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Fine Arts Quartet cellist was single-minded at three
August 31st, 2012
The newest member of the Fine Arts Quartet, the internationally famous resident ensemble at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, knew what he wanted to do when he grew up from the time he was three.
That was when London-native Robert Cohen heard Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations 50 years ago. He promptly told his parents he wanted to play the cello.
Being sensible parents, they bought him a toy trumpet instead. Cohen smashed it and embarked on a quest.
“I remember nagging them for two years. And the moment came when I was five and they finally took me seriously and bought me a little one-quarter-sized cello and gave me lessons,” Cohen said.
His parents — pianist mother and violinist father who was concertmaster of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra — signed him up for group lessons. After one such lesson, he studied with private teachers.
At eight, he won his first competition. At 10, he attended a master class by William Pleeth, Jacqueline Du Pre’s teacher, and studied with him for seven years.
Outside of his single-mindedness regarding all things cello, Cohen had what he described as “a fairly normal childhood.”
That included Shabbat and Passover dinners with his maternal grandparents, who provided the Yiddishkeit and Jewish education for Cohen and his sister.
While not religiously observant, Cohen said he and his wife Rachel, a violinist, have always acknowledge the Jewish identity in their family, and that sense of belonging is evident in their teenage sons Joshua, Isaac, Joseph, and Louis.
“It’s interesting to hear how the boys relate to experiences they have in the outside world that remind them of their Jewishness,” he said. “They meet people and suddenly realize they’re talking about being Jewish.”
Cohen was 19, the same age as Joshua, when he made his first recording. By then he’d been performing as a concert soloist for seven years, had won prizes and competitions in the United States, and was beginning to build a career in Europe.
The 1980 recording of Edward Elgar’s cello concerto for EMI was a smash hit in the classical scene, selling 250,000 copies. That led to invitations to play at festivals, to perform concertos and recitals, and to make more recordings.
Over the next decades, Cohen became a husband, father, and director of the Charleston Manor Festival in the south of England. He conducted, played as a soloist and in ensembles at festivals all over Europe and the U.S. But he never played string quartets.
“Even at my festival, we played quintets, octets, septets, and duos,” he said, “but we’ve probably played maybe two quartets because it’s a festival made up of individuals and not quartets, and the quartet is too precious. It’s the jewel in the crown.”
At a festival in Finland seven years ago, Cohen first encountered the Fine Arts Quartet. They played sextets together.
“I absolutely loved them, thought they spoke music in the way I did, and became a fan, which I’ve almost never done with anybody,” he said. “I followed them around. In London I saw them and listened to them play because I felt so attached to the way they made music. I thought they were amazing.”
In January 2011, the day after his father died at 92, Cohen got a call from Ralph Evans, the Fine Arts Quartet’s first violinist. The group had scheduled a series of European concerts, and cellist Wolfgang Laufer had to have surgery. Would Cohen be available and willing to step in?
“I moved my schedule around so I could do at least some of the tour,” he said, “I studied every minute I could to learn the repertoire and absolutely loved it.
“The experience of playing quartets with them was so easy in some sense and also in some sense a challenge because it was a new repertoire and a new way of making music, so I came home on a real high.”
When the second call came in, Cohen was only available for a handful of dates in July. It was between then and those performances that Laufer died on June 8, 2011.
Cohen, Evans, violinist Efim Boico, and violist Nicolo` Eugelmi talked about Cohen becoming the next cellist. For a musician with a decades-long career as a soloist, the change would be dramatic. Between July and November, when he again joined Evans, Boico, and Eugelmi, he had time to think, and to accept.
His new role doesn’t require him to teach at the university, but he will be in residence during the quartet’s summer season, and is thrilled to have colleagues for the first time in his career. Another thrill, he said, is getting to play the work of Mozart, a composer who never wrote for solo cello.
“It’s an incredible new chapter and a very exciting change,” he said. It doesn’t rule out doing my individual things when it’s appropriate and can fit in, but the quartet is the main part of my life now.”
The opening concert of the Fine Arts Quartet’s 2012-13 season is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 9, 3 p.m., at the Helene Zelazo Center, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd.
In honor of the UWM Peck School of the Arts 50th anniversary “Year of the Arts” celebration, admission is free, but tickets are required. For more information and reservations, call the Peck School box office, 414-229-4308.
Amy Waldman, a former cello student, is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and coordinator of the ACCESS Program for Displaced Homemakers at Milwaukee Area Technical College.