Leslie Parnas, celebrated cellist and musical diplomat, dies at 90
By Javier C. Hernández
Leslie Parnas, a renowned cellist and teacher whose second-place award at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War helped propel him to a storied career, died Feb. 1 at a rehabilitation facility in Venice, Florida. He was 90.
The cause was heart failure, his eldest son, Marcel Parnas, said.
Leslie Parnas, who hailed from a family of musicians in St. Louis, was 30 when he won the silver medal at the second Tchaikovsky competition, in 1962, the first time it included a cello category. His success in Moscow, where he performed for Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, earned him global renown and gave him a platform as a musical emissary.
He was the only American cellist to win a top award that year — the other winners were Russian — and his success came only four years after pianist Van Cliburn clinched the gold medal at the first Tchaikovsky competition, which was viewed as an American triumph.
Parnas, known for his lyrical playing, returned regularly to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ’70s for concerts before large crowds. He studied Russian, offered advice to aspiring performers there and lobbied Soviet officials to send musicians to study in the United States. He later served as a juror for the Tchaikovsky competition.
“When I play music,” he told The New York Times in 1978 during a visit to Leningrad, Russia, “it is not only an example of emotional freedom, but it is also a message for peace and for the right of each individual to express himself.”
Leslie Parnas was born Nov. 11, 1931, the son of Eli Parnas, who worked at a paper box factory and played the clarinet, and Etta (Engel) Parnas, a piano teacher.
He began studying cello at a young age and made his debut at 14 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, playing Édouard Lalo’s cello concerto at a children’s concert. Two years later, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Parnas graduated in 1951.
After a stint in the U.S. Navy Band, he returned to Missouri to serve as principal cellist in the St. Louis Symphony, a position he held from 1954-62. From the outset, his talents were on display. When a soloist was late for a performance of the Brahms double concerto for violin and cello, Parnas stepped in at the last minute, dazzling the audience.
He also caught the attention of eminent cellist and conductor Pablo Casals, who presented him an award at an international cello competition in Paris in 1957.
It was the beginning of a long friendship. Parnas and Casals collaborated in a variety of venues, including the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont and Casals’ festival in Puerto Rico.
Casals, one of the most revered musicians of the 20th century, could be an intimidating figure. But he had a rapport with Parnas. During a class in 1961, Casals chastised Parnas for playing with too much vibrato. Without missing a beat, Parnas offered to sell him some.
“None of us would ever have dared say something like that,” said Jaime Laredo, a violinist and conductor who often played with Parnas. “Leslie could get away with things like that. They had a mutual respect.”
When Casals died in 1973, Parnas was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Parnas honed a soaring sound in repertoire that ranged from Brahms to Shostakovich. He won praise for a 1964 recording of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, with Laredo and pianist Rudolf Serkin.
Parnas could be headstrong, changing tempos on a whim and instructing colleagues to play quietly during his solos.
“He was a very instinctive player,” Laredo said. “He wasn’t that particular about following the score to the nth degree. He just played naturally.”
He made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1965, playing Schumann’s cello concerto. In his review, Times music critic Howard Klein called him a “fiery and romantic cellist.”
“Mr. Parnas did not play so much as he sang the work,” Klein wrote. “The daring way he dug into those high position passages added a gambler’s excitement.”
Parnas became a fixture on the chamber music scene, including at Marlboro, where he performed for many years. He joined the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1969 as a founding member, helping to cement its reputation as a magnet for top artists. From 1975-84, he was artistic director of Kneisel Hall, a chamber music festival and school in Blue Hill, Maine.
Ida Kavafian, a violinist and violist who played alongside Parnas in the early days of the Chamber Music Society, said his expressiveness was striking.
“It was the kind of sound that would just wrap you up, envelop you, and you felt it was all around you,” she said. “It was an experience.”
As his performance career waned, Parnas focused on teaching, including at Boston University, where he served as an adjunct associate professor of music from 1963 to 2013.
Agnes Kim, a cellist who studied with him from 2004-08, said he spoke often about the importance of not letting technique interfere with musical expression.
“He was a legendary teacher, but to me he was never that faraway, mystical person,” she said. “He was just so friendly, so humble. He always had his playful grin every time I went to the classroom.”
Along with his son Marcel, Parnas is survived by another son, Jean-Pierre, and four grandchildren, two of whom are professional musicians. He married Ingeburg Rathmann in 1961; she died of breast cancer in 2009.
Marcel Parnas said that his father continued playing his 1698 Matteo Goffriller cello almost every day until late in life and that he was especially fond of Bach’s cello suites.
“For him, music was everything,” he said. “That was the way he lived: to play the cello.”