by Daniel Hathway

Kosower & OhThe Cleveland Cello Society will begin its new season with Mark Kosower’s Cleveland debut recital. The new principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra made his first solo appearance with the Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Joffrey Ballet at Blossom earlier in September. On Monday, September 27, Kosower will be joined by his wife, pianist Jee-Won Oh in music by J.S. Bach, Tcherepnin, Poulenc and Mendelssohn in an 8 pm performance in Harkness Chapel on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

Mark Kosower was born into a family of cellists in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. After studying with János Starker at Indiana University and Joel Krosnick at Juilliard, he taught cello and chamber music at the San Francisco Conservatory before being named solo cellist with the Bamberg Symphony in Germany in 2006. We spoke with him by phone at his new home over Labor Day weekend.

Daniel Hathaway: First of all, I loved the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Joffrey Ballet on Saturday evening. That must have been a new experience.

Mark Kosower: Thank you. It was a new experience. I hadn’t played for a dance company before.

DH: How was that different from a normal performance of the piece?

MK: Well, in some ways not so different, because of course you’re the soloist with the orchestra. The main difference was we had to make a few tempo adjustments and introduce some timing devices to give the dancers time to execute their choreography. And of course, originally, they designed the choreography to a recording of the piece played by somebody else.

DH: So you had to become the “somebody else” to a certain extent.

MK: Exactly. But in the end, the adjustments weren’t so major — mainly some tempo issues in some places, and also to take some time in between certain variations and in other places, again just to give the dancers time to set up for the next section.

DH: The abrupt weather change must have been an interesting challenge!

MK: (Laughs). I was expecting it to be very cold and windy and fortunately it wasn’t too much of either. Actually, the dress rehearsal on Friday was much more difficult because that day was very humid, and when the humidity is high it makes it difficult to move around the fingerboard.

DH: Well, welcome to Cleveland! How much of a change has it been moving here from Bamberg?

MK: Of course it’s an enormous change. The two locations are so far apart from each other that once you land here it’s almost like the other place didn’t exist. It’s taken some time, of course. We had all of our things shipped from there in the middle of June and our boxes just arrived at the end of last week. Besides the actual unpacking of the house, we’re settling in very nicely and it’s wonderful to be here.

DH: How did you come to play with the Bamberg Orchestra?

MK: It’s such a complicated story — you don’t have that kind of time! But in short, most orchestras in Europe have two principal players in each section, who share the position and play half the season. The other cellist — they call them “solo cellists” in Germany — had heard me play ten years ago at a cello festival outside Frankfurt in. He knew of my playing, and they were looking for a solo cellist. He contacted a cello professor in Freiburg who knew my wife’s former teacher’s widow — now that’s a connection!

DH: I’ll have to draw that one on a piece of paper!

MK: And so it was just one of those things in life. I never fathomed that I would go there in a million years, but I did, and it was a wonderful experience.

DH: And I believe you went there directly from San Francisco.

MK: That’s right.

DH: How did Franz find you?

MK: That was kind of a long thing in the making too. There were some people in the Cleveland area who knew about me, and asked me if I would have some interest in the position. My response was that if they had a serious interest toward me, I would have to seriously consider it, The Cleveland Orchestra being the organization that it is. One thing led to another. Also, Joel Smirnoff at CIM knew me from Juilliard because I studied with Joel Krosnick there, so he was interested in me coming to CIM to teach as well. So when the Orchestra decided they were interested in me, I got a chance to come for an invitation-only audition.

DH: Nice when it happens that way!

MK. Yes! (Laughs).

DH: Ida Mercer didn’t waste any time signing you up for a Cello Society concert. What are you going to be playing?

MK: A very diverse and dynamic program: the third Gamba Sonata of J.S. Bach, then a very interesting and wonderful collection of songs and dances written by a late Romantic Russian cellist-composer, Alexander Tcherepnin (there’s actually a Tcherepnin Society in New York City). It’s sort of in the style of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, but based on Central Asian themes with more exotic flavors. Then the Poulenc Cello Sonata and ending with the Mendelssohn D Major Sonata.

DH: Excellent. I see you have recently recorded the complete Ginastera cello works. How’s that selling?

MK: The last time I spoke to Naxos they said it was doing quite well. There are a couple of cellists who have recorded various works, but not all of them in a compilation like this.

DH: You also had a Hungarian album that came out about the same time.

MK: Right — of works by famous Hungarian composers that haven’t been recorded very often.

DH: I notice you also premiered Miklós Rózsa’s
Rhapsody. He’s known mostly in the US as a movie composer.  What’s that piece like?

MK: It’s an early work. I believe it was written just as he exited the Hochschule in Leipzig. It’s a very rhapsodic, improvisatory, colorful work, and I would say sheds a lot of light on his later works. It’s rooted in Hungarian folk music.

DH: Getting back to the concert at Harkness, your wife will be accompanying you, or, what is the word these days?

MK: We’re no longer in the days when the soloist sits thirty feet in front of the pianist! Like Heifitz, when after fifty years his pianist still called him “Mr. Heifitz”. Now it’s “collaborator” or “sonata partner”. There are a lot of different terms we can apply to that.

DH: I ask this question very often about spouses who perform together: what is that dynamic like?

MK: We were actually interviewed by the STRAD magazine last year on that very question because they like to interview couples. In our particular situation, it saves an incredible amount of time because there are many things we do that go unsaid just because we know the music making of each other so well, having played together for thirteen years now, but at the same time, there are always a few dangers to be aware of. When you feel so comfortable with someone, it’s easy to present something in the wrong manner, which can lead to big arguments. Over the years, we’ve gotten much better at avoiding that by not escalating to Stage B or Stage C! But I think it’s the best type of musical relationship one can have. The ensemble making is like no other.

DH: Where did you meet?

MK: We met at Indiana University, where she was the studio pianist for János Starker.

DH: You began playing very early. How can you even hold a cello when you’re eighteen months old?

MK: Well, you know they sell 1/8 size instruments, and the one I studied on was made by a Japanese company in the 1970’s, so it was even smaller, more like a 1/16 size. That was largely because of the Suzuki Method and what that brought to learning to play string instruments. As I grew older, my parents were trading instruments — on a lower economic level, it was much like trading cars. I also got one or two hand-me-downs from my sister who was and is still a cellist.

DH: Speaking of hand-me-downs, or maybe this is in the category of give-me-backs: are you still playing the Strad?

MK: No, that was a give-me-back as soon as I ended my relationship as a student or teacher at Juilliard. But I went to borrow it in 2000 for three or four weeks for a cello competition, and somehow I ended up playing it for five years. That was a tremendous experience that taught me all kinds of things about playing the cello that only that instrument could teach you.

DH: What are you playing on now?

MK: I am playing a cello that belongs to János Starker — a composite instrument with parts from different makers. It has a name, “The Nebula” (Starker’s wife names all his instruments), and interestingly enough, he played that instrument in some performances of the Dvořák Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra in the 80’s. He bought it in 1986 from a gypsy who came to the Third American Cello Congress in Bloomington. There’s no way the instrument should sound like it does. It’s not really a 100% healthy instrument, but it sounds better than most instruments that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mark Kosower and Jee-won Oh perform on Monday, September 27 at 7:30 in Harkness Chapel, 11200 Bellflower Road in Cleveland. Tickets are $20 and $50 (preferred seating) at the door, or $10 with a valid student ID. The Cleveland Cello Society is open to all cellists, students, amateurs or professionals. Visit the Society’s web site for membership information.

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