Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sad News from the West

In many ways, Memphis is a western version of Knoxville. Or maybe Knoxville is an eastern version of Memphis. Either way, orchestrally speaking, the two cities are very similar in the size and function of their orchestras. In the late 80's I had an opportunity to meet some Memphians at a project that was called the Nashville Cello Ensemble. 16 cellists from Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville convened at Fisk University in Nashville to perform a concert that included, among other things, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.1 for Eight Cellos.

The leader of the group was from Memphis; the Memphis Symphony’s principal cellist, Peter Spurbeck. I had been anxious to meet Mr. Spurbeck because my second choice (behind Umass, Amherst) for graduate school had been Memphis State, where he was cello professor. In rehearsing for the show and talking with him, it was soon clear that here was a cellist’s cellist.

After he suffered a stroke in early May, a CaringBridge page was set up in his honor. I learned a lot more about his teaching, and his dedication to his life’s work via the many glowing messages of remembrance left by former colleagues and students.  I had become aware during our brief meeting in 1988 that he, like me, was a diabetic. At that time and for many years after (I was 20-something and still wondering if the cello and diabetes were a good combination), I was inspired by the knowledge that he was not letting his diabetes keep him from achieving anything he wanted. In this respect I learned a great deal from him without taking a single lesson. He had been principal cellist for 30 years, retiring in 1996, and was widely known in Memphis as “Papa Cello.” His passing in late May was a real blow to Memphis’ classical community and the global cello community in general, and he will be missed.

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