Rich sounds of cello

Wendy Warner, a student of famed cellist Rostropovich, now instructs others

August 14, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

Mstislav Rostropovich, the late, idolized cellist, summed up the talent of his student Wendy Warner as "a gift from God."

And when an 18-year-old Warner won the Fourth International Rostropovich Competition in Paris in 1990, one of the jurors, Frans Helmerson, said, "Everything that is basic to cello playing she already has, plus a natural stage presence that you very rarely find. At this age, she's unbelievable."

That competition victory launched Warner's career, which soon included performances all over this country and abroad, many of them with orchestras conducted by Rostropovich. These days, Warner's concert schedule remains busy, complemented by teaching and some recording projects. The latter brings her to Baltimore this weekend.

In a concert at An die Musik, Warner and pianist Irina Nuzova will play a rich program of Russian music, including the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata and Nikolai Miaskovski's Cello Sonata No. 2, along with works by Prokofiev, Alfred Schnittke and Alexander Scriabin. The duo will record the repertoire in October for a CD to be released in 2009, and this concert offers an opportunity for the players to get more deeply into the material.

"The recording was Irina's idea," Warner says. "At first, when she proposed the Rachmaninoff sonata, which we have performed several times together, I said, 'No way.' There's something like 59 recordings of it, and I told her we'd just be one more in the mix. But, then, over time, she suggested adding the Miaskovsky sonata. And then little pieces crept in here and there. I figured, why not?"

The two musicians have been collaborating only since 2006, "but in that amount of time it has been very intense," Warner says. Their musical partnership began with a phone call.

"Irina called me up and asked if I wanted to get together and read through some music," Warner says. "She knows the entire cello repertoire like the back of her hand. We started with Beethoven sonatas and kept on going through some really challenging things."

The Illinois native and the Moscow-born Nuzova clicked during that first session in New York, and they soon made their debut at the Phillips Collection in Washington. Their current Russian program "is perfect in a way," Warner says. "Irina's Russian, and I have my connection to Rostropovich. So it seems natural."

Warner, who began studying the instrument at 6, had her first lessons with Rostropovich, one of history's greatest cellists, when she was 16. She studied with him at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for about six years.

"Obviously, he had a huge impact on my life," she says. "But it's not like he taught me the cello. When I came to him, I was already formed in my technique. And I had my own sound, but it didn't have a lot of variety. He was so amazing at getting different colors [from the cello]. He added to my range. And he always impressed on me to see the bigger picture. He pushed me to go beyond what I thought my limits were."

Now that she does a lot of teaching herself (including at Chicago's Roosevelt University), Warner passes along many of the things she learned from Rostropovich. "I still have detailed notes from my lessons with him," she says.

The high-profile start of Warner's career came with high expectations and pressures. Now, almost two decades since her Rostropovich Competition win, she sounds a philosophical note about her musical life.

"A career is a mystery," Warner says. "There are always going to be two types of perceptions - the perceptions that other people have of you, and the perceptions you have of yourself. I feel like I'm the same player I was [in 1990]. I just keep focused on what is important to me."

Cellist Wendy Warner and pianist Irina Nuzova will give a concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets are $20. Call 410-385-2638 or go to

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