Cellist Robert Cohen, of the Fine Arts Quartet
Cellist Robert Cohen was leading the same hectic, international concert life he’d led since he was 19 when he got a call from first violinist Ralph Evans, of the Fine Arts Quartet in January of 2011. Wolfgang Laufer was ailing; could Cohen make room in his schedule for a quartet tour in February and March?
“I had played with them six years before, in Finland,” Cohen said, in an interview Thursday at the UWM Zelazo Center. Cohen, now a full-fledged member, will perform with the FAQ Sunday (March 25) afternoon at Zelazo.
“I thought they were an incredible ensemble,” he continued. “I became a fan. Whenever I could go hear them, I did. I came back from that tour on a complete high.”
The tour went well. When Laufer’s health deteriorated further, Evans called Cohen again, to play the Summer Evenings of Music series in Milwaukee in 2011. Cohen, 52, runs a summer music festival in England and was available only for the July Summer Evenings. By then, Laufer had died. That changed the relationship between Cohen and Evans, second violinist Efim Boico and violist Nicolò Eugelmi.
“I had just been keeping Wolfi’s seat warm,” Cohen said. But now, he became the obvious candidate.
Those July concerts confirmed what he’d felt with the FAQ in Helsinki years before and on tour in 2011.
“I discovered a mutual sense of striving to get the same things out of the music,” he said. “You’d think it would be hard to take over for someone who had been in place for over 30 years, but it was remarkably easy. It was very natural, like love at first sight. You can’t create that. It just sort of happens.”
Joining the Fine Arts, which is in residence at UWM, marks a major change in Cohen’s life. Solo appearances, primarily in concertos with orchestras around the world, have been his bread and butter for more than 30 years. He’s giving up most of that to focus on the quartet.
“The question was, do I change my life or not?” he said. “Will it be more fulfilling to play with these people than to continue as a soloist? When you play as a soloist, there’s always compromise. You’re always just getting to know the conductors and the orchestras. You have maybe one or two rehearsals, and you move on. I find enormous value in the intimacy of working with these people over a sustained period of time, and working without compromise.”
Cohen, a London native who is still based there, is also giving up a teaching post at the Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland, to focus on the FAQ.
His wife and four children — 19, 17, 15 and 12 — regard their London house as home, but Cohen said he barely spends two weeks per year there.
“It’s been easier for them to come and see me,” he said. “My idea of home is whenever we’re together, regardless of where it is.”
He will remain director of the Charleston Manor Festival in the south of England and will accept proposals of special interest to him. Cohen likes to collaborate across disciplines, with dancers, visual artists, theater people and filmmakers, and he likes to work with composers. Concerto appearances are not out of the question. But they must have some special appeal.
“I do a thousand different things because I like it,” he said. “It’s stimulating. But the Fine Arts Quartet will be my No. 1 priority. If the London Philharmonic calls me up to do another Elgar concerto, well, probably not.”
At one point in his career, everyone wanted the Elgar concerto from Cohen. He had a classical-scaled hit (250,000 discs sold) with the London Philharmonic in 1979, and that really launched his career. His career kept rolling, even after he told his management to give Elgar a rest for a few years.
He also rolled right on from teen phenom to mature artist without a hitch or a crisis of confidence. Not every prodigy can manage that, and Cohen was a prodigy. After his first lesson, in a group setting at age 5, his teacher told his parents to give him a private teacher. Cohen had made up his mind to become a cellist at age 3.
“I remember it very clearly,” he said. “We were driving, on holiday, and my father was fiddling with the radio. He finally settled on Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. I remember listening intently to all 20 minutes of it and declaring that I wanted to be a cellist. My parents thought, right, sure you do. They gave me a toy trumpet, which I promptly smashed. I wanted to be a cellist.”
“It all seemed very normal,” Cohen said.
It helped that his father, Raymond, was a violinist — concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in fact — and his mother, Anthea Rael was a pianist.
“They performed as a duo,” Cohen said. “Some of my earliest memories are of sitting under the piano while they rehearsed. It must have been rather loud down there. But I learned all the violin repertoire that way.”
His father, Raymond, was a passionate chamber musician and often had colleagues over to play quartets. When he became too busy with the RPO and other musical obligations in mid-career, his father let chamber music lapse at home. But he pursued it with renewed vigor upon retirement.
“He was always wanting me to come and play with him,” Cohen said. “I always loved chamber music, but I was almost always too busy to do it.”
Maybe it was providential that Evans’ January call came the day after Cohen’s father died. For the foreseeable future, chamber music will be Robert Cohen’s top priority.
Concert and Ticket Info: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 25, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Zelazo Center, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. All seats for this free concert have been claimed. Guest Artist: Pianist Cristina Ortiz. Repertoire, all by Saint-Saëns: Barcarolle (Piano Quartet) in F Major, Op. 108,Piano Quartet in B flat major, Op.41; Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.14.