Cellist Bonnie Hampton – A Legend In Her Own Time




Bonnie Hampton - Credit:  yellowbarn.org

Bonnie Hampton - Credit: yellowbarn.org


Bonnie Hampton rejoined the cello and chamber music faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) in September, which represents a homecoming after a fifteen-year hiatus – as she taught there from 1973 to 2003 and even in the early 1950’s. She is widely regarded as a fine performer and the go-to person for pedagogical and aesthetic aspects of cello and chamber music study and performance.

Hampton’s career is both fascinating and instructional, as it gives students and seasoned artists a kind of blue print for career success. Her early studies include the Griller Quartet, in residency at SFCM during the 1940’s and 1950’s. In fact, her first husband was Colin Hampton, cellist of this renowned quartet that also enjoyed a residency at the University of California, Berkeley from 1949-1961. Interestingly, Bonnie Hampton established the first of its kind master’s degree program in chamber music at SFCM in 1985. 

She continued cello studies with Margaret Rowell, Pablo Casals and Zara Nelsova. Rowell’s expertise attracted many students and famous artists such as Rostropovich and Piatigorsky, who taught and performed at her home in the Berkeley hills. As Hampton’s career began to skyrocket, so did her opportunities worldwide as soloist and chamber musician. 

She was a member of the The Francesco Trio from 1964-2002 – they received the Naumburg Chamber Music Award - and also performed extensively from 1967-2002 as the Hampton-Schwartz Duo, of with her late husband Nathan Schwartz was pianist. Both these groups performed a varied repertoire, including American composers and commissioned or premiered works that can be heard in recordings.

Hampton has collaborated with such quartets as the Juilliard, Guarneri, Cleveland, Mendelssohn, Alexander, Budapest and Griller and performed at venues such as Alice Tully Hall, the Kennedy Center, Ravinia Music Festival, Marlboro Music Festival, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Yellow Barn Chamber Music Festival. She taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, the University of California, Berkeley, The Juilliard School from 2003-2012 and with the Francesco Trio enjoyed residencies at Stanford University, Grinnell College and SFCM

The SFCM awarded Hampton an honorary doctorate in 2016 and Indiana University honored her with the Eva Janzer Award. One might say that she has come full circle in returning to the San Francisco Bay Area and SFCM where the musical adventure began.

Bonnie Hampton talks with Editor Leonne Lewis about her studies, teaching and chamber music.

You studied with Margaret Rowell, Zara Nelsova and Pablo Casals. What made these artists so special?

Margaret Rowell, Zara Nelsova and Pablo Casals were all remarkable musicians, cellists and human beings, each in their own way. I was extremely fortunate to have their strong influence in my life.

Rowell was my cello teacher from age eight to fifteen, but of course was a lifelong mentor. She was a remarkable teacher with such excellent and valid principles and the ability to communicate them to her students. Her teaching was comprehensive, giving one the best possible beginnings with concepts of freedom and balance in one’s approach to the instrument, along with the basic musical principles of a beautiful sound, pure intonation, alive rhythm and musical understanding. She encouraged us to experience all aspects of music, chamber music, orchestra, solo as well as having an awareness and appreciation of art and literature.

Zara Nelsova was an amazing virtuoso cellist and just being around someone who played on that level was an inspiration. She also showed one the rigor and discipline which goes into playing on such a high level.

Pablo Casals was and probably is the most important musical influence in my life. I worked with him privately in Prades, France and San Juan, Puerto Rico over a period of five years, as well as in master classes in Berkeley, California and Marlboro, Vermont. One had the sense of his striving for what musical perfection and true musical realization could be. One would hear him play or conduct and feel, “Of course, that is how it is meant to be.” He would search for the true essence of the music he touched. There was a life and love in his music making. As a teacher he was kind and patient but would also insist that one work for true understanding and instrumental achievement. He would stay with something until one began to realize it, whether the issue was technical or musical. His influence on me is enormously positive.

