Meet cello soloist, composer, conductor, and educator Dr. Ovidiu Marinescu and learn about his marvelous new album: London Cello Connection.
Meet Dr. Ovidiu Marinescu
One of my favorite aspects of working at the Cello Museum is having the privilege of making connections with remarkable cellists from around the world. Recently I had the truly great pleasure of connecting with Dr. Ovidiu Marinescu, a true renaissance man who is a cellist, composer, conductor, educator – and sometime poet.
Professor Marinescu is passionate about making connections, as you will read in this interview and hear in his most recent of 20+ albums: London Cello Connection. Released on 10 March 2023, this new album is a unique collection of eight, five-minute pieces – like mini cello concertos – written specifically for this project. It brings to mind a quote attributed to President Woodrow Wilson:
“If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.” – attributed to President Woodrow Wilson
Read on to learn how this challenge of brevity inspired this marvelous new album.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
New Album Cello Connection
Cello Museum (CM)
Congratulations on your new album, the London Cello Connection, featuring you as a soloist playing a wide range of works by eight composers. I’ve had a chance to preview the album, and it’s gorgeous. Please tell us more about this new album.
Dr. Ovidiu Marinescu (OM)
This is a fantastic project. Every once in a while, we have some opportunities that are not only exciting, career-wise, but also they’re significant, and they have meaning. As an artist, I’m obviously professional in all circumstances, but I always seek meaning and connection in whatever I do, whether it’s a connection with a student, or in performing a piece.
This album is important because I think it is in some ways unique. It is an album of eight mini concertos that are five minutes each. This concept was developed along with the president of Parma Recordings, Bob Lord. Parma Recordings is an American label that features a lot of contemporary composers, and I’ve worked with them for maybe 10 years. I have over 20 albums.
In a conversation with Bob Lord in New York after a Carnegie Hall performance, we were brainstorming and had this idea that we don’t need more forty-minute concertos; our attention span is shorter today. For radio play, a five-minute piece will find maybe an easier spot. Also, why don’t we challenge the composers to communicate their message in five minutes? We put out a call for scores – an invitation to select the composers from Parma – and this is how the album was born.
“I’m going to compose for the cello!”
It’s such a unique project. It was a pleasure to listen to this collection of short works. As you say, people are conditioned to have shorter attention spans these days, and the shorter format is also a challenge for composers. You’re also a composer, so please tell us about your compositions, particularly for the cello.
I guess I have a restless mind. Every once in a while, I get new ideas, and I just do them. I remember maybe 15 years ago, I started to write poetry, and there was a phase of writing poetry.
In 2015, I thought, “I’m tired of some of this stuff.” I’m not talking about the album here, but I’ve had the chance sometimes to play some music that was either super difficult, almost causing injuries, or not idiomatic – not really my voice. Maybe it was so abstract that I didn’t find that connection with the audience.
Almost in a fit of madness, I said, “I’m going to compose for cello!” My first piece, which is eight minutes long, is called “I’m All Ears” (Sunt Numai Urechi) for solo cello. I composed it in five days. It started with the inspiration of hearing a flamenco player and trying to imitate that on the cello. In many ways, I still think this is one of my top compositions.
The Unexpected Satanic Nightjar
I started writing works for solo cello. One of them, my second work, I believe, is called, “The Midnight Call of the Satanic Nightjar.” A Satanic nightjar is actually a bird.
My most recent work for cello is a concerto for two cellos and orchestra that was finished in the fall of 2021. I was commissioned during COVID by seven orchestras. It’s already been performed by three of them, and others are coming up, so I’m very proud of this work.
Sources of Inspiration from Around the World
My style – I would call it eclectic. I use a lot of ethnic music inspiration, not only Romanian folk music, which is my birth country – Romania, but also fiddling tunes, Scottish or Canadian, and I have a tango in one of my piano trios.
