Jules Eskin 1931-2016

November 16, 2016 at 5:40 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

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In a 2013 interview, Jules Eskin recalled his first experiences with the cello. “At home, [my father] was playing in a string quartet every weekend and I loved listening to the music,” he remembered. “And by the time I was five years old, I wanted to play the cello too.”

Once the young Eskin started playing, he recalled, “I used to have little contests with my father, who had a very nice tone. He would say: ‘Let’s see who can play this the most beautifully.’”

In his long career as principal cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jules Eskin will be remembered for that same attention to beauty and musicality.

Eskin died at his home in Brookline, MA Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 85.

In a career that spanned fifty-three years with the BSO, Eskin played with a singing and rosy cello tone that was prominently featured in orchestral works ranging from Strauss and Mahler to Shostakovich. Eskin also performed as soloist in BSO performances of cello concertos by Haydn, Dvorák, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, and Barber. With the orchestra he made many successful international tours, including the historic trip to China in 1979 under Seiji Ozawa.

Eskin played under five music directors with the BSO, including Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Ozawa, James Levine, and Andris Nelsons. He was also a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, an ensemble with which he toured the Soviet Union in 1967 and South America in 1998. Eskin recorded extensively with that ensemble, and his cello sound is featured on the most recent Chamber Players’ recording of serenades by Dvorák and Brahms.

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A lover of hiking and sports cars, Eskin was admired by colleagues and music directors for his personality and playing.

“I will never forget my amazement when during an early rehearsal for our first tour together in September 2015, Jules spontaneously started playing the solo cello part for Strauss’s Don Quixote,” Andris Nelsons recalled in a statement.  “All of us who were there—myself, BSO members, and staff—were overwhelmed by the beauty, power, and richness he so effectively conveyed in what is considered to be one of the most difficult works for cello and orchestra.”

“I feel so honored to have had the privilege of working with Jules during my first two years with the orchestra,” Nelsons added. “With his incredible leadership of the cello section and the profound link he provided to the past . . . Jules brought the orchestra such a wealth of experience and influenced the glorious sound of the orchestra for more than half a century, a staggering commitment for which we owe him so much.”

Yo-Yo Ma, in a statement through the BSO, called Eskin “a legend in the cello world.”

“A role model for me, he has always embodied the best of what a cellist could be – a consummate musician, as a solo artist,  [and] an ensemble musician,” said Ma.

BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe said that, “Jules embodied the heart and soul of our string section. He had an inspired musicality and infallible instinct coupled with a masterful understanding of the cello, its sound, and its role in all of the music that he played.”

Jules Eskin was born in Philadelphia in 1931. He took his first lessons on cello with his father, Samuel Eskin, a Russian-born tailor and amateur cellist who had auditioned unsuccessfully for the Philadelphia Orchestra. At age sixteen, Eskin joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which was then under the direction of Antal Dorati. In Dallas he studied with János Starker and, later, in Philadelphia with Gregor Piatigorsky and Leonard Rose at the Curtis Institute of Music. Eskin was a fellowship student at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1948, and performed in the TMC Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky.

In 1954 he earned first prize in the Walter Naumburg Competition and gave his New York debut recital at Town Hall, which lead to an extended concert tour of Europe.

Prior to joining to BSO in 1964, Eskin spent three years as principal cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra, under direction of George Szell, and seven years with the New York City Opera. Eskin’s performance of the cello solo in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in a recording with Leon Fleisher and the Cleveland Orchestra has been heralded as the gold standard for interpretations of the part.

In addition to his orchestral work, Eskin was an active chamber musician. He performed with Isaac Stern and Friends, the Guarneri String Quartet, and in piano trio performances with violinist Arnold Steinhardt and pianist Lydia Artymiw.

“There is no doubt that Jules Eskin will be counted as one of the legendary cellists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” said Mark Volpe, BSO Managing Director, in a statement. “We will greatly miss Jules’ paramount musicianship and steadfast presence, as well as his equally legendary sense of humor and strong spirit of camaraderie with his orchestra colleagues.”

Eskin is survived by his wife, BSO violinist Aza Raykhtsaum, sons Alexander and David and their families, and stepdaughter Anna Raykhtsaum Tratt and her husband Daniel.

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