CSO principal cellist, inspiring musician, man of the world, retires

Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Chaim Zemach plays in Thursday’s CSO concert in the Amphitheater. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Chaim and Hildegard Zemach
Photo by Lauren Rock.

Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

Chaim Zemach said his 44 years of coming to Chautauqua, watching people come and go, observing the changes in the community year after year, have been like an ongoing novel. For any who have met and spoken with Zemach, it could be argued that his life is a bit like a novel itself.

Zemach has been the principal cellist of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for 44 years. Zemach will retire at the end of this summer, his 45th season playing with the CSO. Zemach has become an indisputable legend at Chautauqua and a source of admiration from within and outside the orchestra.

Walter Hendl, once music director of the CSO and former director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, asked Zemach to join the CSO. He knew Zemach as the principal cellist of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at the time.

“I said, ‘What is this Chautauqua? Where is Chautauqua?’ ” Zemach said. “I didn’t expect what I found here. I thought it was a little village where once in a while people played.”

Once he visited, Zemach said he was glad someone had left him a vacancy.

Decades and countries lie between Zemach beginning his career at Chautauqua and when he first picked up the instrument. Born in Bulgaria, he was 6 years old when he came home and saw a cello on top of the table. His father bought it for him; he wanted his son to have some culture in his fingers, Zemach said.

“I never saw a cello in my life,” Zemach said, “which was frightening because it was big … probably as big as me. I took it, because my father told me to, and I continued like that, like a dutiful son.”

Until he found what he called a spark. That spark was listening to Pablo Casals, a Catalonian cellist regarded as one of the greatest in history.

“And when I heard him I said, ‘Ooh, I would like to do that,’ ” Zemach said.

And Zemach did just that. He continued to practice, including when he lived in a kibbutz for almost two years after his family moved to Palestine, where playing was highly discouraged for not being productive. At age 20, he auditioned for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Zemach had to audition in person for Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the time. Zemach was petrified; he had never auditioned for anyone in his life, and when the moment came, he packed up his cello and said he could not do it. Koussevitsky told him not to move, disappeared into another room, and then reappeared with a glass of wine.

“I don’t know if the wine made me feel like a lion or his gesture. I sat down, I played better than I could,” Zemach said. “I think that’s why I got the job. Because that’s what it is — somebody empowers you.”

Zemach went on to play as the principal cellist in the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and the American Symphony Orchestra.

His travels inspired in Zemach a profound love of languages. He claims to speak and write eight languages, but is familiar with at least eight others, including Bulgarian, Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Arabic, and Chinese.

Batia Lieberman, a cellist in the CSO and a longtime friend, recalled visiting Zemach before he traveled to China.

“I was in his house, and I see all this Chinese, and I ask him, ‘What’s this?’ He says, ‘I’m learning Chinese.’ And this was about five years ago,” Lieberman said. “I never quite understood what linguistics was until I started to see how Chaim constructs and deconstructs a language and learns from it, and tries to learn everything else around it.”

Another cellist in the CSO, Jeff Szabo, remembered a tour he did with Zemach in Greece, and how quickly he picked up the language. Jean Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of the North Carolina Dance Theatre, said Zemach probably speaks French better than he does.

Vahn Armstrong, the associate concertmaster of the CSO and fellow member of the Chautauqua Quartet with Zemach for a time, decided to pick up Norwegian phrases and use them in rehearsal, because it was one of the few languages that Zemach did not know.

“The first time I did this, he immediately started comparing Norwegian to some other languages that he did speak,” Armstrong said. “And yet another rehearsal a few days later, and by golly, he was correcting my pronunciation.”

In the quartet, Armstrong said that Zemach would always bring a thoughtful approach to pieces they were playing based on careful inspection of the score.

“He knows his scores incredibly well,” Szabo said. “He’s aware of any mistakes in the music that might be in the cello parts … he’s very attentive to detail.”

Uriel Segal, another former CSO music director, remembered when Zemach complimented him for deliberately avoiding the popular choice of accelerating the tempo before the main Allegro of the first movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9.

