Articles by and about James Kreger

A Conversation with Cellist James Kreger

Fanfare Magazine

by James Reel

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of Fanfare Magazine. Copyright © 2002 by Fanfare, Inc. Used by permission.

If your only exposure to classical musicians is through the major-label CDs that dominate the retail shelves, a great many highly active, well regarded but only intermittently recorded players are escaping your attention. Consider New York-based cellist James Kreger, who took a top prize at the 1974 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and boasts a thick file of testimonials from the likes of Zara Nelsova, Garrick Ohlsson, Eugene Drucker, Michael Tilson Thomas, James Galway, and Carlos Kleiber. Kreger has by no means lived in seclusion all these years, but his recording history has hardly reflected his concert schedule. What you can find with a little scouting includes a bracing version of Jacques Ibert's Concertino for Cello and Wind Instruments on Music & Arts, and Felix Mendelssohn's complete works for cello and piano (with Gerald Robbins), most recently available from Discover International and probably soon to be reissued by the Swiss-English label Guild. Those have been around for more than ten years, but recently Guild has brought out two big efforts: Richard Strauss's Don Quixote (coupled with Also sprach Zarathustra), and Dvořák's Cello Concerto and Silent Woods, plus Victor Herbert's Cello Concerto in E Minor, all in collaboration with Djong Victorin Yu and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The Dvořák disc has won praise in the international press, including from Robert McColley in Fanfare 25:4. Bernard Jacobson expressed a dissenting view in the same issue, but even so wrote that "Kreger's playing is indeed that of a fine musician, commanding a warm, vibrant tone, and generous in his response to the music's promptings." Even the occasional negative review can't help revealing an underlying positive response to Kreger's work.

I spoke with Kreger by phone recently, after having read several pages he'd mailed me detailing his background and his thoughts on music. The following remarks are cobbled together from both sources.

"From the first moment I ever heard any music," he wrote, "I realized it was the door which, when opened, would reveal all: expression, emotion, meaning, infinity. It was always music that transported me. Many people say that if you are a musician, your sound is your signature. I like to think that your sound is your soul! In fact, it is always true. First, you must know what sound you want, but it is not always easy, because many people don't even know who they are inside. Indeed, to find your sound you must find yourself. The irony is, one listens to others to find out, and this may even involve copying, or trying to copy. But as hard as you try to copy, you can never really do it, because your own self will emerge. In this world, we are all constantly taking from our experiences, our surroundings, the people and artists we are exposed to. . . . Of course, we can never really copy it. When we try, it changes according to who we are, and thus, unconsciously, we make it our own.

"I listened to many 78-rpm recordings when I was young. No one played them for me. I just was curious and decided I wanted to find out what was on them. The very first classical recording I can remember hearing was Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I was perhaps seven years old, and I was overwhelmed! I can remember how much I wanted to be inside the music, as a participant, a celebrant! I wanted to be part of it, and from that point, I eventually requested to study the cello (when the school in Nashville, Tennessee, didn't have any saxophones, which is what I really wanted to play) and the piano. In the meantime, I listened to other recordings lying around the house: Beethoven's Ninth with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Heifetz and Toscanini, and others. In another five years, I was listening to recordings of Casals, Kreisler, Caruso, Gigli, McCormack, etc. I also was fortunate enough to hear live performances by great artists, including Moiseiwitsch playing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto.

"As you can see, I'm not really talking about the steps I took to develop my sound, since I believe the sound develops as a result of one's imagination and life experiences. Of course, it is essential that one develop technique, in order to best portray the sound and the music. And it is technique that will carry you through the years. Just look at Maggie Teyte. It was her strong vocal technique that allowed her to sing well into old age. And there were many others; Carlo Bergonzi, for example. Of course, there are people who have a great sound, but unfortunately say nothing. A true sound has meaning, not that it really means anything, because it only means itself. But a true sound opens the door to infinite worlds of emotion and meaning. Casals could hold a note, and one would be transported. So many other artists of the past had similar traits.

