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Jules Eskin

At 82-years-young, Jules Eskin is the record-breaking principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He will celebrate 50 years in the BSO in 2014, a position he took up in 1964 after three years as principal cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra. Not only did he agree to share his stories for Opus Cello, he also mixed me the strongest Gin Martini I ever had.

Can you give us some ideas about your background and how you started playing the cello?

My father was a Russian immigrant who came over to the US in the early 1900s, about 1910, as a 10-year-old tailoring apprentice. He first heard a cello here when he was about 13-years-old at a church and thought: “This is for me!” So he took up the cello! His first teacher was Hans Kindler, who was principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra at that time and then became principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. My papa had a nice tone but he never quite made it. At that time, it was the era of silent movies and most movie theaters had those little orchestras. So he would play in the movie theaters and in the winter he would go south and play chamber music in some hotels. That’s how he was working it when he was still young and single. But then the talkies came in and the theater thing dried up. He auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but did not get the job, and decided to go back to tailoring.

 

 Jules Eskin posing with his dad.

At home, he was playing in a string quartet every weekend and I loved listening to the music. I used to sit by the cello, listening carefully, and by the time I was 5-years-old, I wanted to play the cello too! But he thought I was too small and should play the piano. So I started to take piano lessons at 5. My parents thought I was already reading the notes but actually I was playing everything by ear, since I had perfect pitch. Not sure if I still do now but a few years have elapsed!

My dad finally bought me a cello when I was 7. At this time, his tailor shop was our corner house in Philadelphia. Usually in those days, a corner house would often have a grocery store or a drug store, and the drug store would have a soda fountain with booths, so you could go in and order your ice cream or soda and sit down. The pharmacist would be there and you just came in and greeted him with a cheerful “Hi, Doc! How are you?” and he would hand-scoop some ice cream for you. So this is how I grew up.

 

 Jules Eskin as a boy in front of his corner house in Philadelphia.

The tailor shop was in the corner house and the grocery store was right across the street. Many of my wild kid friends who I used to play with would come to my house and ask: “So, when are you coming out to play, Jules?” and I had to say: “Well, I don’t know, I have to practice…” This was the era of gut strings so occasionally I would cut my A string, go downstairs and yell “Hey, Pop! I can’t practice! I don’t have an A string!” Just so I could go out and play.

I used to have little contests with my father, who had a very nice tone. He would say: “ Let’s see who can play this the most beautifully.” and he would play and I would play but he used to be at me! I grew up with someone at me all the time! My mother used to say: “Sam! That’s enough! Leave him alone!” Every night at dinner, I would get it: “Why don’t you do this? Why haven’t you done that? You know this kid who played before you at the cello lesson the other day? He played this Haydn minuet so beautifully. How come you have so much trouble with it? I don’t understand. You should get with it.” He was really turning the knife in there! I had a lot of resentment against my father at that time.

I first came to Tanglewood in 1948, the summer before I joined the Dallas Symphony. I was in the opera department with Boris Goldovsky, who was an incredibly smart and wonderful opera coach. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but now I understand it. I used to see him with singers at the lake, on the float, talking to them about different arias, and explaining things. It was wonderful. I did one week in the orchestra department, which Koussevitzky used to conduct at that time, thanks to another fellow who traded with me for a week. That was the era of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Howard Shanet. I had a chamber music coaching with Gregor Piatigorsky but I think I played very poorly. I was so terrified of playing for him!

At age 16, I was ready to flee the family home! In that era, the different orchestra conductors would come in town to conduct auditions. You didn’t have to fly out to play. I told my dad: “Hey, Pop, I think I am going to audition for the Dallas Symphony and the National Symphony. They are having auditions in town.” Of course, he said: “Oh, you will never get it, come on!” So I made a deal with him that if I won a job, I could leave the family nest and go out on my own. He was convinced there was no chance I would get either one of those jobs, since I was only 16 at the time. I played for Antal Dorati, who was the conductor of the Dallas Symphony at the time, and they offered me a contract. I took it and about a month later, I was offered a position in Washington too but I had already signed up for Dallas. But that was fine, I was very excited to leave home! Finally, I was starting my life at 16! I felt the whole world was out there waiting for me and I was tired of living in what seemed to be a little town. I can still see my mother at the train station in North Philadelphia. She was so sad to see me go so early. I had my cello, a bag of clothes and my father’s immigrant suitcase from the old country, as well as a huge bag full of sandwiches my mother made for the 3-days train trip from Philadelphia to Dallas.I played in Dallas for one season and that is where I met Janos Starker and Lev Aronson. Lev Aronson was a wonderful cellist who was a survivor from the Nazi concentration camps. His life was quite a story.

 

Cellist Lev Aronson.

He was principal cello when I joined the orchestra and a few weeks later, Janos Starker arrived in the US and took over that position. We became friends and I took lessons from him. He was wonderful to me, very kind. He seemed like an older man to me but he was only 27 years old! He could play everything. He could play folk songs, strum the cello like a guitar, sing stuff while he was playing…he was truly amazing! He was a real renaissance man. I had a great year in Dallas. I still remember Jascha Heifetz playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with us. It was amazing. Both Starker and I left after one season. He went to the Metropolitan Opera as principal cellist and I went back to music school in Philadelphia, living again with my parents. But it felt ok this time because I felt like a professional!

