Bigger-than-life cellist and educator Frans Helmerson dispenses tailor-made, no-nonsense advice to his students
After a week of watching Frans Helmerson play and teach, the phrase that kept running through my mind to describe him was “quiet dignity.” That’s not to say he is solemn—a smile is never far away from his face—but his playing, his teaching, and his conversation radiate refinement, calmness, and gentleness. He seems perfectly cast for the role of the cellist: a tall man whose well-padded fingers move confidently around the cello.

This year, Helmerson will turn 70. The great Swedish cellist can look back on a distinguished, multi-faceted career: soloist (his 1984 recording of the Dvorak concerto for the Swedish BIS label is still highly regarded), chamber musician (most recently as the cellist in the all-star Michelangelo Quartet), conductor, and teacher at several leading European conservatories, lately including the Hanns Eisler Conservatory in Berlin and the Kronberg Academy near Frankfurt.

Eun-Sun Hong, who won the 2014 Enescu Cello Competition in Bucharest, is one of his students in Berlin. I ask her to describe what Helmerson is like as a teacher. “He is very precise, yet thoughtful,” she says. “He knows exactly what advice each student needs and helps to develop one’s own artistry.”

Hong first came to him in 2008, having been taken with his playing when he was visiting her native South Korea in 2004.

The first lesson was memorable.

“He questioned me about what the music is to me,” Hong recalls. “Since then, I always remind myself of this question. I think it is important to know exactly what we are doing and what the music is about.”

Some seven years after that first lesson, Hong continues to study with Helmerson. “It is always fascinating to talk with him in lessons about the language of composers, different musical ideas, styles, and artistic aspects,” she says.

Last summer, I watched Helmerson give master classes to the young students (aged 18–28) of the Verbier Festival Academy. He was friendly and supportive, but forthright in his comments, which were clearly the result of careful study of each student’s playing.

After one student played the third movement of the Brahms C minor Cello Sonata, Helmerson remarks, “Everythingwas emotional there. There’s not only sentimental and romantic emotion, there can also be exciting or energetic emotion.”

Helmerson also urged the student pay more attention to her vibrato, which seemed to be on automatic pilot. “Vibrato should come from the ear, not the hand,” he says.

He noted the young player’s extraneous body motions, saying that she has to control the bow more because of the extra body movement. He tempered the criticisms with a positive remark: “I like the reason you move,” he points out, “you feel energy, the rhythms, but watch and see where you are and be more efficient.”

Another young cellist, whose performance of the Haydn D major Cello Concerto more closely matched Helmerson’s exacting standards, was given a challenge: play a particular passage again, but in completely a different style. For one thorny passage, the student was asked play it again while Helmerson interrogated her about what she had for breakfast.

“Did you have coffee?” “No, I don’t drink coffee,” said the cellist, who smoothly played the passage through.

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What Frans Helmerson Plays 

Helmerson’s primary instrument is a cello by Domenico Montagnana, 1742. Students often ask for advice about finding the right endpin. He plays with a long endpin, but says, “I don’t have too many fixed ideas about what is good. I can have student who is one meter, 95 tall [about 6 foot, 5 inches] and sits with a very short endpin, and I can have a rather short girl, who likes to have a long endpin. In my experience, I think it has more to do with the proportions in your body more than how tall you are.”

Forty years of teaching experience have doubtless equipped Helmerson with a bag of tricks to deal with any kind of student, but he can also draw upon the received wisdom of his own teachers, who include Jacqueline du Pré’s teacher William Pleeth.

Helmerson began playing the cello in Sweden at the age of eight. At 12, he started studying with his first major teacher, Guido Vecchi. “His parents were Italian, he was born in Sweden, but he was probably the most Italian man I have met in my life, a very sophisticated person,” Helmerson says. “He had an unbelievably beautiful sound, which made such a deep impression on me, and I think I still hear that sound in my ears and try to achieve it myself.”

Swept up in this Italian sound, Helmerson made a pilgrimage to Rome to study privately with Giuseppi Selmi. “He was very methodical and that was exactly what I needed at that time. It was very much about left-hand technique. I still practice a couple of his studies every morning to warm up,” he explains. “He was a wonderful man.”