"It is difficult to talk about sound. We can analyze its tangible qualities (i.e., mellow, rich, thin, fat, focused), but we could still miss the point, since the greatest quality of sound is its potential for magic. But the magic is not the sound per se. Rather it is what is 'inside' the sound, or 'behind' the sound. Callas did not have a beautiful sounding voice, yet what it said was beautiful, true, and pure, with the utmost of integrity and conviction. Unlike many then and now, rather than playing the role at hand, she became the role.

"In terms of models, I had many: Casals, Heifetz, Feuermann, Rachmaninoff, Hoffmann, Caruso, Gigli, Tebaldi, Olivero, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Callas, and others. I must confess to holding a special place in my heart for the great pianist and artist Sviatoslav Richter. Richter's teacher, the great Neuhaus, believed that tone was the most important thing of all, calling it 'the substance of music' in his book The Art of Piano Playing. Richter's playing possessed such incandescent passion, yet it always seemed to be held in check, as if it could burst forth at any second! Along with his consummate technique, the ability to produce hundreds of colors and shades of texture and sound, there was this ever-present controlled passion: He almost always took us on a journey into the very soul and meaning of the music."

Cellist James Kreger

Note that Kreger lists several vocalists among his inspirations. "The cello definitely has a natural human voice quality," he wrote. "Therefore, when one plays, the potential for every aspect of the voice is present. Even words can be portrayed on the cello. The cello can sing (almost better than any other instrument), speak, be lyrical, or be dramatic. All the colors and timbres of the human voice are possible on the cello. There is absolutely no limit to its emotional range. To me, the cello has a wonderful ability to project the cantilena line. I always think of the Italian expression filo di voce. One must never lose sight of this!

"The sound is always changing," he elaborated in conversation. "The sound in Ibert is different from the sound in Dvořák; it's what the sound has inside it or behind it, as if we could go to the other side of the mirror or through this invisible door into another world of emotion, this world of the composer. Every great composer will have his own world that his music creates, and the goal should be to enter that world and become part of that world and still have the control over your technique. Now, it's infinite what technique really means. It's not just how fast you can play accurately and in time, it's the whole gamut. Certainly every great composer will have his or her distinct world, and I think all great artists will have their own distinct sound, something defined by who they are, and that distinctive sound will be their basic signature and yet it will be malleable enough that it will change and take shape and color depending on the music at hand. I favor the artist that one has the impression is becoming the role at hand, rather than just playing the role. If you translate that to music, when the artist becomes the music at hand, the impression is of such commitment, such involvement, that the listener cannot help but be drawn in."

Surely, this sort of commitment and immersion sets limits on the number and character of works a musician should perform. "No one can be great in everything; it's not humanly possible," Kreger agreed. "It's hard for me to think of composers that are very difficult for me to fit myself into, though. It might take more work with some than others. I'm not the kind of person who will just take on everything I can get my hands on, because I'm kind of a perfectionist in the sense that I don't want to do it unless it can be really good-until I know I'm ready. I didn't touch the Dvořák concerto until pretty late. I had colleagues who were learning it in their teens; I didn't touch it until I was in my twenties. Many people felt they had to do the Dvořák as soon as possible. I have one student who's twelve years old who's doing the Dvořák. Sometimes I may revere something so much that I feel almost afraid to touch it because it's so great. I do that with people, too. Like David Oistrakh-I found him so inspiring as an artist, and there are numerous times I could have spoken with him and told him how much I admired his playing, but I couldn't do it because I had put him on such a pedestal. At the Tchaikovsky Competition he was a judge, and once I walked right past him and heard him talking to other judges, and I heard this voice coming from a human being; it was a little whiny or high-pitched, it didn't fit this picture I'd put in my mind, and I couldn't say one word to him. I'd put him above being just a human being."

