The cellist talks the theory of relativity and reveals a sense of nuance courtesy of Rostropovich
Sonia Wieder-Atherton has always been a traveler between worlds. She was born in San Francisco to a Romanian mother and an American father, then lived in New York until the family moved to Paris when she was eight. She discovered the cello a year later, and eventually studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur under Maurice Gendron, and then at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow with Natalia Shakhovskaya during the last years of the Soviet Union. She also had lessons with then-Soviet exile Mstislav Rostropovich, when she could catch the master in one place long enough.

Her music reflects this cross-cultural horizontal pull, while plumbing great depths. Her projects range from Monteverdi to Middle Europe to the chants of Jewish cantorial music to the blues of Nina Simone to the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Her 2012 “Odyssee for Cello and Imaginary Choir” completed a performance triptych that included “Jewish Songs” and “Songs from the East.” She is reviving “Odyssee” during the current academic year with performances planned in France, Italy, and Israel.

“When I contemplate the Mediterranean, the first and most powerful image to emerge in my mind is that of a circular auditorium with a sandy floor baked by a scorching sun and banks of terraced stone seats surrounded by the sea,” she writes of her “Oydssee” creation. “In the circle, a woman is alone. I hear her talking, wailing, whispering. To the earth, to the gods, to herself. Her odyssey is a series of adventures in the course of which she has to face the wind, waves, chaos, storms, the sobbing, and an imaginary choir. The woman may be me and her voice my cello.”

Wieder-Atherton’s performances go beyond music. They are multimedia presentations, using film and musical-verbal dialogue. “I’m very convinced that there is something where hearing and seeing connect somewhere, I don’t know where, and open the imagination,” Wieder-Atherton says in French-accented English. “I think the main thing is imagination, and freedom of that imagination. The more you manage to open it or to let it free without naming—this is that and this is that—which is something that closes the imagination, the more you hear things.”

Sonia Wieder Atherton

Last spring, her CD Little Girl Blue, a tribute to Simone, was released in the United States. It’s a virtuosic take on the singer’s deeply moving music, with Wieder-Atherton accompanied by Bruno Fontaine on piano and Laurent Kraif on percussion. She was inspired by how Simone was able to transcend racial discrimination in the United States to become an international star.

Also in the spring, the cellist performed “The Night Dances” in New York with actress Charlotte Rampling reciting poems by Plath while Wieder-Atherton played sections of Benjamin Britten’s solo suites, which coincidentally were written for Rostropovich. The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini praised the multimedia performance, which was directed by Wieder-Atherton, as “commanding” and “gripping.”

“It’s the way the music exists for me,” she says by telephone from Paris. “It has never been a repertoire that is separated from life or from sounds or from, let’s say, the world going on around me. The first important thing [to know] is I was attracted by sounds, the power that sounds have on me, before I even chose my instrument . . . . The music or the sound pattern had power that was like language . . . . It was a language that allowed me to say or to hear things that other languages could not. There’s never a separation of life and the history of people and music. The music is completely part of the beating of the world, like the beating of the heart.”

Wieder-Atherton, 53, found some of her musical heart in the studio of Gendrome, an elegant man who wore three-piece suits with a gold chain attached to the watch in his vest pocket. “There’s a word in French, émaner. It’s what he diffuses as a human being [and] is as strong as what he says,” she says. “He was a very, very strong personality . . . . In a way not quite belonging to any special school, quite a lonely man but [with a] very, very strong belief in the texts and how you face the musical texts like literature.”

She says he liked to use Tolstoy as a source of musical inspiration. “He would often ask students: How does this book of Tolstoy begin? What he wanted us to understand was that it began in French, and how, in Tolstoy, the French influence was strong. He wanted us to have the same opening of mind in the musical repertoire, and especially the cello repertoire. So he didn’t want to bother too much with technique, but about the spirit, the style,” she says.

For technique, Wieder-Atherton turned east, to Russia. At first she participated in Shakhovskaya’s summer workshops in Paris. Then, at age 19, she was accepted to an exchange program in Moscow, where she continued her studies with the Russian pedagogue for two and a half years. “I met Shakhovskaya and I immediately knew she would play a huge role in my life,” Wieder-Atherton says. The Russian school was more practical than the French, “like a parent who decides how to raise his child and teach” her how to do things. “I did things l’arrière. I began by what people [should] find afterward, and then I did what people usually begin with,” she says. But the two schools of learning—technique and expression—were never really separate for her.

“When I work something technically, I want to learn to say that, not just because I want to be able to do it,” she says. “It’s like having more colors on my [palette] to paint, but I know that the results are what I’m trying to paint, and not [to] count how many colors I have.”

Before she went to the Soviet Union, she had already taken a few lessons with Rostropovich, who was a friend of a family friend. She resumed lessons with him after she returned home from Moscow. He emphasized emotions and contrasts. “He was very clear about when you work a passage, for example, if you don’t work it emotionally [and be] completely involved, you will never master it,” she says. “He would always say, ‘Play with 100 percent emotional involvement and then you will see if you have the passage or not.’

“That was a very precious thing that he gave. He was sort of a Stanislavsky working with actors. This is what he preferred to do, really have you playing the piece as if you were an actor and to study the role with you, and to say, ‘Go back to the text and probably the composer here, if he wrote that, he wanted the contrast [to be] that strong.’ And he would always say something that I’ll never forget: Somebody says to you, ‘Oh, but it’s written piano!’ But it’s relative to what you played before and after. It’s like a hair. One hair on the head is quite little and a hair in your bowl of soup is a lot. That’s the theory of relativity, and it’s the same thing with the nuances in your playing.

“So he said, ‘You say it’s piano, but we don’t care. What’s important is how was your forte before? Or what is the climax in your phrase—which is the climax point? Oh there. Go to it!’ So the Russian way of teaching is the way where the emotions work or the acting works or the work of your feelings is not higher or different than the technical work,” she says.

“You just go in there and you work on what you see, you work on the fear, you work on the notion of taking your wrist, you work on the notion of going to search [for] something very sad that you will use in your playing, and how you will control that. You work on all those things as well as on intonation, on bowing technique. It’s all the same.”

All the wisdom she drew from her teachers can be heard on her Simone album. She was drawn to the American singer, who died in France of breast cancer in 2003 at age 70, by the depth of her music and the singer’s personal struggles.

Sonia Wieder Atherton

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in North Carolina, Simone had become an accomplished student of classical piano but was rejected by the Curtis Institute. Many believed she was refused admission because she was black. So she turned to jazz and blues, what her mother called the “music of the devil,” but incorporated classical influences in her songs.

Wieder-Atherton suggested the Simone project to her recording company, Naïve.

“I always loved her singing and her voice,” she says. “I began to listen to her with the idea of lending her the voice of my cello, and immediately I felt, ‘Oh yes!’ And then I fell into her story, her relationship with classical music, with the piano, with what she dared to do and how she brings what she loves, the classical repertoire of Rachmaninoff, Bach, Debussy into her singing.

“And the way she put those things together, I thought she is incredible, she just invented the language like nobody else. Very often in our life when something is [wrong] we say OK and we try to forget about it. Or it’s not given to us and we say, OK, let’s forget. She did something amazing. She took what was forbidden and she put it in her words. That’s how she invented the language. She just mixed her universe—two worlds—very strong languages that were not going to meet. And she made them meet.”

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