Rolf Gjelsten - Cello

Rolf Gjelsten began cello studies in his native city Victoria, Canada, with James Hunter and Janos Starker at the age of 15. At 22 he became the youngest member of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Rolf returned to North America to study with Zara Nelsova which led to further study with the members of the La Salle, Hungarian, Vermeer, Cleveland and Emerson string quartets.

As a member of the Laurentian Quartet for almost a decade he toured internationally, made five CDs and taught cello at the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College in New York. During this time he was also a member of the New York Piano Trio.

Rolf furthered his studies from 1990 with the great Casals protégé and Beaux Arts Trio cellist Bernhard Greenhouse at Rutgers University, where he received his doctoral degree in cello. 

He has performed with such eminent artists as Menahem Pressler, Anton Kuerti, Piers Lane, Tasmin Little, Nobuko Imai and Gervaise de Peyer.

Rolf joined the New Zealand String Quartet in May 1994 and in 2014 he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for his outstanding services to music in New Zealand.

10 questions – Rolf Gjelsten

When did you begin to play a musical instrument – and was that the cello?

My parents organised regular concerts featuring their Norwegian folk dancing group.   I grew up singing and dancing with my two sisters, who also played accordion, until one day one was plopped into my hands at the age of 10.  It wasn’t long before I began leading a ‘double life’ playing both folk and classical music. Two things led me to the cello, one my infatuation with a Disney-like castle which housed the local music conservatory which I passed every day on the way to school and the other my longing to play in an orchestra. So at 13 ½, I entered that castle with a half-burnt cello from my school to join the princes and princesses studying classical music. My school didn’t have an orchestra, so I joined the band playing trumpet!

What inspired you to become a chamber musician?

The Victoria Trio, comprised of three superb artists, became the heart and soul of our local music school. Their passion, insight and commitment to teaching and performing made them national icons. I yearned to experience their spontaneity, imagination and directness of expression. I soon played my first quartet concert featuring the Ravel Quartet – which felt like a delirious bath of sonority. I was hooked!

What are the challenges of working in a string quartet?

Perhaps you mean what isn’t a challenge playing string quartets!
In a medium where four instruments are so interdependent and the soul of a work can emerge only from total unity of purpose, flow and spontaneity, it’s not hard to imagine the technical, musical and personal hurdles faced. Spending time together – almost 17 years in our case – binds us with a shared history, allows us the experience to solve issues quickly and, like a family, enriches all that we share together. The personal and musical journey is tremendously fulfilling as we search for consensus on thousands of details – not all musical!

What’s special about the role of cello in the ensemble?

The cello role has evolved from the time of Haydn’s first string quartets in the mid-18th century. At that time it was important in laying down the bass line, contributing to the harmonic structure and stability of the music as well as the sense of flow. In the 19th century and beyond, composers kindly liberated the cello in a quartet – allowing it to soar high above the violins with glorious melodies.

What are the logistical challenges of touring internationally with such a large instrument?

Travelling with the cello is definitely a ‘grin and bear it’ proposition. I could write a novel about my experiences – in small cars, on the ice (I destroyed my first cello), in buses, trains, planes and even on bikes! Should the cello go in the bulkhead, the window, in a net, upside down? To make a sport out of it, the rules for carrying cellos on buses and airplanes are forever changing and almost always either incomprehensible or illogical.

What are some of your most memorable concerts or experiences with the Quartet?

Two concerts are forever imprinted in my memory. The first is my audition for the New Zealand String Quartet in ‘94, for which I ‘had to’ perform a unique concert of only movements from string quartets which had prominent cello solos. What a dream! The second concert memory begins as my eyes widened upon entering the Wigmore Hall Green Room, adorned with photos and signatures of the great performing icons of the 20th century. The clear resonant sound of this legendary space filled with an audience of hungry music lovers gave us all a magical musical experience.

Is there some chamber repertoire you particularly enjoy?

The great composers draw you in with both their musical language and with their specific emotional story in each work. Performing the complete cycle of quartets of Beethoven gave me a deep insight into his spirit. Another of my musical highlights has been playing Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ in a string quartet arrangement – Bach’s bass lines transport me to another world.

What does your teaching bring to your playing?

The sense of awe we feel in the power of music comes full circle through teaching. The strategies and techniques required to marry the intellectual, physical and emotional selves are all developed. The luxury of a one-to-one relationship with a student comes with the responsibility of inspiring and helping shape them as individuals. We’re important caretakers of the traditions which our teachers have passed on to us.

You’ve written about your special 300 year old Gofriller cello – what does it mean to you?

My instrument is like both a child and father to me. A child in the care I must give it to last another 300 years and a father in what the instrument can teach me about singing with character and playing without willfulness. Every moment I sit at the cello I’m enriched by the colours and innate character of the instrument. Those 17th century Italians knew how to seduce the ear!

What do you do when you’re not rehearsing, performing, recording or teaching?

In the seemingly small speck of time outside music and raising a 7-year old, I love to run, sometimes competitively, play tennis, repair a toy or household item, and occasionally eat!

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