Ronald Leonard has achieved enough as a solo, chamber and orchestra musician, conductor and renowned teacher for at least three distinguished lifetimes. This weekend local music lovers will have a rare opportunity to hear him in recital, and observe his lifetime of experience in leading master classes.
Teaming up for the first time with UW Professor of Piano Christopher Taylor, Leonard will offer a program of Schumann, Grieg, Reger, Schubert and others at Morphy Recital Hall on Friday at 8 p.m. — and admission is free. The next day at 2 p.m., also in Morphy, Leonard will conduct master classes, open to the public and free of charge.
What’s the big deal? Well, Leonard spent 25 years as the principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic…after stints with the Cleveland Orchestra, teaching at the Eastman School of Music, and some time as a member of the Vermeer Quartet. If you’ve seen the films Witches of Eastwick, Sophie’s Choice or Snow Falling on Cedars, you’ve already heard him. And he continues to teach at the prestigious Colburn Conservatory of Music, after conducting for ten years at the Colburn School.
Earlier this week, Mr. Leonard graciously consented to a hastily arranged email interview.
GH: It is well known that chamber music was always an important part of your musical life; not that you are no longer in an orchestra, do you devote more time to chamber music and recitals, or are you teaching more…or just relaxing?
RL: My current activities are mainly involved with the Colburn Conservatory of music, which is a very new and extremely successful school. The Colburn School had long been a community school but Richard Colburn, who was a well known business man and philanthropist in Los Angeles, donating to various institutions including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera, USC, Art Institutions, and the Colburn School, had always wanted to have a first rate conservatory on the West Coast. I and several other members of the current faculty were involved in meetings for several years in which we attempted to look at every facet of what might make a new conservatory work. He was not an easy man to work with, but what he really wanted was an institution in which the faculty, as opposed to the board of directors, was the heart of the institution and therefore the ones who should make the important artistic decisions concerning what was best for the students. The members of this committee feel we have done well and have followed his intentions as best as possible. As a result, we now attract the most amazing students from around the world, have a wonderful facility to work with, and have a great feeling of satisfaction that Mr. Colburn’s desires have been realized.
One of my positions had been to conduct the Colburn Chamber Orchestra, which is a string orchestra made up of high school age students, many of whom have the goal of becoming professional musicians. It is an orchestra separate from the Conservatory, whose orchestra is absolutely astonishing, but the Chamber Orchestra is also of a very high quality. I conducted it (being one of those former orchestra musicians who thought I could do it at least as well as some of the conductors I worked with over the years) not as something that would push me into the conducting area, but rather as a teaching situation for young students, and I attempted to show them as much as I could about how to practice passages, how to prepare for rehearsals, and how important it is to listen to everything else that is going on, outside of their own individual parts. For me it was a great learning experience, but I had to finally give it up because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all I want to do. So to answer one of your questions, yes, I am very involved in chamber music concerts, although not a member of any organized group, and I thoroughly enjoy the amazing class of cello students at Colburn and feel I should spend as much time with them as possible. As you know, the world of music has changed, so the idea of playing many recitals is unfortunately in sad decline, but I take every opportunity to do them. Still, the decline in recitals is not really an indication that classical music itself is on the way to distinction. Even with this problematic economy, and even with many orchestras having terrible financial difficulties, the concert field is alive and kicking, and audiences appear to appreciate it more than ever. There are many young artists who are not only spectacular, but also extremely imaginative and willing to broaden the scope of music, many crossover artists, who years ago would have been considered as not even serious musicians, but who have an amazing range of taste…..And they do it all well! So those who are thinking classical music is a thing of the past, are, in my opinion, rather short sighted.
GH: Have you performed with Christopher Taylor before? If not, did Taylor collaborate with you in choosing the program?
RL: When Uri Vardi, [UW Professor of Cello] who I have known for a long time and greatly respect, asked me to do this recital, he mentioned Christopher Taylor and told me how great he was, I was willing to take his word for it, but Christopher was not any one I had ever met. In asking around with my various spies, I soon learned that he has a great reputation in all aspects of music, so I am at this point just eager to meet him and work out the program with him. He was gracious enough to accept the program I suggested and in just a couple of days we will put it together and I am totally looking forward to our collaboration.
RL: As for the young crop of cello soloists, my main concern is that they are a lot too concerned with the easiest way to be a success. For me, they are much more entertainers who know that the more outrageous they act and perform, the more the audience will be taken in with it. I think it is a pity, particularly considering the fact they so many of them have such amazing facility on the instrument. I certainly know that I am working with young players who play way better than I did at their age. Maybe there is something good in being older and you have the comfort of knowing you don’t have to compete with these amazing talents. But working with them is such a great privilege, and keeps me young.
GH: What does the average music lover, a non-musician, get out of observing a master class?
RL: It is interesting to think about the average music lover’s reaction to a master class. I often think that what we (performers) do is very much outside the experience of the average listener. I may be wrong, but I think they have almost no idea of what it takes to just put the bow on the string, play in tune, make a beautiful sound, let alone memorize very complicated works. Yet, I am constantly amazed at the instinctive reaction to performances…. For instance, after a performance of the Debussy cello sonata, a woman came up to me and said how she thought my playing was so wonderful and it made her think I was portraying a drunken person…..actually a pretty good reaction to a piece that should be played in an incredibly imaginative way. A master class situation is always an interesting situation where one is trying to make very quick decisions about someone’s playing. I myself try to never embarrass the performer by being negative; rather, I look for where I believe they need to improve , be it intonation, rhythm, sound….coordination….whatever; hopefully the music lover comes away with a better understanding of just what goes into playing an instrument.