Once Again, with Feeling

A cellist and conservatory teacher who has never stopped learning

Cellist and teacher Laurence Lesser is celebrating his forty-fifth year at the New England Conservatory of Music.Photograph by Andrew Hurlbut

Brannon Cho, a rising young cellist, dives into the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto in E Minor, Op. 125. The virtuosic piece requires tremendous strength and dexterity to tackle complex finger work, triple fortes, and triple pianos, along with empathy for the fluctuating moods of the music.

After nearly 40 minutes of vigorous bowing, Cho glides into a sensual section, sliding the bow over the strings, building to the climax—a repeated arpeggiated figure in E major played first on the A and D strings, then on the G as well, high up on the cello’s register—for an exhausting eight seconds. Hiking his bow with a flourish on the final note, Cho rests and dabs the sweat trickling down his face and onto the curves of his 330-year-old instrument.

Fellow students in the New England Conservatory of Music master class applaud. Then comes a kindly “Do you need a sponge?” from Cho’s teacher, Laurence Lesser ’61.

A gentle-looking man with lanky limbs and a puff of white hair, Lesser has played the cello for 74 years, and taught it since he was even younger than Cho. A math concentrator at Harvard, who instead pursued a music career, he studied with masters like Gaspar Cassadó and Gregor Piatigorsky and won major awards, including at the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he met his future wife, the concert violinist Masuko Ushioda. He went on to perform with orchestras around the country, and around the world. Along the way, in 1974, he joined the faculty at the New England Conservatory (NEC). He served as president from 1983 to 1996, overseeing restoration of the acoustical gem Jordan Hall, before, as he likes to say, “re-rising” to teach.

The NEC last fall celebrated Lesser’s contributions, and eightieth birthday, with a concert by the NEC Philharmonia, conducted by Hugh Wolff. The evening featured Lesser’s own impassioned rendition of Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Violoncello and Orchestra,” which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1917.

“I’ve known this piece since I was child and have always loved it,” says Lesser, who plays a 1622 Amati cello. “It’s the story of a man, King Solomon, who is looking back on his life, a life in which lots of things have happened. There’s joy, euphoria, aggressiveness. King Solomon was a warrior, a lover, a poet, and a person of great wisdom. And one does hope that with age,” he pauses, “one gets a little bit wiser.”

The venerated teacher has 16 students this semester, including the 24-year-old Cho, a graduate of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music and already a recognized talent when he began NEC’s Artist Diploma program. Lesser seeks students with whom he feels “a human bond,” and who “can do more than just play fast and accurately—people who have something inside of them that’s an itch they have to scratch.” 

Following Cho’s Prokofiev presentation, Lesser offers a few comments. “The hardest note in that piece,” he says, is the first one, a high B, “because you have to be able to hold it long enough to make it sound like you’re as big as the orchestra.” 

Cho strikes the high B again, drawing across the strings with an almost defiant tone.

“No, no—gently,” Lesser cautions, then boldly sings the initial sound, but quickly retreats, holding it enticingly low and taut, like he’s making the audience hold its breath, before raising the volume again at the end. The note is held in a dip, like a suspension bridge.

Cho tries again. “Now that sounds like you’re powerful,” says Lesser, smiling. “Of course it starts loud, but now I can also hear the growth that gives the impression it’s all louder. That other way sounds like you’re desperate.”

Photograph by Andrew Hurlbut

The Symphony-Concerto also contains what Lesser calls “the dance part,” in the third movement. It “starts with this very heroic—dah-dah—dahdeedahdeedo,” he sings again, explaining the piece, “and then it becomes a waltz—oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah.” Lesser often pictures music, creating a narrative in his mind. “That theme sounds to me like a bunch of guys in the cadet corps in St. Petersburg in the end of the nineteenth century getting together and saying, ‘We save our country. It’s up to us’—something out of Tolstoy,” he adds—a fan of Russian literature, he’s read “Brothers K” at least three times—“then they all go out and dance. And in the middle of that, is a Jewish wedding theme: eyump pah-pah. A lot of Jewish culture, and I’m Jewish, finds its way into Prokofiev and Shostakovich.”

In class, he pushes Cho to play the section with less rigidity; to make it “swing.” “The first one was good, then the other went back to the smashing sound,” Lesser says, then addresses the entire group as much as Cho: “It’s all about—what mood do you want people to feel here?”

“Joyful,” Cho answers, hesitating. “A little mischievous.”

“Yes,” Lesser agrees. “But joy is not yadetta, yadetta,” he adds, mimicking an agitated, repetitive quality.

He has Cho repeat the waltzing phrase. Then again: “But now, play the first note a little louder than the rest, that’s all.” And then again.

 “You want to make people smile—‘Oh, he’s having such a good time playing!’—and not see that you’re working. It has to have a kind of poise,” says Lesser, who speaks slowly and deliberately, so no one misses a single word he has to say. Then he quotes a Russian phrase—echoing his most influential teacher, the Ukrainian-born virtuoso Piatigorsky—and translates it: “Make it as light as feathers.”

