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Cellist Bryan Cheng honours his mentor, Yuli Turovsky

Cellist Bryan Cheng honours his mentor, Yuli Turovsky, in concert at Christ Church Cathedral

By Peter Robb, The Ottawa Citizen February 15, 2013

Bryan Cheng

OTTAWA — Bryan Cheng was eight years old when he first met Yuli Turovsky.

The budding young Ottawa cellist was in need of a teacher who could help him reach his dreams, and Turovsky would be that guide.

“It was quite a process meeting him. … Someone from Montreal saw me perform in Edmonton at the Canadian Music Competition. She came backstage and told me about Yuli and said I had to play for him. … My parents didn’t do anything for almost a year but they finally called him.

“He invited me to his house and I played for him and he said I had a great sound, but I needed someone to challenge me.” Even though he said he’d never had a student as young as Bryan, Turovsky took up the challenge.

Once they hooked up, though, a strong bond was formed, and so began seven years of regular family trips down Highway 417 to lessons with Yuli in his Montreal home in the Monkland Village area of the city. The lessons were always demanding, always professional and always enlightening.

It was a teacher-pupil relationship that lasted until Turovsky’s untimely death last month at age 73.

The young student says Turovsky was almost like a grandfather to him. Lessons were not a draconian experience. Turovsky was full of stories, and when he challenged Cheng, it was by the pieces he would give his student to play. Bryan says they were always just a little beyond what he could do easily.

“He wasn’t the type of teacher who would teach you technique. He was really good at choosing the right repertoire and usually the piece would be just above your ability to challenge you. He was very detailed about the sound.

“He told me not to lose my artistic side; for him, playing music with your whole heart was important.”

Cheng, now 15 and a Grade 10 Lisgar Collegiate student, experienced many firsts with Turovsky as his teacher. His first concerto debut came under Turovsky’s baton conducting I Musici de Montréal when Cheng was 10. Along with his sister Silvie, who is a gifted pianist now in her last year at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, Bryan Cheng has been a rising star on the local music scene for many years. Starting at age 31/2, he has already had a lengthy musical career.

He also played at Turovsky’s last concert in 2011 before the onslaught of Parkinson’s forced an end to Turovsky’s performing career. Bryan played a cello concerto while Turovsky conducted in that performance as well.

“I will never forget that concert or his generous 3½-hour lessons with me, especially in the last year or so of his life, when he had to lie in bed to teach me. However, his passion for music and spirit never weakened,” Cheng said in an email. At the end of Turovsky’s life he gave his lessons lying down, so sapped of energy was he.

“During the last year it was quite sad. Every time I would come in, he would be on his bed. But as soon as I started playing, his eyes would light up and he would be very enthusiastic, singing and telling jokes and conducting.”

Cheng delivered an eulogy at Turovsky’s funeral in Montreal. In the poignant statement about his teacher, the young musician eloquently talked about what that relationship truly meant to him. Bryan says he was nervous speaking in front of a packed church.

Here is an excerpt from that eulogy: “Mr. Turovsky, you always expected me to be an artist. You didn’t want an average cellist. At one lesson at the end of the last summer, you officially told me that I was an artist. But now I know that probably didn’t mean I truly already was. You said that to me because you were setting the bar high for me. I think that was your magic as a teacher. You always had the guts to trust your students and show your confidence in us. That’s how you made us grow musically.”

In honour of his teacher, Bryan, who has performed at Carnegie Hall and has won local, provincial and national honours, will play the last two cello pieces — a Bach cello suite and the Cello Sonata by Zoltán Kodály — that he worked on with Turovsky as part of a Cathedral Arts special performance marking Black History Month. Also performing Saturday are, among others, pianist John “Kofi” Dapaah, soprano Keena Eloise and bass Gregory Sheppard.

When Cheng plays the Kodály, in particular, on Saturday, he will do so with a heavy heart. It was one of Turovsky’s signature pieces.

“(And) it was one of my dream pieces too, ever since I heard it for the first time.”

Turovsky came to Canada in 1976, virtually penniless, from the Soviet Union where he had been the principal cellist of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. On his arrival, he formed the Borodin Trio with Rotislav Dubinsky on violin and Luba Edlina on piano. He also founded the chamber orchestra I Musici de Montréal, which he led for 27 years. His wife, Eleonora, was principal violin of I Musici from its founding until 2011. She died in 2012.

Turovsky made more than 30 recordings. As a soloist, he performed with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre métropolitain and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. He also taught at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal from 1977 to 1985 and at the University of Montreal beginning in 1981. Turovsky was named officer of the Order of Canada in 2011.

Once this concert is over, Bryan Cheng will turn to his own future. He wants to be a professional cellist, but he also wants to study other disciplines at university — history has caught his attention lately. But he will remember his mentor and his friend.

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