Power Without Pain: interview with Hamilton Cheifetz

After spending the last 40 years at PSU teaching cello, Professor Hamilton Cheifetz said, “I’m still smiling!” Cheifetz has one of those famous smiles, the kind with layers: an earnest, friendly grin topped with a piercing, intelligent gaze, full of curiosity and kindness. It’s the type of smile that goes all the way past the cheeks to the ears and beyond the edge of the face altogether; the type of smile that comes from the shoulders.

When PSU hired a piano trio in 1977, Cheifetz was their cellist. He spoke of the school’s decision as a controversial one. “At the time they didn’t really have performers on the faculty,” Cheifetz said. “The school was nothing like it is now. Some were not crazy about the change in direction.”

Forty years later, Cheifetz chuckles and calls himself “the old guy on the faculty—but happy to be here.” Like his teacher, Hungarian cellist Janos Starker, Cheifetz loves teaching as much as performing, which he does with alarming frequency and variety.

Cheifetz grinned again and took out an old record. Round the World with Janos Starker: Volume 2, Music of France, the cover declared in cool modern blue. The 1954 release features works by Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, and Francois Francoeur; hearing it at age 13 was the call to adventure that led Cheifetz to study with Starker.

At his noon concert on March 1, Cheifetz performed with pianist Julia Lee, another first-rate performer on PSU’s faculty. They played three works from that record, dedicating the Francophile segment to Starker. Cheifetz described the fourth work, Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Cello Sonata in D minor,” as “a fantastic piece” but “not one of [Starker’s] favorite things.” And there was that famous smile again.

Starker was a child prodigy, teaching others at 8 and playing the hardest cello music in the world by 13. “Starker’s experiences during and after WWII gave him a sense he should do something with his life, a sense of purpose,” Cheifetz said. This sense of purpose transcended performance recitals, and Starker’s in-depth study of technique and pedagogy led to a lifetime as a teacher.

“Teaching affects generations, and he taught thousands of cellists all over the world, teaching them how to relax,” Cheifetz said, with a relaxed gesture toward himself. “He was brilliant at helping you remove tension and get power without pain. One of the reasons I’m still okay is because of the things he taught me, how to use your body in a natural way.”

Zachary Banks is a student of Cheifetz who is graduating this year with a Master of Music in Cello Performance. Banks spoke with Vanguard via email.

Vanguard: How did you get involved with Professor Cheifetz?

Zachary Banks: Everywhere I asked, people would point me in the direction of PSU and ultimately Professor Hamilton Cheifetz. Our initial meeting was set to discuss my musical and academic intentions, and in no time we scheduled an audition. I was a nervous wreck going into the audition, but Hamilton was quick to help with reassurance. Subsequently, the audition ended up feeling like more of a private lesson. There was a good chance that I would not have been accepted to PSU School of Music had it not been for a recommendation letter that he wrote to the office of admissions in support of my attendance. Asking for help, when you are trying to help yourself, can change your life in amazing ways, even when it is embarrassing or challenging.

VG: How has Cheifetz influenced you as performer and educator?

ZB: You can always observe a deep commitment to music and its future. Hamilton is one of those performers that makes you inspired to get back into the practice room. He is also one of those educators that inspires you to go the extra mile without forcing it upon you. It is a gift to be able to do both.

VG: Where do you see yourself in the Starker-Cheifetz lineage?

ZB: Knowing that I carry their teachings with me, no matter the direction of my path, is always reassuring. Every year I feel like a better teacher and a better cellist, and I enjoy being those things more and more. With that, I can’t help but feel a some responsibility to carry on the tradition.

VG: Cheifetz talked about relaxation and playing from a place of ease. This seems so at odds with the stereotypical movie image of the tortured and rigorous virtuoso. Yet it seems to work.

ZB: Recognizing tension is so important. Time in my cello lessons is spent on how to work smarter rather than harder. The instrument is so much easier to play when you reserve your physical energy. When I relax my body, I immediately feel like my brain processes are more focused and efficient. As a result I can diagnose technical problems much faster in real time. Starker wrote that musical problems in one’s playing have technical solutions. When you start to tap into that thinking, challenging new pieces and technical obstacles don’t seem that intimidating anymore.

VG: Cheifetz told us about his early experience with Starker’s Music of France recording. Is there a particular recording that first turned you on to classical music and cello?

ZB: There is…and I think I was around 14 years old when I heard it. It was Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma playing the Brahms “Double Concerto” with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony. I would fall asleep to it every night for about a year, slowly learning every part in the orchestra by ear.

I had one of those full circle moments two to three years ago when I got to play in the Portland Columbia Symphony’s cello section for a concert that featured Hamilton and Carol Sindell as the soloists on that piece. It’s something I will never forget.

Violist and composer Ben Montgomery is finishing a Bachelor of Music in Composition. “The Debussy sonata was rich with vibrant color and timbral layers that unfolded organically,” he said. “The [Shostakovich] sonata was poignant and rigid, yet packed with animosity and momentum. The sound was frigid and bleak, at times nearly absent. Moments were reminiscent to Mahler, but played in Siberia in the winter.” And Montgomery noted the feature we value most in good performers: “Their nuance was matched by their incredible technical skill.”

Banks’ graduate recital is at 7 p.m. May 24th in Lincoln Recital Hall. For more information on the School of Music & Theater’s free weekly Noon Concert Series, including a complete schedule, visit www.pdx.edu/music/noon-concert-series