James Kreger

One thing that didn't seem to intimidate Kreger was going head-to-head with Yo-Yo Ma in the Dvořák/Herbert program. It turns out, though, that Kreger recorded his CD before Ma's, but release was delayed until last year. "Some people wondered if he got the idea from us, but who knows what his thinking was," Kreger said. "I know him, but I don't think he knew about our CD. But coming out after his CD didn't concern me. I strongly believe that if I'm going to do a recording, or whatever I do, it has to be me, it has to be what I have to say. It would have to be a totally different, individual approach, which today is hard to come by because you find that so many people and orchestras sound like each other. I'm old enough to have experienced the individual sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy, the Chicago Symphony under Solti, Cleveland under Szell, the American Symphony Orchestra under Stokowski. But the point about being exposed to the individual sounds of the different orchestras, and artists and singers, is that there was much more of that when I was in my teens and early twenties, and now it's changed drastically. I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't all related to the tremendous fragmentation of our world that accompanies the popularity of the computer in our age. But I must feel strongly enough about what I have to say artistically that there is an individual message, because that's what art is; otherwise it isn't art anymore."

Kreger had mentioned that he believes one's sound develops as a result of one's imagination and life experiences. I asked if he thought his sound, or any aspect of his musicianship, is significantly different now from when he made his first splash in the 1970s. "I think probably, at least for me, the basic sound is there early, and then it matures like a fine red wine," he said. "I can't see it totally changing, not in my case. It could with other people. When you listen to very early recordings of Heifetz, he sounds like Kreisler, who was his idol. But around, I guess, the late teens, early 1920s, you start to detect a distinct change in the Heifetz sound, and he begins to take on the sound you associate with him. To me, I sense that the sound really changed, but maybe it was just maturing and formulating. I'm thinking, too, of faces, of an early photo of Gustav Mahler and how as time went on his face became much more angular and much more complex, as did his music. The early pictures seem more simple, more naïve, although I don't know that he lost a certain naïveté even when his music became so complex with so much detail and all kinds of emotion. In my case, I believe my sound changed, but I don't know if it totally reinvented itself. I believe sound is who you are; there's a certain element in a person's sound that should be there at a very early age, I would think. There's a certain core to the sound-a core in the quality of the sound; I don't necessarily mean a core in the type of sound. In the cello the core sound is close to the bridge, but I don't mean it that way; I mean 'core' referring to the essence of a human being, and usually you can sense something at a very early age, whether it's in a singer or cellist or violinist or pianist or conductor. Maybe less with singers; sometimes they develop very slowly, and a lot of them do something totally different before they become singers."

Kreger's philosophical rather than technical approach to performance extends to his attitudes toward teaching-something he does not do merely for some quick cash. "Teaching is the most important profession in the world, especially if we want to make the world a better place, not just in terms of music but in terms of everything," he said. "You have to be completely dedicated to each student and that student's development. That's not just for the duration of a lesson or session; it's an ongoing thing, and you're talking about a period of years sometimes. The student has to respect the teacher, and the teacher has to love the student in the sense of caring enough about the development of the student, as if he or she were part of you or part of your family. We're talking about involvement-a commitment-that goes across the board. Commitment applies to everything you do in life. When I listen to someone playing music, I want to listen to someone who has such commitment that they draw me into their world, or lift me up and take me into another place and time. And if you are a truly involved teacher, you have to find a way to open a door, an invisible door, for the student; once that's opened there's a free flow of information and understanding. It has to do with communication; it has to do with chemistry. You can say something that can be totally unrelated to what you're talking about technically, but used in that context your words elicit just the right response and you're able to convey what it is you're trying to get across to that student. Because every personality is different, there is a different way to reach each different student. It's not easy, but you feel very alive when you're teaching; the results can be just wonderful, and you feel a real sense of contribution and accomplishment.