Has your approach to teaching changed through the years?

My teaching life has given me a wide variety of students and each college, university or conservatory has had its own purpose or intention. At the liberal arts schools such as Mills College or Grinnell College one finds a wide variety of abilities and intentions, but one commonality is the love of music and a desire to have it in their lives. The same might be said for the larger universities such as Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, where I have taught and where one finds a mixture of amateur musicians and also those who have professional hopes but also want the broader undergraduate education. In that sense, colleges and universities give their students the ability to have music in their lives in a very important way.

The conservatories are of course committed to providing the education which will prepare students for the profession. There are some very excellent conservatories across this country, many of which I have visited as a guest teacher and performer. But it is with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and The Juilliard School that I have a more intensive experience.

Regarding the competitive aspects of the conservatories, the main issue is that the profession is competitive and each school creates its own environment in the same sense that each studio reflects the personality of a teacher. The job of a teacher in any situation is to help a student  develop their full potential so that they can realize their possibilities as far as they can.

Obviously, the more pressure, the more intense the competition might be, but I have found there to be a wide variety of attitudes. Classical music is a demanding profession. The standards are extremely high and opportunities are won with talent, very serious hard work and hopefully some luck. One just hopes that the strongest motivation is not only the love of music but the desire to follow the path of becoming a superb musician.

How do you draw out a student’s own individuality and personality?

The issue of finding one’s own voice on an instrument is a personal and individual pursuit. First, the player must have an excellent relationship physically with the instrument, with freedom of motion and the many skills involved in playing well. But it is the sensitivity of the ear and hearing and especially one’s imagination in the range of tonal colors, use of vibrato and in the use of the bow, which is one’s breath. The way one uses the bow for articulation, lyrical playing and the many uses of vibrato are all elements which begin to define an individual sound or voice. One can suggest, try to stimulate the imagination but it is up to the individual to search for their own voice. It is always in connection with the context and needs of the music. 

One hears very clearly the individual voices of some of the old-time players. It seems to me that we are no longer as individual. Whether that is an issue of the perfection demanded in performance and recording today or a difference in the aesthetics of communicating music, I cannot say. While it is not totally lost today, I do feel that there is much less individual playing in spite of the extremely high level of playing one hears today.

What is the best way for quartet players to just get along, musically speaking?

Every chamber music group that is serious develops its own personality. Naturally, as musicians we all have our individual feelings and thoughts about every piece of music we are working on. Learning to work together productively is a skill that has to be learned and practiced continually. Two things are very important: realizing the best possible performance of a work as the focus of the group’s work and having a mutual respect for each other in the group. We need to be willing to try each other’s musical ideas and in fact be willing to play something well but in a way in which we may not hear it. A sense of flexibility is essential in a group and not always easy, as we can all feel very strongly and emotionally about music. 

Your thoughts on rejoining the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. 

Naturally, California is my true home and while I have had the opportunity to travel and perform in most of the United States, Europe and Asia, I always have loved flying into San Francisco.

The chamber music department of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music has a long history of wonderful musicians connected with it and has evolved through numerous phases with the many musicians involved. I am happy to be a part of its evolution at this stage and if I have something to contribute, so much the better. I feel that chamber music is a very strong and positive element of this school and the department has a great deal to offer. One is not only working with some of the greatest music ever written, but the musical experiences and skills one develops in becoming a good chamber music player is a wonderful preparation for being an excellent performing musician on many levels. For those who truly want to dedicate themselves to chamber music as a life’s work, there is a very special supportive attitude around the work at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which one does not find everywhere. 

What instrument do you play?

While I have had the opportunity of playing on an Amati cello for many years, I also am a great supporter of modern instruments. There are now many wonderful instrument makers in this country and I often play on a copy of an Amati cello and have recently acquired a copy of a Casals Goffriller cello, which I enjoy very much as well.