Jules Eskin, Principal Cellist at Boston Symphony Orchestra, Passes at Age 85

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Jules Eskin, the legendary principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 53 years, passed away at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, after a long struggle with cancer.
Mr. Eskin began his more than half-century tenure as BSO principal cello in 1964 and since 1969 occupied the Philip R. Allen Chair, endowed in perpetuity. He played for five different music directors, including Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, and the BSO’s current music director, Andris Nelsons, and performed as soloist with the orchestra on numerous occasions. He was featured as soloist with the orchestra in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, Brahms’s Double Concerto, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, William Schuman’s Song of Orpheus, and cello concertos of Samuel Barber, Antonín Dvořák, Franz Joseph Haydn, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Robert Schumann. He also participated in the orchestra’s many tours, including its historic 1979 tour to China under Seiji Ozawa.  Major repertoire in which Mr. Eskin recently served as BSO principal cellist, under the direction of Andris Nelsons, included Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Shostakovich’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 10, the latter of which won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in February 2016. 

Mr. Eskin was also a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which Erich Leinsdorf established in 1964 and which played its first concert in November of that year, at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge; upon its founding, it was the only chamber ensemble made up of the principal players of a major orchestra. With the Chamber Players, Jules Eskin toured throughout the world on numerous occasions, including a series of concerts in the former Soviet Union in 1967 and a tour to South America in 1998. He recorded extensively with the Chamber Players in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Michael Gandolfi, most recently appearing on the ensemble’s 2016 BSO Classics release of serenades by Dvořák and Brahms; the ensemble’s “Profanes et Sacrées: 20th-Century French Chamber Music,” released in November 2011, was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.” Mr. Eskin and the Chamber Players celebrated the group’s 50th anniversary with a series of special programs during the 2013-2014 season.

Prior to joining the BSO, Jules Eskin spent three years as principal cello with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and seven years with New York City Opera; the Cleveland Orchestra’s historic recording of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Leon Fleisher as soloist and Mr. Eskin performing the prominent third-movement cello solo, is considered the gold standard of interpretations of the work. Born in Philadelphia in 1931, Jules Eskin had his first cello lessons with his father, Samuel Eskin, an amateur cellist, and at the age of sixteen joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati. Mr. Eskin studied with Janos Starker in Dallas and later with Gregor Piatigorsky and Leonard Rose at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1948 he was a fellowship student at the Tanglewood Music Center, performing in the TMC Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. In 1954, Mr. Eskin was awarded first prize in the prestigious Walter Naumburg Competition and also gave his New York Town Hall debut recital, leading to an extended concert tour in Europe. He also participated in the Marlboro Music Festival and played with the Casals Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico. In addition to his concerts and recordings with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, his chamber music collaborations included appearances with Isaac Stern and Friends and the Guarneri String Quartet, and piano trio performances with violinist Arnold Steinhardt and pianist Lydia Artymiw.

Mr. Eskin is survived by his loving wife, BSO violinist Aza Raykhtsaum, his sons Alexander Eskin and David Eskin and their families, and his step-daughter Anna Raykhtsaum Tratt and her husband Daniel.

Quote from Andris Nelsons, BSO Music Director

“It is so terribly sad for all of us in the Boston Symphony family to hear of the passing of our very dear Jules Eskin, a treasured member of our Family and a legendary cellist of the orchestra for 53 years, said BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons.

“I feel so honored to have had the privilege of working with Jules during my first two years with the orchestra.  With his incredible leadership of the cello section and the profound link he provided to the past-back to his days as a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow, under the tutelage of the great BSO genius Serge Koussevitzky in the 1940s-Jules brought the orchestra such a wealth of experience and influenced the glorious sound of the orchestra for more than half a century, a staggering commitment for which we owe him so much.

“I will never forget my amazement when during an early rehearsal for our first tour together in September 2015, Jules spontaneously started playing the solo cello part for Strauss’s Don Quixote-one that would eventually be played by the wonderful Yo-Yo Ma.  All of us who were there-myself, BSO members, and staff-were overwhelmed by the beauty, power, and richness he so effectively conveyed in what is considered to be one of the most difficult works for cello and orchestra.

“Words are not enough to express the powerful feelings of us all at this moment, just as they are not enough now when we try so hard to express our sorrow over the loss of our friend and colleague, and our condolences to his family, who we are thinking of very often at this time of great sadness.”

Quote from Mark Volpe, BSO Managing Director:

“There is no doubt that Jules Eskin will be counted as one of the legendary cellists of the 20th and 21st centuries,” said Mark Volpe, BSO Managing Director. “For more than half a century, Jules Eskin has led the BSO cello section in thousands of concerts, among them landmark performances under the BSO’s illustrious maestros past and present, including memorable performances under the leadership of Andris Nelsons of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, and the Grammy Award-winning Shostakovich Symphony No. 10.

“His countless performance and educational accomplishments over the course of 53 years, as well as his role as a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, will take a prominent place in the orchestra’s storied history of major accomplishments, and his loss will be felt by the classical music world at large for generations to come.

“We will greatly miss Jules’ paramount musicianship and steadfast presence, as well as his equally legendary sense of humor and strong spirit of camaraderie with his orchestra colleagues. We send our deepest condolences to his family, especially his wife, BSO violinist Aza Raykhtsaum, and we will hold Jules’ memory in our hearts and minds for years to come.”

Quote from Malcolm Lowe, Boston Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster

“I want to celebrate Jules’s life and acknowledge the huge loss that I feel. No words can express the great joy Jules gave to me through his playing or impart the sadness of his passing. If only I could write a ‘Song Without Words.’ Jules embodied the heart and soul of our string section. He had an inspired musicality and infallible instinct coupled with a masterful understanding of the cello, its sound, and its role in all of the music that we played. His sound was always present, always poignant, and always incredibly moving. Jules was a great personal friend and colleague. I will miss him dearly and I treasure every moment that we had together.”

Quote from Yo-Yo Ma

“Jules Eskin is a legend in the cello world. A role model for me, he has always embodied the best of what a cellist could be – a consummate musician, as a solo artist, an ensemble musician, and as principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 53 years.  His life in music was filled and sustained by the love of his wife Aza, the roar of the engines of his sports cars, an almost Herculean ability to do chin ups, and of course the comradeship of his fellow musicians in the Boston Symphony Orchestra family.”

Quote from Arnold Steinhardt, violinist and founder and first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet (1964-2009)

“Jules was a close friend of mine for over 50 years, and he was a wonderful cellist and musician, but above all, Jules had an uncanny ability to pull at your heart strings when he played. I think some of the most beautiful sounds that I’ve ever heard came out of his cello. I will miss him as a friend greatly and I will certainly miss his one-of-a-kind cello playing.”

An interview with Jules Eskin, hosted by Brian Bell.