Now, I’m composing a piece called The Seven Dreams of Frida Kahlo for clarinet and string quartet. I’m not sure why Frida Kahlo – I just felt a certain calling, because her art, her life story, actually, is amazing. This dream – she dreams that she’s in different places. Well, there is a Mayan ritual dance there. There is a mariachi tune. There’s a New York bebop because she came with Diego Rivera, her husband, to New York while he was doing his murals. I have a Stravinsky-ish moment. The last movement that I did, among others, is Arabic. So these are my sources of inspiration.
From Communist Romania to the London Symphony
What was your first experience with a cello, and how did you choose it as your instrument?
I’m smiling because my life is a series of incredible stories. I’m like a witness of my own journey. Here is the story of how I started the cello.
I was going to an elementary school in communist Romania in Bucharest. It was a new neighborhood – the communists were building large new blocks of apartments for the working class. When I was born, we were five of us in one room in downtown, Bucharest, with a water pump outside with an outhouse and heating with a woodstove – five of us in a room. It was my grandmother, my parents, and I had a sister who unfortunately died when she was nine months old.
All of a sudden, they received from the communists – they bought it with a mortgage – but there was the opportunity to have a three-room (a two-bedroom plus big living room) apartment. That was incredible! Central heat, running water! It was a big change.
I went to this elementary school in my neighborhood, and during the second grade, it was a break around 10 AM. A group of teachers from the community music school who were recruiting students walked in. They said, “Hey, boy, can you sing something?” I sang something. “Can you match this pitch?” I matched the pitches. They looked at me, and they said, “You’re not good enough.” So they went on, and they interviewed 10-15 of the kids who were running around the classroom – remember, we were seven years old – all of them got this slip of paper: they were invited to the audition.
I was so enraged. I was an incredibly shy boy – I would never talk to an adult. (Maybe if I were asked.) I never sang in front of anybody in my family. Nobody knew that I had any talent because I just couldn’t [sing in front of anyone]. It was my thing, you know, when I was singing. On the way out, actually, I can visualize now. This teacher had a hand on the door handle, and he was closing the door. “I want to make music, too!” They turned around, looked at me, and they weren’t sure if they auditioned me or not. They said, “Okay, can you sing a song?” I sang the same song. “Can you match the pitches?” I matched the pitches. They said, “Okay, you can come to the audition.”
I went home – this must have been March or April – and the audition was sometime in September. I went home, I told my parents, and they forgot about it. The phone rings in early September; my grandmother answers and they say it’s the music school, and you’re invited to do the audition. My grandmother hung up on them because she had forgotten. When my parents come home, they received the report, and they remembered.
So I had no choice; they assigned cello to me. I honestly had no idea what the cello was. I thought it was some wind instrument. We went and picked up the instrument, and I remember my mom put it down on the ground to open the door, and I straddled it like, “Hey, I’m coming on my tank here!”
That was my first experience with a cello. Here – look where I am: from communists to the London Symphony.
“We will change the world around us when we touch people in their hearts.”
What a great story. Now you are a professor at West Chester University. Please tell me about your own teachers as well and how you’re passing on that tradition to your students.
Well, I obviously owe my artistic and technical approach to a number of teachers. I went to the George Enesco Music High School in Bucharest – a specialized school for music. Then I came to the United States to do my master’s in Wisconsin. [My teacher was] Wolfgang Laufer with the Fine Arts Quartet. Perhaps one of the more influential teachers [was] Orlando Cole, at Temple University. Just watching master classes, I learned more, sometimes; not by playing as it was too much pressure, but just by sitting and watching.
My cello teacher in Bucharest introduced me to Janos Starker’s daily exercises when I was in eighth grade – it was a Hungarian edition. I was fortunate to have teachers who guided me toward a very organized technical approach. I did scales, I did the Starker, and Ševčík exercises, shifting exercises – you name it. Anything that was available, and still, that’s how I maintain my technique.
