Paul Katz on Playing with the Cleveland Quartet and Expanding CelloBello to Include Chamber Music

Katz was in the first class that Gregor Piatigorsky taught in 1961; now he's passing on the legacy himself

By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

The CelloBello online platform—offering lessons, events, competitions, articles, and videos for cellists—celebrated the Cleveland Quartet and announced a major expansion at a fundraising evening of music and memories at Reinberger Chamber Hall in Cleveland’s Severance Music Center at the end of November. The music was provided by the Weilerstein Trio (Donald, Vivian, and Alisa Weilerstein) and four Cleveland Orchestra cellists (Mark Kosower, Richard Weiss, Charles Bernard, and Bryan Dumm). The memories came from the premiere of an inspiring, hour-long documentary on the Cleveland Quartet’s 1988 tour to the Soviet Union and a Q&A session from the stage. The CelloBello expansion (due to go online in February) will feature a redesigned website, with new portals to chamber music and adult learning.

The event coincided with Sony’s release of the recordings the Cleveland Quartet made for RCA between 1972 and 1979—with violinists Donald Weilerstein and Peter Salaff, violists Martha Strongin Katz and then Atar Arad, and cellist Paul Katz. The set is beautifully packaged with a new interview of the five members and Katz’s original notes on the Beethoven Quartet, including an invaluable discussion of interpretive philosophy and metronome markings.

I spoke to Katz just before Christmas from Boston, where he teaches young quartets at the New England Conservatory. Katz himself had been in the first class Gregor Piatigorsky taught at the University of Southern California in 1961. Now Katz is passing on the legacy himself.

Paul-Katz-photo-Claire-Chen
Paul Katz, Photo: Claire Chen

How did you feel during the music?

When the Weilerstein Trio played two movements from the “Archduke,” it reminded me that I might have been the first person to meet Alisa besides her parents, because I saw her the day she came home from the hospital. I have memories of them playing concerts together when Ali was eight, nine years old. 


Advertisement


The four cellists played Bach, the Air in G, which was quite beautiful. Mark was there in the upper limits of the cello. He played it like a violinist. And then they played the Barber of Seville Overture, which was quite a virtuoso display. Just terrific. We started in Cleveland in 1969, so a lot of our friends and closest associates were just not there anymore. But there were some that I hadn’t seen for 20 or 30 years and others who remembered the quartet from 30, 40 years ago. And there were a lot of students, including the Verona Quartet, the Ariel Quartet, and the Balourdet Quartet. 

The documentary has an imposing title—Notes from Behind the Iron Curtain: Cleveland Quartet’s 1988 Soviet Tour—but turns out to be intimate and heartwarming, and a bit politically naive considering today’s renewed estrangement. 

I didn’t have any idea of the impact that it was going to have. People were laughing, applauding at the end. It also has a lot of relevance to what’s going on right now. When we started this, I was thinking, is this okay? But it’s historical, and it does talk about bringing people together, which is what I believe in. A little bit more difficult to do it with Putin than Gorbachev.

The Cleveland Quartet in Moscow in 1988.

It sounds like the CelloBello expansion represents a leap into the future. 

When we started CelloBello in 2010, it was my dream to expand into chamber music; even today, there’s almost nothing online for string quartets or piano trios. It would take a huge financial and time investment, and we didn’t feel like we could do it until Robert Rund came onboard recently as executive director and secured grant money for a complete redesign. And our portal on chamber music will be worldwide and free, like our cello community. No lessons for a fee and that sort of thing. We are not for profit. We are about leveling the playing field. 


Advertisement


Where is the content for the chamber music portal going to come from?

The Pacifica, Ariel, Balourdet, Parker, Jupiter, and Jack quartets have all said yes to contributing content to form a historical archive, a kind of a family tree of string quartets. The Borromeo Quartet’s Nicholas Kitchen is contributing some of the lectures he’s done on the Beethoven quartets. The Parker Quartet is giving us videos on the complete Beethoven cycle. The Pacifica Quartet is doing two or three videos just on Opus 132, going into quite a bit of depth. 

Why the adult learning content? 

Adult learners are mainly interested in chamber music. The solo cello repertoire aspect is not as exciting to most adults as what we’re going to be doing with the redesign. 


Advertisement


You had adult learners in your own family. 

My mother played amateur cello, and my father had been in the Chicago Symphony’s training orchestra in high school. In fact, his parents sold his oboe when the Depression came. He was around 50 when my sister and I saved our newspaper-route and babysitting money and bought him an oboe. And he went full-throttle back into music and played oboe in many of the local orchestras in the Los Angeles area every night of the week.

The repertoire on the recordings you made over the years doesn’t represent how broad the Cleveland Quartet’s range really was. Did you just accept that as rules of the game?

We were able to record the Ives and Barberquartetsdue to the American Bicentennial in 1976 but never anything else [beyond standard repertoire]; even though we played many new works in concerts and commissioned new quartets on a regular basis, our recordings unfortunately cemented an image of conservatism. We fought all the time with RCA for contemporary repertoire. We were dying to record the Bartók quartets. They said they wouldn’t sell. At the very end, John Corigliano wrote a farewell work for us, and it was recorded—but on Telarc, not RCA.