I studied at the Philadelphia Musical Academy with a very fine cellist, a student of Pablo Casals, whose name was Maurice Eisenberg. He was a great teacher and a very fine musician. I studied with him for one year but the school kicked me out after that year! I wanted to study at the Curtis Institute of Music but I didn’t ask the school for permission to take the audition. So when they found out, they were not happy and they kicked me out. Luckily for me, I was accepted at Curtis, where I studied with Gregor Piatigorsky for one year.

I was there in 1950-51 and Piatigorsky was the main teacher but he was a touring artist at that time so he wasn’t there that often. His assistant, Erling Blöndal Bengtsson, taught the rest of the time. When Piatigorsky came back in town, he would pack a bunch of lessons together and we would scamper around like scared little mice!“He is coming back! Are you prepared? What are you going to play? Oh my god, I have two lessons in a row!” We were frightened out of our wits! So one day I go in for a lesson and he is probably already bored. He is sitting in his big studio, with his hands on his face. I go sit on my chair and he says to me with his slow, heavy Russian accent: “I vant to be moved!” Remember, I am just a 17-year-old kid! He adds: “I don’t care if you play whole concerto. I vant to hear vone good phrase. I vant you to taste the blood!” I told him: “You know, Mr. Piatigorsky, sometimes I get very nervous. Do you have any advice that might help me? He said: “I vill tell you vat I have done to cure nerves. First, I take hands and put in ice. Then take hands cold and put Vaseline on hands. Then go into room and close shades, make very dark. Take cello, sit down and imagine worst enemy!” Well, that was very helpful! (laughs)

His book is a riot! It’s like spending an hour with him. He is so entertaining. Many of the stories are made up but it doesn’t matter, it’s so charming and so great. I studied with him for one year and then I didn’t see him until I joined the Boston Symphony in 1964. But I am getting ahead of myself! After my year at Curtis, we were in the middle of the Korean War and I was worried I would not get a deferment. A lot of my buddies enlisted in the Navy Band and the Marine Band and they were all stationed in Washington. There was also an Army band at Fort Myer, Virginia. I went to play for the guy at the Navy Band, Commander Brendler and he said: “Now, you play well, but I don’t care if you play like Pablo Casals, we’ve got no opening for you!” So that was it for the Navy! Then I auditioned for the Army Band and they had an opening and they took me. I enlisted in the Army in June 1951. Are you bored yet?

Not at all! It’s all highly entertaining!

So when I joined the Army in 1951, I went in with a violinist from Curtis, a fellow named John Pintavalle. We both enlisted at the same time, and we knew that when you joined the Army Band, you were given the grade of sergeant, which is three stripes over and one under. So we enlisted, they gave us our uniforms and very soon we were walking around Washington like big shots. We were saluting officers and everything, feeling great about ourselves! We lived off-post, had what they called subsistence and quarters and played with the Band, which was a sort of Glen Miller-type orchestra. There were only two or three cellos. The string parts were very light so we would show up at 9am for the roll call and by 9.30am we would be off while the rest of the band rehearsed. They hated all of us string players because we left so early! And that was my 3 years in the service!

During my first year in the Army, I was lucky that they would let me go back to Curtis once in a while to take lessons. Gregor Piatigorsky had already gone to Los Angeles and that is when Leonard Rose came in. So I would come back from Washington as a service man and take lessons with Rose. We established a very good relationship during that time. He was a wonderful teacher. I learned the most from him, to tell you the truth. I don’t know why. All the things he showed me, such as bow holds and little exercices (and of course his natural way of playing) seemed to gel with me. So those were my 2 years at Curtis. One year full-time with Gregor Piatigorsky and another year part-time only for lessons with Leonard Rose.

During my third year in the Army, I auditioned for the Naumburg Award. I won the Award and part of the prize was a Town Hall recital in New York City. It was a big deal at that time. You got pictures taken, and so on. So I gave my Town Hall debut and got good reviews. The lady running the Naumburg Award at that time, Anna Molyneaux, had her office at the City Center building in New York City. She asked me how I was doing and if I was excited to play my recital at the Town Hall. I told her that I felt like I needed to find a job to support myself, since I was about to leave the Army. She said: “Well, you know, the City Center Opera is right here in the building. I know the music director, the distinguished Viennese conductor Joseph Rosenstock. You should play for him.” So I played for Joseph Rosenstock and they made me principal cellist of the City Center Opera in 1954. And I had never played an opera in my life! That was pretty scary, I can tell you!

How old were you then?

Only 22-23 years old. It was scary! It was not like now. That’s when I have many stories about the contractor for the City Center Opera, a little Italian guy named Joe Fabroni. He contracted not only for the CCO but also for Leopold Stokowski, RCA-Victor records and Capitol records…so you really wanted to be on his good side! He was only 5 foot 2, but he was very tough and everyone was scared of him. But he liked me. He would say: “Juli, you’ra my boy! You’ra my boy, Juli!” (laughs) So I started working at the Opera and sometimes someone would come in late and Joe Febroni would say: “Hey, boy! You got a family?” and the poor musician would say: “Yes” and Joe would say: “Too bad!” He was tough! Those were strange times.

