You can come home: New York Philharmonic cellist returns to his Vermont roots

Photo by Matthew Dine

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

When asked how he became a cellist, Eric Bartlett responded, “Practice, practice, practice! … Oh, that’s Carnegie Hall!”

The Marlboro native and member of the New York Philharmonic is returning “home” this weekend to perform as soloist with the Juno Orchestra to perform Franz Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Brattleboro Music Center Auditorium.

Vermont’s newest professional chamber orchestra, established in the fall of 2017 and conducted by founder and music director Zon Eastes, will perform the Symphony 59, “The Fire,” also by Haydn. The program includes a concerto grosso by English composer Charles Avison, composed in 1744, and the short, evocative “Petroglyph,” written in 1978 by New Mexico composer Michael Mauldin.

“We are thrilled indeed to work with Eric, especially on the Haydn D major, such a magnificent piece,” said Eastes, himself a cellist. “Eric heard Juno’s inaugural concert last September and gave an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ to the prospect of performing with Juno.”

In a phone interview from his New Jersey home, Bartlett credited his father, longtime recording engineer for the Brattleboro Music Center and New England Bach Festival, for his initial interest in classical music.

“For a long time after I was a professional, he was better able to identify a composer or piece than I was,” Bartlett said.

When his parents enrolled him in Stan Eukers’ Green Mountain Fiddlers program for young strings, Bartlett’s father also pointed him toward cello.

“He thought that the low rumbling out-of-tune scratchy cello was going to be infinitely less painful than the screeching out-of-tune of beginner violin — so he opted for the cello,” Bartlett said.

He began taking the cello seriously at age 14 when studying with George Finkel, of the famed Bennington cello family. At the University of Massachusetts, Bartlett pursued music primarily, but studied other subjects.

“When I transferred to Juilliard, it being a trade school, it was pretty clear,” he said. “Like many people, 14 is when I started to get serious.”

Coming from Vermont presented Bartlett with challenges shared with many coming from rural backgrounds.

“I think a lot of my colleagues got more technical grounding at a younger age,” he said. “They had access to good early teaching and got started at an early age, people who expect them to maybe go in that direction and push them and know how to push them. So I think I had some catching up to do.

Bartlett was also accepted at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, but chose New York’s Juilliard to study with famed cellist Leonard Rose.

“He was very soft spoken, very elegant, but he kept his distance,” Bartlett said. “It was more like a master class, but we played repertoire for Rose that he had played a million times, and he had a very strong view about every note. And when he would demonstrate you would just melt through the floor.”

Bartlett got more personal attention from Rose’s assistant, Channing Robbins, who counseled him on his development.

“I got about half my lessons with Rose and half with Channing, because Rose was traveling and concertizing,” Bartlett said. “You got a little bit of the best of both worlds.”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Juilliard, Bartlett found himself freelancing in New York and playing mostly contemporary music. He was a member of the Columbia Quartet, the New York New Music Ensemble, and later joined Speculum Musicae and the Group for Contemporary Music.

“There was always a whole bunch of challenges there that you weren’t going to get in the earlier styles,” Bartlett said. “It increases your ability to count complex rhythms, it increases your ability to sort of do mental acrobatics.

“The actual technical acrobatics aren’t so interesting, but the mental acrobatics that you have to do end up making the music of Copland and Bartók seem tame by comparison, and then relatively easy to play,” he said. “I’ve never regretted the time that I put in on all that stuff.”

Bartlett also gained invaluable experience touring nationally with the Harvey Pittel Trio, with the famed saxophonist, for three years.

“Harvey felt strongly that even though I and the pianist were very much junior partners, that we should play a solo piece on each concert — and also get up in front of the audience and talk about it,” Bartlett said. “Those were both good training.”

To support himself, Bartlett began playing with orchestras like the 92nd Y Chamber Symphony, American Ballet Theatre, and became principal cellist of the Mostly Mozart Festival. In 1983, Bartlett joined Orpheus, New York’s famed conductorless chamber orchestra, a move that was to prove pivotal.

“Orpheus is not quite like any other orchestra playing on the planet, because it operates on chamber music principles,” Bartlett said. “There are no passive roles in Orpheus, only active participants — it’s just bigger.”

The democratic rehearsal process is much more complicated than with other orchestras.

“You have to start with a bunch of people who have a lot of respect for each other, and then everyone plays in a way that is compelling,” Bartlett said. “We have to see where our differences are and be willing to compromise and try each other’s ideas. At the end of the day, what happens is everybody signs on in a big way — it sounds much more committed, and much more vivid.”

Bartlett, along with his violist wife Sally, a member since 1979, toured the world with Orpheus, and made “zillions” of recordings. When the recording business began to dry up, he decided to audition for principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic in 1995 — and didn’t get it.

“I did invest six months of intensely preparing for it,” Bartlett said. “But it turned out that a year later, I got invited to the finals of a section opening on the strength of the audition I did the year before.”

Bartlett has been there ever since, but continues to perform with Orpheus when he can. Bartlett’s other passion is teaching. He has taught the orchestral excerpts class at Juilliard for 15 years now, and coaches the Juilliard Chamber Orchestra.

“I try to coach them not by telling them how to play the music, or what I would do, but rather getting them to explore their own ideas and discuss it — and take ownership of it,” Bartlett said. “It’s really exciting when it finally clicks — because they then play with such enthusiasm.”

Brattleboro Music Center

The Brattleboro Music Center presents the Juno Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Zon Eastes, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 9, and 3 p.m. Sunday, June 10, at the BMC Auditorium, 72 Blanche Moyse Way in Brattleboro. The program features Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 in A major, “The Fire,” and the Cello Concerto in D major with Eric Bartlett as soloist, plus music of Charles Avison and Michael Mauldin. Tickets are $40, $20, and $10 for students and limited view; call 802-257-4523, or go online to bmcvt.org. For information, visit www.junoorchestra.org.