Bernard Greenhouse, 1916-2011

By James David Jacobs

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May 14

Growing up in Northern California's Bay Area, I began playing the cello at the age of ten, having already developed a passion for classical music. When I was 13 years old, I started boarding with my cello teacher, Millie Rosner. Before long I began hearing her talk about someone named "Bernie." This "Bernie" character took on near-mythical dimensions. Bernie fingered this passage a certain way. Bernie did a certain kind of bowing no one else did. There was some wild story about a famous musician that only Bernie could properly tell.

To be sure, there were more famous cellists who passed through. Janos Starker came to the house to give a workshop, and Millie helped organize several events at UC Berkeley involving Mstislav Rostropovich. But it was only the mysterious Bernie who seemed to elicit unqualified admiration and respect from my no-nonsense teacher.

So when it was arranged that a certain Mr. Bernard Greenhouse would be coming by to give a master class, and that the Beaux Arts trio would in fact be rehearsing at the house for their forthcoming Bay Area concerts, it caused more excitement and anticipation that I had ever seen in the Rosner household.

And I was more than a little scared.

As it turned out, "Bernie" wasn't nearly as scary as Millie herself (that's a story for another day). "Bernie" was unfailingly polite and respectful to everyone. I was mesmerized by the master class. His way of communicating was remarkable. He could change a student's entire relationship to the cello with a single word or gesture. It was unlike any teaching I've seen before or since. He himself had spent a month living and studying with Pablo Casals. The piece he worked on with Casals was Bach's Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor.

Bernie was indeed a great storyteller; hearing him talk about his month with Casals made the legendary cellist come alive. He and Casals took the piece apart, bar by bar, with the student Greenhouse faithfully learning every nuance of the master Casals' interpretation. By the third week, passers-by who heard the two of them practice in different rooms couldn't tell who was who. On the last day, Casals called Greenhouse into his study and performed the second Bach suite for him - in a way completely unlike the interpretation they had painstakingly worked on for the previous month. Greenhouse said that day was the greatest lesson he ever received.

Bernard Greenhouse didn't have a big enough sound to have a career as a major concerto soloist, but he could tell you how to play Dvorak with the Berlin Philharmonic. Not that his career wasn't successful: he spent 32 years playing with the Beaux Arts Trio, one of the most successful chamber groups of all time. He was also something of a pioneer in the early-music movement as the cellist with the Bach Aria Group. Bernie loved teaching, he loved sailing, he loved food, and he loved music with a passion that was barely equaled even by other master musicians. He retired from full-time performing in 1987, but he continued to play and teach at his home on the Cape.  Yesterday, he passed away at the age of 95.

He himself knew that he was the last representative of his generation of cellists, and spent his life making sure that the wisdom of that generation would be disseminated as widely as possible. To that end, Bernard Greenhouse gave all of himself to every interaction, even with the strange kid living with his old friend Millie, for which I will always be grateful.

Obituaries and remembrances from NPR Music and the Cape Cod Times

(photo: Associated Press)

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