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Cellist Paul Katz Puts His Students on Equal Footing

Chamber-music coach and former Cleveland Quartet cellist sees students as colleagues

Paul Katz wields an unusual kind of authority. Even when his students act deferential, he addresses them as colleagues. At a master class, he’s usually the last person to comment, waiting so students will voice their perceptions freely. During a coaching session, he may ask, “If you were rehearsing without me, where would you start?” Perhaps the urge to collaborate developed during his 26 years as cellist of the illustrious Cleveland Quartet, which played more than 2,500 concerts between 1969 and 1995. Or maybe he already had the soul of an ensemble player when, as a teenager growing up in California, he heard a concert by the Budapest String Quartet.

“Mischa Schneider, the cellist, was my hero,” says Katz. “When I heard his sound at the bottom of the [Budapest], I wanted to be a floor like that. From the cello position, you can inspire the sound of the whole group.”

Now 65, Katz still inspires whole groups, but more often as a teacher than as a player. He puts in ten-hour days at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston, giving cello lessons and directing the Professional String Quartet Training Program he established during the tenure of Daniel Steiner, the late president of NEC, who recruited Katz in 2000. Katz remains “a floor,” giving students the foundation they need to build their own musical lives.

On a typical day, Katz opens the door to his studio wearing a sweater and corduroy slacks, holding his 1669 Andrea Guarneri cello by the neck. He smiles warmly but makes no small talk before introducing the members of the quartet he’s coaching. It’s 2006, so they are the award-winning Jupiter String Quartet: Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins, Liz Freivogel, viola, and Dan McDonough, cello. The Jupiters are having a final coaching session before graduating from the school’s high-powered training program for string quartets. (NEC also offers a professional training program for piano trios.)

For the next hour, Katz zeroes in on what he considers most important in string quartet playing: every little thing.

“Again?” he asks the group.

Positioning their instruments, the Jupiters send a series of fortissimo double-stops reverberating throughout the room. A ragged, very soft unison tone follows, with bows suddenly stuttering. From fortissimo to pianissimo, it’s a tough transition (bars 98–99 of the second movement of Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 1). Beethoven allowed no time for players to leap from one dynamic extreme to another. “We don’t want to take any time,” Meg Freivogel says.

“We want to set the new sound, but we don’t want to lose time.”

“Okay, set it,” says Katz, “but take the fortissimo to the wall.”

They try again, digging into the loud chords, but wavering on the soft unison.

“Would a tiny diminuendo be okay?” Meg asks.

Always the catalyst, never the oracle, Katz says, “To my mind, the more subito you can play Beethoven, the better.”

McDonough, the cellist, asks Lee, the first violinist, to cue the change. They try it and then laugh when no one can follow the cue. Katz suggests they use rehearsal time to take turns playing the passage individually. That way, they can experiment with their own techniques and listen to each other’s solutions to the problem.

Later, Lee reflects on the quartet’s growth during its two years under Katz’s tutelage as the program’s student-quartet-in-residence. “He hasn’t babied us. He just gives us his opinion,” Lee says. “When we disagree as a quartet, we have to find a compromise that everyone feels sincerely.”

There is an art to coaching an ensemble, says violinist Barry Shiffman, who left the St. Lawrence String Quartet last year to become director of music for the Banff Centre in Canada. “What’s great about Paul,” he says, “is the breadth of his experience. String quartet is the art of conversation, and Paul listens to everyone. To coach a quartet, you have to be a bit of a psychiatrist. You take on a role much greater than finding the right tempo in a Beethoven quartet. You help them learn how to live the life.”

Liz Freivogel agrees.

“He talks to us about practical things like how to build repertoire, when to enter competitions, how to plan a concert tour and resolve differences in the quartet,” she says. “In general, I don’t think conservatories focus enough on that stuff.”

This year, the Parker Quartet has the honor of holding the quartet residency position, which entitles its members to free tuition, a stipend, and two coaching sessions a week from Katz, plus one from another member of NEC’s chamber music faculty, either Martha Strongin Katz, Donald Weilerstein, or Laurence Lesser. Since the program was established in 2000, it has launched the Kuss, Biava, and Jupiter quartets, all of which have won major competitions, secured professional management, and made recordings.

Sometimes Katz sits in with his cello during a coaching session. “When he plays in the quartet,” says violinist Karen Kim of the Parker Quartet, “we can feel his phrasing in a way that’s hard to resist. You feel how strongly he puts forth his ideas, how much goes into being a good quartet player.”

Always, Katz considers sound quality.

“I like to think of myself as a colorist,” he says, “and I am preoccupied by what I can paint inside a single sound. For a sound to stay alive, something interesting should happen within it.”

When he works with the Ariel Quartet, a young group from Israel studying at NEC, he hears “dirt” in some of their passagework. “That’s just unacceptable, the quality of those four notes,” he says. “Play your instruments extremely neatly. Practice it slowly and warm up the sound.”

