Interview with Cellist Wendy Warner for NVPO 2009/10 Season Opener

October 7, 2009
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The Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra (NVPO) begins its 2009/10 season by presenting world renown Cellist Wendy Warner.

Wendy Warner has performed in concert halls worldwide, having performed with the Chicago, Berlin, Boston, Dallas, London, and San Francisco symphonies and with orchestras from St. Petersburg to Hong Kong to Toulouse. This Sunday, as the NVPO begins its second season, the orchestra and its patrons throughout the valley are in for an afternoon of beautiful music!

Warner comes from a family whose music lineage is long. At age four, her mother introduced her to the piano, and at six she began to play cello. Warner always knew that music would be her life, she just never knew to what extent. As a child, she thought that everyone’s life was about music!

Warner’s musical defining moment occurred when she was 12. Cellist Zara Nelsova was performing Camille Saint-SaensCello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, the same piece that Warner will be performing with the NVPO, and it was then that Warner knew that being a soloist was what she wanted to be. It was only later that she then discovered she’d also have to win competitions! No worries there; Warner won the Fourth International Rostropovich Competition in 1990.

I spoke with Wendy Warner in advance of her performance with the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra. She was delightful to speak with and I look forward to her performance with the NVPO.

Betsy: You were six years old when you began to learn the cello, correct? Can you tell me a little about how you went from being six to sixteen and studying under Mstislav Rostropovich?

I grew up in Chicago and I studied with Mell Novak at the Music Center of the North Shore, now called the Music Institute of Chicago. Since I was 11 or 12, I played for Cellist Raya Garbousova (for whom the Barber Cello Concerto was composed) now and again. And when I was 16, she suggested that I go to the Cello Congress and arrange to play for Rostropovich, like a private lesson. She called him and arranged it, and I then flew with my teacher Mrs. Novak and played the Shostakovich Concerto.

I just thought Rostropovich was going to give me a lesson and say thank you and goodbye. But at the end of the lesson he asked where I lived and I told him Chicago. At the time, he was conducting The National Symphony, and he was there a lot during the year, and he said, ‘Oh, Chicago’s not very far from Washington D.C.’ He said that I should come play for him some time. I still had two more years in high school, so I commuted 3-4 times a year to D.C. to play for him.

In my senior year in high school, he wanted me to go to a University down in D.C., to be close so that I could study with him all the time. But at the last second he changed his mind and said he thought it would be better if I went to Curtis Institute of Music and that he’d join the faculty and would be my teacher there. I was happy because I really wanted to go to Curtis; that was my hope. I was so glad he changed his mind.

Wendy_Warner_5After school, I still played for him from time to time whenever I could catch him in New York. I even saw him the year before he passed away. It was really a special relationship.

Betsy: For the performance with the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra, did you choose the Saint-Saens or did Maestro Isaacson?

Maestro Isaacson did. It’s a good piece and I love Saint-Saens. His music is satisfying and romantic and there is a lot to enjoy about the Concerto. It’s so accessible, it’s very compact, a lot happens, you get a big range of emotion in the piece, and audiences really love it. It’s a good crowd pleaser. I also like the lyricism in the piece; it’s very satisfying.

Betsy: Do you have any preference for styles, composers or periods?

I really like the Romantic period. I think my playing lends itself more to that period. I also like playing Shostakovich and Barber, but I identify more with Rachmaninoff and Romantic composers. I love the slow movement of the Barber Concerto.

Betsy: Do you still play piano?

I played both cello and piano until I was 18, and I used to compete alongside cello. But I really couldn’t keep my chops going because I had to devote all my time to cello. Now I incorporate it into my teaching. When I’m playing with my students, I’ll always sit down and play the Beethoven Sonata piano part or Brahms.

Rostropovich was a big influence on me in that way, because he said that it was really important to study the score. He played piano so amazingly. He could just sit down and play the Franck Sonata on the piano. His technique was amazing. The way he was on the cello is just like he was on the piano.