Eight days after the class, Lesser was at home preparing for a trip to Helsinki, where he’d sit on the jury for the International Paulo Cello Competition 2018. Among the 25 contenders were Cho and Timotheos Petrin, another of Lesser’s NEC master-class students. While talking in his living room, Lesser says he loves Helsinki, not least because Finland vigorously supports classical music and musical education. It’s also the homeland of composer and violinist Jean Sibelius, recordings of whose music are among the hundreds of records, CDs, books packed, along with stereo equipment, into a wall of shelves that dominates the room.

He pulls out a few albums recorded by his wife, also an NEC teacher, who died in 2013. There are photographs of her, and of her with former longtime Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) music director Seiji Ozawa, their friend, who is among the countless other musicians across the globe whom they’ve known, played with, and admired during the last half-century. 

Life without music is unimaginable. Raised in Los Angeles by a pianist mother and a lawyer father, Lesser was introduced to classical works early on. At a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s youth orchestra, his parents asked what instrument he wanted to play. He chose the double bass. Too big, they determined, but, responding to his preference for deeper sounds, gave him a half-sized cello for his sixth birthday.

“I’m still trying to learn how to play,” he says, not really joking. “It’s like practicing medicine or languages: you never stop learning, you never stop growing.” At times, he regrets not also mastering the piano. As an adult, he’d occasionally plunk away at home, he says, but “My wife would hear me and say, ‘Stop playing. Your sound is so ugly.’” He smiles and shrugs: “Well, she was a great violinist and had an absolutely beautiful sound.” 

By the time he got to Harvard, Lesser was an accomplished musician and performer who chose a liberal-arts (over a conservatory) education because he also enjoyed math, literature, and science. He soon realized that he lacked his classmates’ laser-like penetration of mathematical challenges, but had, compared to his musical peers, an “inborn…natural spark.” After graduation, he studied for one year in Germany with Gaspar Cassadó, then returned home. By 1963 he was studying with Piatigorsky, a faculty member at the University of Southern California, where Lesser became his teaching assistant.

Piatigorsky had escaped Russia as a young man, living in Poland, Germany, and France before moving to the United States and becoming a citizen in 1942. A gregarious raconteur, he (along with Pablo Casals and others) helped transform the cello from its traditional, supporting role into a starring one, and often performed with the BSO, which at one point was directed by his longtime friend, Serge Koussevitzky. It was a 1953 recording of Piatigorsky’s “Schelomo” with the BSO that, for Lesser, epitomized the composition’s romantic, combative, and soulful resonance. 

In 1970, Lesser left Los Angeles to become a cello professor at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore (now affiliated with Johns Hopkins); he moved to the NEC four years later. As with his mentor, Piatigorsky, also a pedagogical force at Tanglewood Music Center, teaching for Lesser became integral to his artistry. 

What’s required of a cellist? Lesser reframes the question: “What does it take to be distinctive in anything? You have to master your craft, but you also have to have something to do with it. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a cellist or a kazoo player.”

People attend arts events “because they’re hoping to get something that they don’t have,” he says. Too many young people these days “think they’re being judged, so they have to be perfect—and I think they should try to be,” he acknowledges. “But the most important thing is that they have to understand that they are there to share a vision or a feeling with somebody who is interested in knowing about that.”

Cho, he says, is “an amazing instrumentalist. In my work with him, I am trying build on that to get him to find out: what does he want to do with that?” Petrin, whose Helsinki repertoire included Shostakovich’s less well-known, but demanding, second concerto, is also an exemplary musician, Lesser notes, with “very, very deep feeling, very warm and communicative—but we’re working to give his listeners more ‘fun,’ along with the seriousness.” There, the goal is helping him build a bridge from the internal to the external world.

It’s exciting to see and hear students discover themselves, and struggle with unfamiliar works: Lesser urges them to play modern and peer-written compositions. Classical musicians, himself included, too often “box themselves into a certain pre-defined area that doesn’t sound like it’s going to grow—and it is growing,” he reports. “People and composers are always dreaming up something that someone else hasn’t done—because that’s what they do. To think of classical music as only Beethoven’s Fifth is unfair. If I don’t insist it has to be what it always was, I have great optimism,” for the future of the art form, he adds, “because people will always want to express themselves.”

In Helsinki, both Cho and Petrin reached the final round. (Jury members were not allowed to discuss or vote for their own students.) Cho played the Prokofiev piece last, and won. “He sounded very free and emotional,” says Lesser, with pleasure. “I think the excitement of the moment lent something to it that was very special. The judges all just said ‘Bravo,’ and when the vote came, there was no question about the outcome.” 

New music is always a challenge—for Cho, because he’s still young, and for Lesser because “my brain is old, my fingers are old.” But Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo”? Beethoven? J.S. Bach? Lesser has played those pieces his entire life, and not long ago, recorded the complete Bach cello suites and Beethoven sonatas. “But that music? You’re never satisfied with how you’re doing,” he says. “So, there’s plenty to do. It’s not like I’m finished.” 

Read more articles by Nell Porter Brown

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