What I lacked in my education in Romania was a certain culture of tone, which now I think is maybe one of my trademarks. And how do we become one with the cello? How do we express emotion, and colors, and imagination through the tone? That’s what I’m trying to impart most to my students.
I’m very visual; I draw inspiration from artwork – from museums. I always compare the tone of the cello with impressionistic painting. It’s about telling the story. It’s not about the notes. Notes are important, but it’s more – what story are we telling? How do we change people? What is the relevance of what we do? We can impress them with fantastic technique, but I think we will change the world around us when we touch people in their hearts, and when they go home, they take something with them.
Finding Balance through Motivation and Passion
I agree. I think that’s the power of music and what makes it such a universal language.
You do so many things at a virtuosic level. How do you find balance as a soloist, chamber musician, composer, conductor, and professor?
Well, it’s not easy. At some point in my career, I was doing about 50% conducting and 50% playing. I used to conduct the orchestra at West Chester University. And we were doing major repertoire like Mahler five, Beethoven ninth, Prokofiev, Shostakovich tenth symphony, Brahms Requiem, Bruckner six, Bruckner four. These works take a lot of scores studying. I did a lot of conducting outside – in Romania, and Russia, and Spain, and guest conducting in the US. I’m only bringing it up because it was a serious commitment. For me, score studying – being prepared – was important.
At the same time, I had to maintain my technique to be able to continue performing. It was a challenge. Now I’m doing less conducting, but I’m doing more composing, and conducting comes back a little bit easier. So if I stopped practicing for a week, I’m just depressed, honestly – and it’s much harder to get back into shape.
Composition is really spotty. It’s seasonal, because, during the semester, there’s no time. I catch up in the summer, or in the winter break. I find one evening, and I compose until I can’t anymore.
In many ways, I think mind and heart are very important in what we do. When we have motivation and passion, we don’t get tired.
What is your favorite cello, or what is the most unusual cello that you’ve ever played?
Well, I’m very fortunate now to play a cello by Matteo Gofriller. It’s every cellist’s dream to play an instrument by a master. What I find particular about this instrument is its richness of tone and the colors that it has. I was reading about other cellists playing Gofrillers that it takes them a while to get adjusted – [to learn] how to get the maximum out of the instrument. I’m still discovering and molding to the instrument.
When I travel – I’m married to a Brazilian lady [and] I spend some time there to be together with the family – I use a Prakticello, and it’s very practical. Before that, I had a Yamaha electric cello that worked very well. I need to practice to stay in shape. I don’t practice a lot because I practice very focused. If my technique is in good shape, I can learn material, no matter what it is, very fast.[In terms of other] instruments I’ve come into contact with – my cello teacher Orlando Cole had the Sleeping Beauty Montagnana, and I had a chance to play it once.
I had some instruction from Kenneth Slowik at the Smithsonian Institute. He’s a baroque player, and I worked with him for at least a semester. We had some lessons at the Smithsonian. So I remember he called security – he’s also the curator of the collection – he said, “We are opening the cases for the instruments,” and needed to notify security. He brought out the Servais Stradivarius cello, and it was set up as a baroque instrument. I’ll never forget the feeling of playing that instrument – it was like a dark chocolate. You see, most cellos are like Hershey’s chocolate. That one was like a dark Lindt or Godiva chocolate.
Then there was an Amati instrument. These are some of these ones that I remember as leaving an impression on me.
The Servais Strad is oversized, it hasn’t been cut down, which I love. I also had the privilege of playing that one behind the scenes one afternoon. It is one of my favorite cellos that I’ve ever played.
What bow do you play with your Gofriller?
Right now I have a bow that is attributed to James Tubbs.
I was fortunate to own a number of wonderful bows. I actually had a Dominique Peccatte, which was a little soft. It had a beautiful tone, but it wasn’t fitting what I did.
I still own a Léonard Tourte the younger, the brother of François Xavier Tourte. It really is an incredible bow. It’s like the typical French bow.
