Stephen Kates, 59, Peabody teacher and internationally known cellist

January 21, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Stephen Kates, an internationally known cellist who was taught by many of the greats and went on to teach generations of strings players at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, died Saturday of lymphoma at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 59.

He appeared with most of the major orchestras in the country, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and participated as a chamber musician at the top festivals. He performed at the White House for Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and for numerous heads of state and dignitaries, including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Princess Grace of Monaco.

One of Mr. Kates' greatest achievements occurred more than 35 years ago when he was awarded the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1966, the height of the Cold War, an amazing feat for an American, particularly one so young, colleagues agreed. In 1986, he returned to serve as the American juror in the competition.

"He was a wonderful cellist," said concert violinist Itzhak Perlman, at whose wedding Mr. Kates was best man. "He had a beautiful, beautiful sound. He sort of felt the music."

"He could be very serious, but he never took himself too seriously. We had many laughs," Mr. Perlman said.

Many years ago, the musicians had CB radios in their cars and would converse over the airwaves with one another -- and with passing truckers who would never have believed the true identities of handles "The Mellow Cello" and "The Fast Fiddle," said Mr. Kates' wife, the former Mary Louise Robbins.

Stephen Kates was born into a musical family in New York, where his father, David, was a member of the viola section of the New York Philharmonic for 43 years. His mother's side of the family represented three generations of professional cellists, including his maternal grandfather who composed the scores at Paramount Studios for the Popeye and Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons.

Mr. Kates began his formal music studies at age 10 with Marie Rosanoff while attending New York's famed High School of Music and Art. He went on to study with Leonard Rose and Claus Adam at the Juilliard School of Music, where he graduated with honors. He later joined the master class of world renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Kates spent 28 years as professor of cello at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Conservatory of Music, commuting for 18 of those years to Baltimore from New York before he and his wife moved to Annapolis 10 years ago.

In 1990, the couple bought the old Holzapfel Violin Shop on Fayette Street in Baltimore and found a treasure trove of instruments inside the century-old shop. Mr. Kates donated many of them to the Baltimore Museum of Industry and had some of the instruments rehabbed for students in need.

He also liked to work in the garden and go fishing -- endeavors some musicians eschew for fear of injuring their hands.

"He enjoyed his life thoroughly," said Mrs. Kates, an interior designer whom he married 20 years ago. "The day was not long enough for Stephen to fit in everything he wanted to do."

Said Jesse Levine, head of the strings department at Yale University: "He lit up the room. He had an indomitable spirit that one could describe as a youthful joy. He helped all of us to find humor."

Mr. Levine, who calls Mr. Kates "one of the great cellists of the world of his generation," has been saving answering- machine messages left by his friend over the past two years. They are a series of hysterically funny impressions, many of famous musicians, Mr. Levine says. The tape is full -- 45 minutes on each side.

Mr. Kates received a diagnosis of lymphoma nearly two years ago, just as he was starting a sabbatical. He had such a good attitude about his illness -- "He would never complain; he would just go on fighting," Mr. Perlman said -- that he served as an inspiration to the other patients he would sometimes counsel.

His most prized possession was his cello -- a 1739 Domenicus Montagnana, described by Mrs. Kates as the cello's equivalent of a Stradivarius violin and the best by that maker that still exists -- which he acquired after the death of a wealthy Californian. Mrs. Kates said her husband received several inquiries over the past year about what would happen to the cello after his death. She said her husband hadn't decided what should be done with it.

"I'm just going to hold onto it for a year," she said. "He couldn't give up his baby girl."

Mr. Kates' last concert was held Dec. 18, a month before his death, at the hospital where he spent many of his last days. It was standing room only as he played for the doctors and nurses and other staff who had cared for him. It was his way of saying thank you to them, Mrs. Kates recalled. He played his favorites, including "Clair de Lune" by Claude Debussy and "Ave Maria."

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