Then I started doing recordings with Leopold Stokowski and different groups, such as Symphony of the Air, Rubinstein recordings…I played on the famous recording of La Boheme with Sir Thomas Beecham, Victoria de Los Angeles and Jussi Björling. One day, Febroni asked me to go play for Leopold Stokowski, who was getting a divorce at that time from Gloria Vanderbilt. I remember all the furniture was covered up. So I played a few notes and Stokowski asked me to be first cello of the second orchestra for the recording of Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta. I remember arriving at the recording session and all the top players from New York were there…but they didn’t know that piece! None of us knew that piece! In those days, you had 15 minutes of recording time within a 3-hour session so you had ample time to rehearse. But Maestro Stokowski didn’t want to rehearse. No, Sir. So, everything was recorded right away, and within a minute and a half, half of us were lost already! This went on for all the many sessions. It was a complete disaster. I was laughing hysterically. I couldn’t believe it and I thought to myself “Ok, this will never be released.” But a while ago, Simon Rattle came to conduct the BSO in that piece, so I told him the story and he said: “I have that recording! Now I know why it sounds so weird!” (laughs)

I spent about seven to eight years in New York at the Opera. I got a lot of experience playing all kinds of solos at that time. It was really learning under fire. I remember the first time I played the solo from Tosca, I thought I was marching to my own death! I played occasionally with the Ballet too as assistant principal. The principal cellist there was Nellis DeLay, Dorothy DeLay’s sister, who was a wonderful cellist. We were good buddies and she was a lot of fun. Sometimes she would take some time off and I would substitute for her as principal cellist with the Ballet. I got to play the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Agon at that time (1957). I also played occasionally on Broadway. I did the premiere of Bernstein’s Candide there (1956) and did its first recording as well. I also opened The Unsinkable Molly Brown by Meredith Wilson (1960).

 

 I used to take some lessons with Rose at that time too. I would go out to his house at 8 Station Road in Great Neck, Long Island. He was wonderful to me and he is the one who introduced me to George Szell. He told me: “Szell is looking for a new principal cellist, I think you should play for him and I will tell him about you.” So he arranged for me to play for Szell at Mrs. Leventritt’s apartment on Park Avenue in NYC. I went there with a wonderful pianist, Mitchell Andrews, and we played for Dr. Szell. We played Beethoven’s C Major sonata, Don Quixote, the solo from the 2nd Brahms piano concerto, and all sorts of things. He was very nice. And that was the way you took an audition in those days!

It is quite different today!

I know! It is quite unbelievable when I think about it. And he hired me! So I went to Cleveland as principal cellist in 1961. And that was an education, let me tell you! They were 3 years of playing and learning the bulk of the symphonic repertoire with a great master, the likes that don’t exist any more, and many of the interpretations are still with me.

That man was tough. In 1964, I decided to audition for the position of principal cellist with the Boston Symphony. And he was slightly upset at that. He would call me and say: “You know we have to make our plans, Jules! What do you plan to do?” And I told him that I was planning to take the BSO audition. I took the audition and I got it. When I went in to tell him, he had already heard, but he was sort of proud like a papa and said: “Well, you got it!” There was a party after the last concert of the season in Cleveland. I went up to him and I said goodbye. I said: “Dr. Szell, I want to thank you for a wonderful liberal education.” .He looked at me and said: “It was not nearly over yet!” (laughs)

Did you have a good time in Cleveland?

Oh yes. That’s where I met Arnold Steinhardt, who was assistant concertmaster. We were roommates for 2 years! I remember he came up to me and said he had heard about my “tough guy” reputation. That surprised me!

 

 Picture of Jules Eskin in Cleveland in 1961, taken by Arnold Steinhardt.

Click here for an anecdote about Jules Eskin told by Arnold Steinhardt.

When Danny Barenboim came in town, we spent many evenings playing chamber music. I used to play with Arnold all the time. We often teamed up with violist Abe Skernick and violinist Philipp Naegele to read string quartets. I also befriended Marc Lifschey who was a great oboe player. He was the principal oboist in Cleveland but he didn’t get along with Szell. He used to say: “That man comes after me at every intermission! He has to discuss things! Here he comes! Oh, those purple lips, those bulging eyes, that fetid breath…I can’t stand him!” (laughs)

That was Marc Lifschey. Him, Arnold and I were like The Three Musketeers in Cleveland, we used to hang out all the time. Arnold and I ended up leaving the same year in 1964 when I joined the Boston Symphony and he founded the Guarneri String Quartet. Marc said: “What will I do now? What will I do?” I am still very close with Arnold. I knew his parents and we played a lot together, even after we left the orchestra. I have some nice tapes of trio concerts with Arnold and Lydia Artymiw. I also spent three summers at the Marlboro Music Festival while I was in Cleveland.