Remembering Bernie (For the London Cello Society)
Bernard Greenhouse died on 13 May 2011 and left behind thousands of adoring cello students across the globe and a legacy that will stretch far in to the future . I count myself as one of these students although I only began to have lessons with him two years ago but they were two essential years of my cello life.
It's a precious thing indeed to discover a new source of learning and inspiration as an adult (and as a professional), but this is what Bernie found aged 30 in Pablo Casals, and this is what I found in Bernie. I believe he understood exactly what I was looking for when I travelled to his home in Cape Cod in 2009. I was thick in the midst of concerts, practising, some teaching of my own and all the other extraneous jobs that a cellist of today has to manage. I was preparing Bach G major suite and Elgar concerto - two pieces that have been in my repertoire for 20 years already and I felt a bit drained and out of ideas! From the first notes of the G major prelude, with Bernie sitting opposite me quietly and meticulously observing, I understood that our lessons would not be about how in shape I felt but only if what I was 'speaking' on the cello could be understood. All the effects and vanities of modern cello fashion became immediately irrelevant. The only important question was "Are you speaking a word, a sentence, a paragraph and a story?".
Technique was the tool to carve the contours of phrases. Even the word "phrase" when Bernie uttered it took on a deeper meaning - he had been striving for beautiful and meaningful phrases throughout his career and had found a lifetime's joy in the search. The natural affinity that Bernie had with the instrument (and particularly with the Strad that accompanied him for 50 years) was an inspiration. I grew up listening to Bernie's opening solo of the Brahms B major trio Op.8 (his sound being described perfectly by one critic after his debut recital in Carnegie Hall as "the sound of burnished gold") and was thrilled still to hear that same voice from a 92 year old player.
An instrumentalist's sound is a mysterious and perhaps mystical thing, but I think in Bernie's case it came from his natural physical suppleness and perfect 'cello hands' paired with a generosity and open-ness of musical spirit second to none. He encouraged all his students to sing from the heart on their instrument and could demonstrate this purely and directly. His eyesight suffered in his final years so that he could no longer read music but his memory of the repertoire was razor sharp and his passion for the music burned as brightly as ever. Bernie will be missed by all who encountered him - his students, his colleagues and his audience, but remembering Bernie for me is simple - I just have to pick up my cello.