For a young cellist in Europe in the 1960s, there was one idol above all others: Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1967, Helmerson was living in Gothenburg, playing with the orchestra there, when du Pré came to play the Dvorak concerto. He arranged to play for her (and her new husband, Daniel Barenboim) and ask her advice. Should he go to Rostropovich?

Du Pré told him that in her six months in Moscow, she’d had very few lessons with Rostropovich because of his busy performing schedule and suggested that the young Swede should go to her teacher in London, William Pleeth.

“I admired her so much that I took her advice just like that!” says Helmerson. “A couple of weeks later I got a letter from her that on the tenth of January, at 3 o’clock, you should be at your first lesson with William Pleeth. She had arranged everything for me. It was very moving.”

If Pleeth’s lessons focused less on the technical side, there were other things to discover. “From him I learned how to hear music before I play it, to not just take the instrument and play it, but to always have a picture in the ear. He was an amazing musician,” Helmerson says.

Despite his experience with these great teachers, when I asked Helmerson to name his the greatest influence, he cites Sergiu Celibidache, the Romanian conductor who led the Radio Symphony in Stockholm where Helmerson played for several years.

“Celibidache had such a structured, conscious way of thinking about music, knowing music from the most basic information and how to bring it out,” he says. “Together with that, he had an incredible temperament, a talent for music.”

He credits his understanding of how to find the priority of voices in music as something he learned from Celibidache.

While in his 20s, and still playing in an orchestra full time, Helmerson won prizes at several major competitions, including the Cassado Competition in Florence in 1971. He’s characteristically low-key about his competition prizes and the solo career that came as a result. “It was an unbelievable experience to go to competitions. In Sweden at that time, there were no instrumentalists who played outside of Sweden. There were singers, very famous singers, but not instrumentalists. So I had never thought in my head while studying about making a solo career.”

As his career expanded, Helmerson was soon playing concerts and recitals around the world and making recordings. As well as his recording of the Dvorak concerto, praised as “a powerful and brilliant reading” by Gramophone magazine, Helmerson made several other recordings for BIS including an all-Britten disc, Bach’s cello suites, and The Solitary Cello, with solo works by Kodály, Crumb, Hindemith, and Sallinen. He also recorded the Brahms Double Concerto for Arte Nova Classics with his wife, violinist Mihaela Martin.

Many soloists in the early stages of their careers can find little time for teaching, but Helmerson was always “extremely interested in teaching” and he began taking on students by age 28. Chamber music, too, became a major interest, and by the end of the 1980s, he was a regular at major festivals and directed his own festival for several years, the Umea-Korsholm International Chamber Music Festival.

Flash forward to 2002, when Helmerson and Mihaela Martin were performing with the Japanese violist Nobuko Imai.

Martin and Imai had been discussing the idea of starting a quartet for a while, but it was Imai’s suggestion that brought the project to fruition, and the Michelangelo Quartet, with Stephan Picard playing second violin, was launched. (Daniel Austrich occupies the other violin seat in the current line-up.) For a quartet with four busy individual schedules, building a vast repertory is not in the cards, as Helmerson freely admits. “We live in different places, so we come together for very concentrated, almost panicky, rehearsing sometimes,” he says.

Last season the ensemble performed the Beethoven cycle in Perth, Scotland, a feat they’ll be repeating in Japan over the next two years. They’ll also tour the US East Coast in the autumn, making a stop at Carnegie Hall on November 13.

In the meantime, you may come across Helmerson, as teacher, conductor (he has a steady career wielding the baton), and soloist, in many places around the world. Last October, for instance, he played a double concerto for two cellos by Tristan Keuris, with Johannes Moser, at the Cello Biennial in Amsterdam.

Are nerves ever a problem for him?

“All of us have nerves,” he says. “I have to concentrate on the communication. It cannot only be me with the piece, it has to communicate to other people. Of course, when I’m teaching, sometimes I experience a young person who shows so much respect to Beethoven or Bach.

