The Juilliard Journal, November, 2002
I have struggled to find a way to express adequately who Zara Nelsova was - as a musician, a teacher and a human being. I think the only way I could begin to honor her appropriately is to describe what she meant to me in my life, because that says more about who she was than any words of tribute I could write.
I first met Zara when I went to study with her in Aspen. I was 19 at the time, and disenchanted with the idea of a life in music because of my experiences with the business, and the deleterious effect it often seemed to have on a musician's character. As much as I admired the playing of many other musicians, the difficulties of surviving and succeeding often force us to become self promoting, self interested and political. It seemed almost impossible to do well in the business without compromising some of the values that bring us to music in the first place. Zara changed my view of that forever. For the first time I saw someone succeed while being exactly who she was: strong, compassionate, always dedicated to principles higher than her own success. That she played beautifully-- that she was so very much in the style of Casals and Feuermann and the other great musicians of that golden age of string playing-- only made her all the more remarkable.
And yet, for all her own gifts and her own successes, she gave back to her students to a fault. She would spend countless hours both in lessons, teaching how to create music, and in conversation, teaching us how to live: how to deal with the setbacks we all face, how to survive in a world of sometimes shallow business and still protect inside you (“like a mother protects an unborn child,” she would say) your belief in yourself and in the sacredness of what you were trying to do with music-- for your audience and for the sake of music.
Zara was well known for her views on stage deportment. I showed up for my first lesson with her wearing jeans with holes in the knees and untied high-top sneakers. It produced a reaction from her I will never forget. Deportment, for her, was about conveying to the audience what should be conveyed without interruption or distraction. She was elegant and perfect onstage, because it was what the music and the audience deserved.
To me, Zara will always be the artist who could produce an unbroken phrase in shimmering gold, who could captivate audiences with a perfect intensity and a passion that made the music live with rare logic and urgency. And, at the same time, she was the second mother who whisked me into the kitchen for coffee and cookies before a lesson because I “looked too thin.” She overcame more hardships in her life than anyone should ever have to face, yet never tired of picking up her students when more minor struggles brought us down. She never tired of providing support and belief that we lacked in ourselves, of explaining how one must live and believe to be a true “success” as both a musician and a human being. There was no separation between the two for her.
That the world has lost one of its greatest cellists and musicians, history will be able to judge from the recordings she left behind (Not enough have yet been reissued onto CD, but Bloch's Schelomo with the composer conducting and her premiere recording of the Barber Concert are available on Pearl.) But what those fortunate enough to have crossed paths with her know is that the world has lost a woman of character, strength, courage, grace, humor, and rare compassion and decency. Aleha ha-sholem (rest in peace), Ms. Nelsova. The world is a lesser place without you in it. We whose lives you touched, love you and miss you.