Orlando Cole, the great American cellist born on Aug. 16, 1908, just celebrated his 100th birthday. His career has bridged two centuries of music-making.
A “who’s who” in the music world, Orlando Cole represents a tremendous link to the glorious past. In the early 1900s, the American public still depended on the more sophisticated European culture. It was a time when the great German photographer Alfred Stieglitz was busy promoting unknowns at the time, including Georgia O’Keefe and Amedeo Modigliani; a time when Debussy was still composing, Stravinsky was hardly discovered, and Matisse and Picasso were relatively unknown.
Cole’s father was a fine violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra who played with the legendary Leopold Stokowski. Orlando Cole became a superb virtuoso after having studied with the great Felix Salmond and became his assistant, who taught among other cellists Leonard Rose, Frank Miller, and Alan Shulman. (Today we are familiar with the artistry of Yo Yo Ma, who studied with Rose who, in turn, worked closely with Cole—and both studied with Felix Salmond.)
Orlando Cole started the legendary Curtis Quartet, one of the greatest quartets of the past century. The Curtis Quartet pioneered during the pre-war years as the first American string quartet to tour Europe. Cole’s classmate and friend, Samuel Barber, first wrote for him the sonata op. 6. Barber wrote his quartet op. 11 as well, with its famous adagio, for the Curtis Quartet. The Curtis Quartet’s recordings are now collectors’ discs and are sadly difficult to find.
Orlando Cole also helped create great institutions. He was faculty at the Curtis Institute for 75 years. The institute was founded “to train exceptionally gifted young musicians for careers as performing artists on the highest professional level.” He essentially founded the New School of Music in Philadelphia now affiliated with Temple University.
Cole stands as a great pedagogue because he understands that music is not merely about entertainment; it is a lifetime’s work that represents the highest achievements of mankind. He served as a loving mentor to many young musicians, and is known as much for his great humanity and kindness as his unhesitating declaration of just how a piece should be interpreted.
An educator of this standing, he taught many of the great cellists on our concert stage today, including the famed Lynn Harrell and his own son David Cole, a remarkable cellist in his own right.
David Cole possesses a totally unique voice on the instrument. I have played chamber music with him and gotten goose bumps on my arm after listening to his glorious sound. Highly imaginative, David built his own cello and bow. David’s wife, Carol Cole, is also a Curtis Graduate (and beautiful violinist). Their son, Lipo Cole, has already made a name for himself as a great maker of violins and other stringed instruments.
In an age of instant everything, it behooves us to note the real masters behind the scenes who have shaped our finest moments and who are in danger of being lost.
Eric Shumsky is a concert violinist and the son of famed violinist Oscar Shumsky.