“We don’t see these great geniuses as having lived a life, we see them as sculptures. I think it’s important to have 100 percent respect for composer, but if you don’t have 100 percent respect for yourself also, then the composer will suffer. Don’t make yourself smaller than necessary.”

It hardly needs saying that musician such as Helmerson will never be small and never anything less than true to both the music and himself.

After a week of watching Frans Helmerson play and teach, the phrase that kept running through my mind to describe him was “quiet dignity.” That’s not to say he is solemn—a smile is never far away from his face—but his playing, his teaching, and his conversation radiate refinement, calmness, and gentleness. He seems perfectly cast for the role of the cellist: a tall man whose well-padded fingers move confidently around the cello.

This year, Helmerson will turn 70. The great Swedish cellist can look back on a distinguished, multi-faceted career: soloist (his 1984 recording of the Dvorak concerto for the Swedish BIS label is still highly regarded), chamber musician (most recently as the cellist in the all-star Michelangelo Quartet), conductor, and teacher at several leading European conservatories, lately including the Hanns Eisler Conservatory in Berlin and the Kronberg Academy near Frankfurt.

Eun-Sun Hong, who won the 2014 Enescu Cello Competition in Bucharest, is one of his students in Berlin. I ask her to describe what Helmerson is like as a teacher. “He is very precise, yet thoughtful,” she says. “He knows exactly what advice each student needs and helps to develop one’s own artistry.”

Hong first came to him in 2008, having been taken with his playing when he was visiting her native South Korea in 2004.

The first lesson was memorable.

“He questioned me about what the music is to me,” Hong recalls. “Since then, I always remind myself of this question. I think it is important to know exactly what we are doing and what the music is about.”

Some seven years after that first lesson, Hong continues to study with Helmerson. “It is always fascinating to talk with him in lessons about the language of composers, different musical ideas, styles, and artistic aspects,” she says.

Last summer, I watched Helmerson give master classes to the young students (aged 18–28) of the Verbier Festival Academy. He was friendly and supportive, but forthright in his comments, which were clearly the result of careful study of each student’s playing.

After one student played the third movement of the Brahms C minor Cello Sonata, Helmerson remarks, “Everything was emotional there. There’s not only sentimental and romantic emotion, there can also be exciting or energetic emotion.”

Helmerson also urged the student pay more attention to her vibrato, which seemed to be on automatic pilot. “Vibrato should come from the ear, not the hand,” he says.

He noted the young player’s extraneous body motions, saying that she has to control the bow more because of the extra body movement. He tempered the criticisms with a positive remark: “I like the reason you move,” he points out, “you feel energy, the rhythms, but watch and see where you are and be more efficient.”

Another young cellist, whose performance of the Haydn D major Cello Concerto more closely matched Helmerson’s exacting standards, was given a challenge: play a particular passage again, but in completely a different style. For one thorny passage, the student was asked play it again while Helmerson interrogated her about what she had for breakfast.

“Did you have coffee?” “No, I don’t drink coffee,” said the cellist, who smoothly played the passage through.

Forty years of teaching experience have doubtless equipped Helmerson with a bag of tricks to deal with any kind of student, but he can also draw upon the received wisdom of his own teachers, who include Jacqueline du Pré’s teacher William Pleeth.

Helmerson began playing the cello in Sweden at the age of eight. At 12, he started studying with his first major teacher, Guido Vecchi. “His parents were Italian, he was born in Sweden, but he was probably the most Italian man I have met in my life, a very sophisticated person,” Helmerson says. “He had an unbelievably beautiful sound, which made such a deep impression on me, and I think I still hear that sound in my ears and try to achieve it myself.”

Swept up in this Italian sound, Helmerson made a pilgrimage to Rome to study privately with Giuseppi Selmi. “He was very methodical and that was exactly what I needed at that time. It was very much about left-hand technique. I still practice a couple of his studies every morning to warm up,” he explains. “He was a wonderful man.”

For a young cellist in Europe in the 1960s, there was one idol above all others: Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1967, Helmerson was living in Gothenburg, playing with the orchestra there, when du Pré came to play the Dvorak concerto. He arranged to play for her (and her new husband, Daniel Barenboim) and ask her advice. Should he go to Rostropovich?

