passed away, I felt the need to write about the trio, in particular Leonard Rose. It felt like some sort of rush that couldn’t be stopped. It had been over 20 years since Mr. Rose passed away when I dipped my toes in the water. This book took six years to write.

In an interview recently, you mentioned that Leonard Rose was a tortured soul. Would you care to elaborate?

Steven: Leonard Rose was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who came to this country with no money. As a child anti-Semites bullied him. Naively Rose married young, all the while struggling to make a living then becoming a troubled parent. With prolonged absences, he wasn’t much of a husband to his first wife either as they had many disagreements over the course of their lives. The cause of this dysfunctional behavior was his drive, somewhat neurotic in scope that propelled him to the highest plane of his profession. Everyone respected and admired Leonard Rose yet; he felt his accomplishments were never good enough. He needed more concerts, better reviews, added fame, and better students than every other living cellist. He is known to have lashed out at those whom he mentored who took over those performance dates that were once reserved for him.

What effect did his death have on you and the rest of the music community?

Steven: My goodness, I was devastated. Less than a year before his death he had recommended that I take a special audition for Mstislav Rostropovich’s National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC where I met success. Then he got sick with leukemia and died 8 months later. I never spoke to him again after my final lesson in April 1984. When he died I felt lost. I needed some guidance from my teacher. Luckily my mentor became Rostropovich who as Rose told me when I got into the orchestra was “a good colleague.” Rose was so correct!

You even had the help of Mr. Rose’s children when you were putting this book together. What were they like? Were they musically inclined, also?

Steven: Arthur and Barbara Rose were of enormous help to me when I began. Not only did Barbara arrange for me to receive a copy of the memoir, she was thrilled that I was taking on this project. She talked with me and emailed me several times a week for months pouring out her heart, which I tried capturing in the book. Arthur, who lives in the Washington DC area, allowed me the use of some of the photographs you see in the book and gave me several important interviews. Then it all stopped. Both signed off – somewhat angrily I must tell you. Arthur didn’t want me to write this book. One must understand the life of a soloist. Leonard Rose was basically absent as a parent and husband from 1951 onward when he traveled up to six months a year in order to make a living. After his first wife died in 1964, he immediately married a woman almost 20 years his junior who did not possess the warmth of Rose’s first wife which, among other issues, made the kids very angry with their father. Happily, I recently talked with Barbara and accepted her apology. She also thought the book was “her father” and ordered 10 books to send to her friends. Now that’s a compliment! I still have not heard from Arthur.

Would you consider your book to be a great reference book for those wanting to know more about Leonard Rose?

Steven: Absolutely. My 8 appendices deal with the orchestra repertoire he performed and who conducted these works; the famous soloists with whom he collaborated – dates and repertoire; major orchestras in this country with whom he soloed – repertoire, conductor and dates; the music library he left for future generations; his complete discography – dates of recordings, conductors and critical reviews; Stratford music festival and performances with Glenn Gould; summer festivals with Roy Harris in 1948 and in 1949. In chapter 14 – Rose’s Career Ignites – I chronicle a decade of concerts with repertoire and reviews from papers all over the country.

Finally, I like to ask authors this question…what is your passion? What is it that you’re more passionate about than anything else?

Steven: My passion has always been the cello. I love to practice and perfect the repertoire, whether it’s performing in orchestra, chamber music or as soloist. It is a great feeling to be able to express my emotions, what is inside me, on stage with my beautiful cello. There is no other feeling like it.

Thank you for this interview, Steven! Do you have any final words?

Steven: I hope that readers learn about and admire what made Leonard Rose such a great artist. Sure there are artists today who perform flawlessly without nerves, who seem to do it easily, effortlessly – but, is their music-making relevant? Without internal struggle, music can sound too easy, perfunctory. Not so with the perfectionist Leonard Rose who struggled throughout his life to get to the top only to find himself unhappy up there. If you want to read this book I suggest finding it at And if you want to read more about me, please check out Thank you!

You can visit his author page at

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