He told me to learn everything, learn all the piano parts. So I did and I still try to keep it up. If I’m at a chamber music party, sometimes I’ll sit in on piano among friends, just for fun. It’s great therapy.

Betsy: Are there any contemporary cellists you look up to?

There was that whole generation of cellists about 10 years ago, we were all hanging out together. Zuill BaileyAlban GerhardtAlisa Weilerstein, I really admire her. There are a number of talented people out there, aside from the obvious like Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell. In Europe though, especially France, there are many amazing French cellist that no one hears about here in this country. That could be said about the violinists too. There are just so many.

Betsy: Are there any specific artists/musicians you love or would like to collaborate with?

I love working with violinist Rachel Barton. We’ve done one CD together already and we’re doing Brahms’ Double Concerto this year. I really love playing with her a lot. I’ve played the Brahms Double with a lot of people, but I haven’t yet played it with Gil Shaham.

Betsy: Are there any pieces you would love to perform but haven’t yet had the opportunity?

It’s funny, but there are many concertos that never get put on a program, like the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto, the Lutoslawki Concerto or the Hindemith Concerto. There are many concertos that I have under my fingers, but rarely get asked for. It would be amazing to record these. The Lutoslawski and the Hindemith would be a great combination, but a huge orchestra!


Betsy: You have a few CDs coming out over the next year. Can you tell me about them?

This year I have three CD projects. The first one just came out with all works by Popper and Piatigorsky. The second CD is a ‘Russian’ disc, Russian romantics. That will include a Rachmaninoff and Miaskovsky Sonata and then some shorter pieces by Scriabin and Prokofiev.

The third project includes some unknown Beethoven trios, including a world premier of a recently rediscovered Beethoven transcription of his E Flat String Trio for violin, viola and cello. He did it for a piano trio and it has never actually been premiered. This was unexpected for this project and the CD should be available around February.

I have a relationship with a label in Chicago called Cedille and they like doing works that are kind of off the beaten track and finding obscure repertoire. Although, the Russian CD isn’t obscure. Rachel Barton works with them and is always coming up with interesting ideas as well.

Betsy: You have performed with many of the world’s most famous symphonies and conductors. Which performances stand out in your mind as magical moments?

I think back at those times when I went on tour with Rostropovich and those were magical times, when he was conducting. I did a tour with him in Germany and we performed the Prokofiev Symphonia Concertante and Shostakovich Concerto No. 1. There was something amazing about it and I’ll never forget it.

And I really love Andre Previn. I loved working with Previn. I did a lot of Haydn with him. It was the way that he…somehow, the way he transcends the orchestra. It’s so spirited, and it felt so easy. The music, I felt, I could just speak the music. He just made it so ….it was just amazing.

I remember when I was a student at Curtis and he came and conducted the orchestra. Later he invited me as a soloist. I remember feeling so alive. I think that’s what it is; I felt so alive.

Betsy: You teach, correct?

Yes, I have students at Roosevelt University here in Chicago, and I’m also on the faculty at the Music Institute of Chicago.

Betsy: What do you try to tell your students? What important advice you give them?

I think that every teacher has their own style. You know how some are real gurus about technique and there are different schools, how to hold the bow, etc. Technique is clearly important if you want to play the cello well, but sometimes I’m not always thinking about there being only one way to do something. I try to think about the music first, which is also how I approach music. I feel that if the technique allows the music to happen, then it’s the right technique.

Betsy: The NVPO considers itself a teaching orchestra, acting as a springboard for its musicians as they move on to professional careers. With your experience, long career and teaching, what do you hope the musicians will take away from you and your performance?

Wendy_Warner_3I hope that it’s a good experience for them and that it helps give them strength towards their own career path. I think of the performance as a collaboration and hope that it will be as inspiring to them as it will be for me.

Who: Wendy Warner with the Neponset Valley Philharmonic Orchestra

What: Concerto No. 1 for Cello by Camille Saint-Saens

Where: Showcase Live, 23 Patriot Place, Foxboro, MA 02035 (next to Gillette Stadium)

When: Sunday, October 11, 2009, 3:00 p.m.