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Meet Eric Bartlett, Retiring New York Philharmonic Cello

Posted August 10, 2020

Eric Bartlett came to the Philharmonic in 1997 after serving 14 years as a member of (and occasional soloist in) the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and principal cellist of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. The recipient of a Solo Recitalist’s Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, he has participated in more than 90 premieres with ensembles such as Speculum Musicae, New York New Music Ensemble, Group for Contemporary Music, and Columbia String Quartet, and has commissioned new cello works from American composers. He teaches orchestral repertoire and coaches the conductor-less orchestra at The Juilliard School.


It’s a long way from rural New England, where it all started. Here’s his Q & A.


Q: How did you discover music?


EB: I grew up in Marlboro, Vermont. While there weren’t musicians in my family, my father loved classical music, and the well-known music festival was right up the road. (Twice in the summer of ’71 I actually got a glimpse of Pablo Casals, and I mowed Hermann Busch’s grass.) Alan Carter, the founder of the Vermont Symphony, addressed the need for local string teachers by bringing one there from Connecticut, and provided student instruments for us to use for free.


My first teacher, the violinist Stanley Eukers, offered lessons on violin or cello. My father thought that the grumbly, out-of-tune cello playing of a beginner would be more bearable than a scratchy, screechy, out-of-tune violin. That’s how at age eight I started studying cello with a violinist in group lessons.

Q: Were you hooked from the start?


EB: I enjoyed it, but I didn’t work terribly hard. Also, the room in the drafty old farmhouse where I practiced was not well heated; sometimes I had to put the cello down and soak my hands in hot water to get blood back into them.


When I was 13 Blanche Moyse, a co-founder of the Marlboro Music Festival, told my father I showed some promise but needed a real cello teacher. My mom drove me over the mountain to study with George Finckel in Bennington. His two sons and his nephew were all cellists, and his house was a cello Mecca, 24 / 7.


At 15 I started studying with Leopold Teraspulsky, who taught at the University of Massachusetts. Without Stanley Eukers I wouldn’t have started; George Finckel got me excited about wanting to be a cellist; Teraspulsky taught me to understand that every phrase in a piece of music relates to the one before it and the one that followed. I graduated from high school at 16, and continued studies with him at UMass.


Q: Did you already know you wanted to be a professional musician?


EB: I didn’t grow up in a family where it was understood that if you are serious and worked hard, music could be a life pursuit. In fact, I was a double major, with mathematics, which made my mother happy. But music felt like something I wanted to pursue, without necessarily knowing that there was a living to be made at the other end.


Q: Where did you study?


EB: After two years at UMass I went on to Juilliard, where I studied with Leonard Rose, who inspired me by his playing, and his assistant, Channing Robbins, who tracked your development and instilled a systematic approach.


Q: After a busy professional life as a New York freelancer, you came to the Philharmonic. How did that happen?


EB: I think I may have auditioned for the Philharmonic when I was still at Juilliard. I played like gangbusters, everything at about 1,000 decibels, and they said “Next!” Fast forward to 1995, when I was a more mature player, and I auditioned for Principal. I knew it was a longshot, but I saw the audition itself as an opportunity for development. Again, they simply said, “Thank you,” and I thought that was that.


I must have done better than I’d thought because a year later Carl Schiebler [then the Orchestra Personnel Manager] invited me to come in directly to the final round for a section position audition. The rest is history. I was a rotating section player for one year; then I won an audition for the third chair. After one year in the orchestra, as green as green can be, I spent a year as Acting Associate Principal. I hadn’t played in a big orchestra since my student days, so much of the repertoire was new to me. My dad knew more big orchestra repertoire than I until I’d been in the Philharmonic for about ten years.


Q: How has being a member of the Philharmonic worked in terms of raising your son?


EB: Our son, Cory, was born with cerebral palsy, and he also has a seizure disorder and schizophrenia. There are lots of medications, doctor’s visits, and long-term concerns. After some scary episodes and surgical interventions, he is remarkably stable and happy these days, and his ability to remain cheerful despite these considerable challenges is a constant source of inspiration to us and everyone who meets him. We’ve moved to an area where he can be fairly independent. There’s a ramp right off our porch, and he can drive his scooter down the driveway and head to town in one direction and to some stores in the other. He loves to come to work with me and visit the crossover [where the Philharmonic cellists warm up] and shoot the breeze with the section; he is a bit sad that we won’t be going there again.


Cory’s needs are a big part of the reason I am retiring now. My wife, Sally, has been shouldering too large a share of his care. My being home means that she can have a little more of her own life.


Q: What are your plans for retirement?


EB: I am not putting the cello down. I’ll teach, and play. And Arlen Fast [the retiring Philharmonic bassoonist / contrabassoonist] and I are talking about doing more bike trips, which we’ve done during Philharmonic tours. We’re thinking of riding a trail from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh.


Q: What about your time at the Philharmonic will stay with you?


EB: The rapport in the cello section. When I joined there was a sense of mutual distrust among the players, no hanging out together. We started deliberately celebrating each other’s birthdays and other important occasions, and over time it has borne fruit. When you like the people you sit with, the people on the stands ahead of and behind you, it’s both easier and more rewarding to play with one another in ways that make a difference.


Q: I see a theme throughout our conversation: group lessons, ensemble performance, encouraging section friendship.


EB: My first teacher, Stanley Eukers, insisted that we all come back in the evening after our class lessons and play “ensemble,” knowing that playing together would bring joy to young musicians, and that listening to one another is an important skill. And in high school I played in three amateur regional orchestras. From the very beginning I was more inclined to play together than alone.


Another thing that we didn’t get into at all: for the past 12 years I have been Chair of the Orchestra’s Chamber Music Committee, putting together the Philharmonic Ensembles series at Merkin Hall. Our guiding principle has always been to be as fair and as inclusive as possible.


I guess it all fits with the theme of playing together and togetherness and getting along.