“I was extremely satisfied that somebody of Mr. Zemach’s musicianship appreciated my stand and independence of approach,” Segal said. “Every subject he touches he delves into in depth, whether it is wine, history, literature, geography and, of course, music and languages.”

Segal is one in a series of prestigious and influential conductors that Zemach worked with throughout his career. The list also includes Koussevitzky, Ernest Ansermet — who conducted him in the Suisse Romande — and Leopold Stokowski.

“When they conducted, you felt that you were remotely controlled. You weren’t yourself, you were as if in somebody else’s mind — your bow, your fingers, your passion, was controlled,” Zemach said. “This doesn’t happen very often, so when it happens, it’s an inspiration … You realize that you can play better than you think you can, because of these people.”

Zemach himself has been an inspiration to the cello sections he has led and the students he has taught. Once a professor at Montclair State University, Zemach also taught in the School of Music for a time. Zemach instructed one of his fellow cellists in the CSO, Szabo, when he was a student.

“He was very philosophical. He talked a lot about the music more than he talked about the actual technical aspect of playing,” Szabo said. “He was very attentive to his students. I was just here one summer, and then about four years later, I got a job in the symphony, largely due to his recommendation. Without him, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Lieberman, in her 40th season in the CSO, joined the orchestra right out of school. Having Zemach as a friend and colleague to talk to and gain insight from, she said, was crucial.

“I learned so much from him, I can’t begin to tell you,” Lieberman said. “You could always just look and you will know where you are, how to phrase, when to come in, when to fade out.”

Wendy Brennan, a cellist in the CSO for 25 years and also a stand partner with Zemach in the American Symphony, quoted a phrase Zemach would often say: “Follow me, right or wrong.”

“He says, ‘Well, if everybody is wrong, we can be wrong together,’ ” Brennan said.

“The camaraderie in a section is very important. In any orchestra, but in ours especially, because we have to work very fast, and if we are not on the same page, all of us­­ — not only professionally, but also personally — it will be difficult,” Zemach said. “The esprit de corps is of paramount importance.”

“Chaim is one of those people who is always curious. He is always learning something new,” Lieberman said. “And now the tango.”

Having recently taken tango lessons, Zemach also memorably collaborated in a surprise dance performance with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 1995.

“He’s a natural dancer. He has that wonderful coordination in his body,” Bonnefoux said.

The evening began with Zemach sitting onstage with the cello. After playing accompaniment for the first movement of the piece, Zemach put his cello down and began to dance.

“The Chautauqua audience went crazy. They went berserk. They really loved the idea,” Bonnefoux said. “I don’t remember any time, anywhere in Chautauqua, or in any other company that I’m aware of that a musician would be performing a dance piece. It’s a wonderful memory.”

Most fond memories of Zemach’s friends and colleagues involve his wife, Hildegard.

“We came here with my first child, who was an infant, and Hildegard figured that it was a very long trip from New York, and she invited us for dinner to their place, just to be helpful,” Lieberman said. “Boy, I still remember how that dinner tasted.”

The dinner parties Zemach and his wife would throw for friends and colleagues have become famous for Hildegard’s stellar cooking, Chaim’s expertise in wine and his gift for storytelling.

At a recent retirement party with the orchestra, Brennan remembered Zemach to have said, “This is such a wonderful party. Maybe I should retire twice.”

Chaim and Hildegard have traveled the world together, taking a particular liking to the French countryside. They were avid hikers, and for exercise, they still walk the country roads in Chautauqua.

“He wouldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t survive without him,” Brennan said.

Looking back on 44 years, Zemach said he was unsure if he is necessarily a better player than when he first began, but he is more knowledgeable.

“I had time to polish those corners,” Zemach said. “So this summer was the last to polish the last corners.”

“Chaim speaks a lot of languages, but the language of music he speaks the best,” Lieberman said. “There’s no question about that.”

“He’s a man of peace and a citizen of the world, really,” Brennan said.

Zemach said that music is a language, and different composers and countries have their own vocabulary. If Chautauqua has its own vocabulary, Zemach’s name is a powerful word, and one that will not soon fade away.