Du Pré told him that in her six months in Moscow, she’d had very few lessons with Rostropovich because of his busy performing schedule and suggested that the young Swede should go to her teacher in London, William Pleeth.

“I admired her so much that I took her advice just like that!” says Helmerson. “A couple of weeks later I got a letter from her that on the tenth of January, at 3 o’clock, you should be at your first lesson with William Pleeth. She had arranged everything for me. It was very moving.”

If Pleeth’s lessons focused less on the technical side, there were other things to discover. “From him I learned how to hear music before I play it, to not just take the instrument and play it, but to always have a picture in the ear. He was an amazing musician,” Helmerson says.

Despite his experience with these great teachers, when I asked Helmerson to name his the greatest influence, he cites Sergiu Celibidache, the Romanian conductor who led the Radio Symphony in Stockholm where Helmerson played for several years.

“Celibidache had such a structured, conscious way of thinking about music, knowing music from the most basic information and how to bring it out,” he says. “Together with that, he had an incredible temperament, a talent for music.”

He credits his understanding of how to find the priority of voices in music as something he learned from Celibidache.

While in his 20s, and still playing in an orchestra full time, Helmerson won prizes at several major competitions, including the Cassado Competition in Florence in 1971. He’s characteristically low-key about his competition prizes and the solo career that came as a result. “It was an unbelievable experience to go to competitions. In Sweden at that time, there were no instrumentalists who played outside of Sweden. There were singers, very famous singers, but not instrumentalists. So I had never thought in my head while studying about making a solo career.”

As his career expanded, Helmerson was soon playing concerts and recitals around the world and making recordings. As well as his recording of the Dvorak concerto, praised as “a powerful and brilliant reading” byGramophonemagazine, Helmerson made several other recordings for BIS including an all-Britten disc, Bach’s cello suites, andThe Solitary Cello, with solo works by Kodály, Crumb, Hindemith, and Sallinen. He also recorded the Brahms Double Concerto for Arte Nova Classics with his wife, violinist Mihaela Martin.

Many soloists in the early stages of their careers can find little time for teaching, but Helmerson was always “extremely interested in teaching” and he began taking on students by age 28. Chamber music, too, became a major interest, and by the end of the 1980s, he was a regular at major festivals and directed his own festival for several years, the Umea-Korsholm International Chamber Music Festival.

Flash forward to 2002, when Helmerson and Mihaela Martin were performing with the Japanese violist Nobuko Imai.

Martin and Imai had been discussing the idea of starting a quartet for a while, but it was Imai’s suggestion that brought the project to fruition, and the Michelangelo Quartet, with Stephan Picard playing second violin, was launched. (Daniel Austrich occupies the other violin seat in the current line-up.) For a quartet with four busy individual schedules, building a vast repertory is not in the cards, as Helmerson freely admits. “We live in different places, so we come together for very concentrated, almost panicky, rehearsing sometimes,” he says.

Last season the ensemble performed the Beethoven cycle in Perth, Scotland, a feat they’ll be repeating in Japan over the next two years. They’ll also tour the US East Coast in the autumn, making a stop at Carnegie Hall on November 13.

In the meantime, you may come across Helmerson, as teacher, conductor (he has a steady career wielding the baton), and soloist, in many places around the world. Last October, for instance, he played a double concerto for two cellos by Tristan Keuris, with Johannes Moser, at the Cello Biennial in Amsterdam.

Are nerves ever a problem for him?

“All of us have nerves,” he says. “I have to concentrate on the communication. It cannot only be me with the piece, it has to communicate to other people. Of course, when I’m teaching, sometimes I experience a young person who shows so much respect to Beethoven or Bach.

“We don’t see these great geniuses as having lived a life, we see them as sculptures. I think it’s important to have 100 percent respect for composer, but if you don’t have 100 percent respect for yourself also, then the composer will suffer. Don’t make yourself smaller than necessary.”

It hardly needs saying that musician such as Helmerson will never be small and never anything less than true to both the music and himself.

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