I actually owned two bows by a modern maker, Pascal Camurat – he’s French. Both of them were absolutely exceptional. When I was in the process of acquiring the Gofriller, I had to make a number of sacrifices. At some point, I became fascinated with bows, so I’ve had the chance to have a number of wonderful bows.
I would love one day to play a Pierre Simon. Every Pierre Simon that I have played, it’s like, “Oh, I want one!” One day! What do you think? What’s your favorite?
I’ve tried some French bows. There was a Sartory I fell in love with, but the bows I like now tend to be the really heavy, strong English bows. I have a Dodd stamp bow and a Clutterbuck.
Please tell us about your upcoming cello projects.
Well, I’m planning to record my concerto for two cellos and orchestra this year. I have a sabbatical project this spring – I have a grant that will support that. I’m including some of the students at West Chester University, because it’s important to do projects that include younger people.
I have a trio, which is entitled Trio Casals. We’ve been active since 1996. We just played a Carnegie Hall recital on February 6th; we have another one May 5th and one on November 10th. We have a contract with Parma recordings, so we do a lot of new music.
On this most recent concert, I had a solo cello piece, and I had three works for cello and piano, one of them entitled “Sarajevo Cellist,” which was inspired by the cellist who played in Sarajevo during the bombing. It’s very interesting work.
I don’t know how you do it all, but it all sounds like a great adventure.
I’m going to Havana, Cuba, at the end of May for a festival called La Ruta de Mozart that a friend of mine, a colleague, is doing – playing all of the Mozart quartets in one day. I’m not playing – I’m only coaching there. We are inviting two American quartets to be there.
In October, I’ll be going being going back to Havana to play with the Lyceum orchestra. I’ll be playing with them the Bach d minor double violin concerto, playing one of the violin parts on the cello and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with the viola part on the cello, which I transcribed about 15-20 years ago. [I] never ended up publishing it, but it’s fantastic.
If I can add another story, which is kind of funny – the Mozart on the violin and cello, instead of on the violin and viola. It’s an incredible piece. Funny enough, I’m playing it in the original register. Playing in E-flat major on the cello in the thumb position is normal, but it’s not the easiest. So you know that Mozart actually wrote the viola part in D Major, and has the violist tune the instrument a half step higher. With that in mind, I thought, “Aha! That’s what I’m doing!” I’m tuning my top two strings, the A and D, to B-flat and E-flat. That puts my E-flat major in the normal thumb position where I have harmonics, so it fits a little bit easier. It gets a lot more resonance from the instrument. I remember I played it on tour years ago and recorded it, but it was never released. I asked the oboe to give me the B-flat, and they could not believe it. First of all, they thought I was joking! When I actually tuned my cello to B-flat, they thought that is the most insane thing that anybody could do.
So that’s October in Havana; if anybody wants to go to Cuba, join me.
I’d love to hear that! If it’s broadcast, let us know. We’ll put it in our online events listings.
What question or questions do you wish I had asked?
More of a statement; as I mentioned earlier, to me, it’s all about the significance of what I do. I need to find meaning. Otherwise, life is too short. Connection is very important – connecting with people on a human level.
We see it in this career – there are some people who connect because of interest. We meet them, and within one minute, we’ve got their resumes in our mailboxes. But I just don’t want to connect with people because somebody thinks I have something to sell or buy. There are so many wonderful cellists as human beings, and I treasure these connections.
How to Follow and Support Dr. Ovidiu Marinescu
Professor Marinescu generously donated a copy of his new album for a giveaway. Congratulations to Kym Kennedy of Tucson, AZ, the winner of our giveaway!
Don’t Miss Any Cello Museum News
Sign up for our weekly newsletter today.
Thank you to Patrick Niland of Parma Recordings for help in coordinating this interview and the giveaway CD.
Please note that some links in this interview are affiliate links. For full details, please see our footer below.