News came today of Peter Stumpf, currently Principal Cello of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a member of the Johannes String Quartet, accepting a full-time position at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music after having served as adjunct faculty for the past two years, flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Bloomington to fulfill his commitments. Word on the street is that Stumpf will take a one-year leave from the orchestra for the 2011-2012 season to teach in Indiana (and likely also to spend more time with the Johannes). It remains unclear what Stumpf will do after this coming season is done.
Stumpf took over the Principal Cello chair from Andrew Shulman. When Ronald Leonard retired in 1999 after 24 years as Principal Cello with the orchestra, the initial round of auditions to find his successor resulted in no winner, leaving the position vacant for a year. Shulman, who came to Los Angeles after being Principal with both the Philharmonia and the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields in London, was then invited by Esa-Pekka Salonen to try out for the LA Phil position. Shulman’s tenure began with much fanfare, and based on the first few months of concerts, the hoopla seemed justified. The cellos always played elegantly under Leonard, but under Shulman they seemed to have more presence in the concerts I attended. Mark Swed said, in his review of a performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 2 conducted by Christoph Eschenbach:
“The Philharmonic cello section, starting to find a new voice under the new principal, Andrew Shulman, was particularly impressive in this regard, especially in its rapt yet lucent playing at the opening of the Adagio that practically seemed to stop time.” (Los Angeles Times, December 9, 2000)
Despite the accolades, Shulman resigned after just one season, agreeing to stay on for an additional year while the Philharmonic began a new search for his replacement (eventually hiring Stumpf). It is unclear why Shulman’s tenure was so short. He certainly played beautifully and received positive reviews; while officially he had resigned, there were rumblings about some in the orchestra unwilling to grant him tenure which probably means there was “not a good fit” between him and the section; Shulman was also pursuing a budding conducting career, and perhaps the orchestra was unwilling to allow him as much time is he wanted for this other activity. Swed described it this way:
“The often-euphemistic reason given for his resignation, which came at the end of his probationary period, is the desire to explore career options. . . . Orchestras are large families all unhappy in their own ways, their inner dynamics a mystery to outsiders. From a listener’s point of view, however, the cello section under Shulman has been robust; his solos with the orchestra never let you down.” (Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2002)
After what turned out to be one of his last performances with the Philharmonic, I remember seeing Shulman, Salonen, and Daniel Rothmuller (Associate Principal Cello) sharing a beer or two at the old Otto Rothschild’s restaurant (what is now known as “Kendall’s Brasserie)” beneath the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. They seemed to be getting along. . . .
And now, after a still-relatively-brief nine-year tenure by Peter Stumpf, the orchestra faces the strong possibility that it will have to look for another Principal Cello. We won’t know for sure for another year, but in the meantime, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, Stumpf’s absence will have on the section. He is certainly a respected and capable player; I found his solo performances in the Prokofiev Sinfonia-Concertante and the Brahms Double Concerto to be fine, if not particularly distinctive or noteworthy. In contrast to the notable change in character of the sections sound during Shulman’s tenure, and despite having to deal with the less-than-perfect acoustics in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the evolution of the cello section’s sound seemed more to do with where they were placed within the string section at Walt Disney Concert Hall than to any influence Stumpf may have brought. Perhaps Stumpf has better people/political skills than Shulman did; clearly, being the principal in any orchestra requires more than just being able to play well.
For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.