They do.

“That’s beautiful,” Katz says, smiling with deep satisfaction. A few days later, the Ariel Quartet wins the 2006 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition.

So sensitive is Katz to sound quality that it affects his sense of pitch. He has perfect pitch, but only with respect to certain instruments.

“If you play me a note on a cello,” he says, “I can tell you what it is. On the viola, I can guess right about 75 percent of the time, and on the violin a little less often than that. On the French horn, I couldn’t do it at all.”

Watching Katz “live the life” influenced one of his former cello students, Brandon Vamos, to be a member of the acclaimed Pacifica Quartet. Vamos recalls his student days at the Eastman School of Music, where the Cleveland Quartet was in residence for 20 years. “Being on the periphery of Paul’s career with the Cleveland Quartet,” he says, “I saw him play the most personal repertoire there is, having control over what he played. It looked ideal.”

The Pacifica continues to seek Katz’s opinion. Vamos remembers that after one of the group’s early performances of Beethoven’s Op. 131, the quartet had to dash for the airport before talking to Katz, who had heard the concert. Vamos called him from the terminal. “He talked to me for 25 or 30 minutes about specific things he remembered,” says Vamos. “He understands the nuts and bolts that make music work. You can take his specific comments and make sounds that shape your whole feeling about a piece, help you conceptualize it. His comments are always concise and clearly stated, never confusing. In that one conversation, he completely changed the way we play the piece.”

During a day of cello lessons, quartet coaching sessions, and a cello master class, Katz treats each person differently. He may begin by eliciting a student’s musical imagery, discussing the character of a passage, or by focusing on a physical challenge. He has a genius for making up simple exercises and for suggesting them at precisely the moment when a student is about to become frustrated. He’s like the plumber in the joke, who fixes a problem by hitting a pipe. The secret is knowing where to hit the pipe, what to change in a cellist’s posture or an ensemble’s intonation.

He follows no particular method, basing his approach on what a student seems to need and on the pedagogy of the great teachers of the last generation with whom he studied: Gabor Rejto, Gregor Piatigorsky, Bernard Greenhouse, Pablo Casals, Leonard Rose, and Janos Starker.

With each student, he strives to discover comfortable, even physically pleasurable, ways to produce expressive tone and deliver a convincing performance. Having suffered serious health problems himself, he appreciates the importance of using natural motions, minimizing muscle tension, and respecting the attributes of individual bodies. “Sometimes I talk to students about the physical pleasure of playing,” he says. “They blush, because most of us are shy about discussing physical pleasure, but they nod their heads, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’

“When the bow softens and you feel the way you pull the string, feel your arm sink in, it’s a way of enjoying sound and motion.”

Katz has recovered from those severe health problems, including a ruptured disc caused by a fall. For many years, a progressive eye disease changed the shape of his corneas, dimming and distorting the marks he saw on the printed page. He lost his driver’s license and wore rigid contact lenses to maintain enough vision to function. A wise doctor urged him to put off surgery as long as possible, to wait for medical breakthroughs. To read sheet music, before the days of multifunction photocopiers, Katz had the pages enlarged by professional photo services. Using a home aquarium light, he rigged up a fluorescent lamp that he clamped on his stand and packed around the world during tours with the Cleveland Quartet. Then, in 1975 and 1977, corneal transplants permanently restored his vision.

“I’ve had career-threatening experiences,” he says, “so I empathize with students who are scared about physical problems. That’s why I teach how to play with healthy habits.”

As he attends to posture, left-hand angles, and bow-arm motions, he also nourishes the imaginations of his students.

Two of his former students, Jonathan Pegis and Brant Taylor, who now play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, remember getting their hands organized during the first year of study and then working to communicate musically.

“I never knew what he’d say when I finished playing,” says Taylor. “It might be something I’d never thought of in my life. He’d stare at the ceiling beyond me and squint his eyes, imagining a sound. Then he would move his hand to imitate fast, agile motions with the bow, showing me different ways to excite the string.”

Katz also knows how to use surprise and humor. He shocked students one April evening during a master class many years ago at Eastman. Pegis, his teaching assistant at the time, was about to play the Kodaly unaccompanied sonata.

As the two met in the hall before the class, Katz suggested they do something a little different. Pegis agreed. The students filed in, and Pegis sat down to perform the entire sonata from memory. When he finished, the students applauded.

Katz did not. Instead, he exploded.

“I am so ticked off!” he yelled at Pegis. “You aren’t doing any of the things we talked about in your lesson!”

The students couldn’t believe what they were seeing or hearing. Their jaws dropped with astonishment. Katz proceeded to criticize his assistant’s technique and to mock his musical interpretation, generally ripping him apart. Pegis looked more and more dejected, but he was trying not to laugh.

At last, Katz said, “Which of us is the better actor?”

Pegis grinned.

“April fool,” teacher and student said.

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