"Sometimes it can take a long time; sometimes it can happen in a split second. I see students who don't start to blossom until several years have passed. There's a mystery there. I have to say that a lot of times it makes it very challenging, and it makes me try harder to try different ways to see how I might reach a student. The teacher is oftentimes learning much more in the teaching process than the student, and that is another part of why teaching is so wonderful. My teacher Harvey Shapiro has told me very often that he should pay the student, rather than the student pay him, and I can understand that, because the teacher at that stage of development or age is often much more receptive, certainly wiser, to take in all kinds of things that would be learned from a one-on-one with a student or even in a master class. I can see teaching as something that you can do into old age, and one hopes you would get wiser and better at it as you get older. And why wouldn't you want to-just the realization that you are affecting other prospective artists with your outlook on the cello, on sound, on tone production, on so many elements of artistic expression that certainly I wouldn't want to be lost to the past.

"I was fortunate enough to study with Casals on a number of occasions. Even in his nineties he was still able to create that universe, that other world, just by putting the bow on the string and making a tone. His intonation was absolutely solid even at that age; his vibrato wasn't as vibrant as it had been in his sixties, but the world he could create just by playing a whole note-he could transport you. You would hope that many, many people would be affected by an artist who can do that, because it's not just about playing notes accurately in rhythm, fortepiano, crescendo; there is something inside the sound that these great artists had. It's a message, something not necessarily in what it says, but it's more what it accomplishes, what it elicits in the listener. You're getting into that mystical element of musical artistry, and I don't know how you teach something like that."

So how exactly was Kreger able to learn from his major teachers? "With Leonard Rose it was in his playing, sometimes in what he said also, but he did his best teaching by his demonstration. He would pretty much want you to play the way he did. He would put his stamp on his students. Many of his students would have a similar approach, but they would never quite get it as well as he did in terms of his use of the bow, etc. Somebody like Harvey Shapiro would combine the playing with words, and they could be words not really connected to what he was trying to accomplish, but they would be very effective. With Pablo Casals, he would play occasionally, but it would usually be slow playing, and it would be about something in the sound. He would talk a lot about variety, and I remember him using the word 'rainbow' very commonly. It was very important for Casals that music have feeling, that it would have emotion. I remember a student would play and he would say, 'Very good, but just notes, not music.' He wanted it to be music, and he would make a big thing about that. And yet obviously the playing of the instrument, the technical foundation of all those things has to be there. It's amazing-as old as Casals was, when he would sit at the cello it was like the cello was an extension of his body, and with all the great cellists there's a certain physical naturalness with the instrument. I had some lessons with Piatigorsky, who was very inspiring; I remember playing the Rachmaninoff sonata for him, with Garrick Ohlsson, at Piatigorsky's house where he had his class of students there, and I was getting pretty important information about that piece almost from the horse's mouth. I learned a lot from piano teachers, too, like Guido Agosti, the great piano pedagogue, when I listened to him teach the late Beethoven sonatas. I'm a big, big fan of the piano. I guess I have more interest in going to a piano recital or buying piano recordings than in buying cello recordings. A lot of it has to do with the repertoire; the piano has a huge repertoire and a great variety of players."

Although Kreger's own recent recordings have emphasized standard cello repertoire, the Ibert piece he did in the early 90s serves as a hint of things to come in future CDs. "There's a Busoni recording in the works: a version of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue he did for cello, and other things. I also want to do an American album. Phillip Ramey wrote me a piece I'd like to record, and I'm friendly with John Corigliano, who has some cello music. There's some music of Paul Creston that I don't think has been recorded, and David Diamond-it may end up being more than one CD. And the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello, although I don't know that I want to hurry into that. I tend to wait quite a while before I touch something like that because I want it to develop inside me. We'll see."

Kreger does not take his forays into the marketplace lightly. "Nowadays, there is much frustration and uncertainty about our civilization," he wrote. "The relevance and viability of classical music is being seriously questioned, and we can see evidence of this in the increasing lack of classical music departments in our record stores. Perhaps this is due as much to an overabundance of misdirected, generic, mechanical performances as to narrow-minded marketing. We have also experienced events of the recent past that have become indelibly emblazoned upon our consciousness. Because of this I strongly feel that music needs integrity and truthfulness more than ever before, which will definitely benefit the world."

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