Mt. Airy cellist played with Bernstein, Ellington, Casals

by Len Lear
Posted 11/27/20

Not too many local musicians have memories of playing with two legendary American innovators and composers whose music is still performed all over the world, but Ron Lipscomb, 77, who previously …

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Mt. Airy cellist played with Bernstein, Ellington, Casals

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Not too many local musicians have memories of playing with two legendary American innovators and composers whose music is still performed all over the world, but Ron Lipscomb, 77, who previously lived on Bryan Street in Mt. Airy for three years and Morris Street in Germantown for four years before that (now Olney), is one who can.

“Playing under Duke Ellington was like a dream,” he told us last week, “playing under a living legend. That is a memory l will forever cherish. And playing under Leonard Bernstein was so unique because he worked himself into the same emotional state for every performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. Amazing!”

Lipscomb, who grew up near Fairmount Park at Belmont and Parkside Avenues, was fortunate because in his youth, children actually had an opportunity to start music lessons in public elementary school, a “frill” that has pretty much disappeared. Ron enjoyed those lessons so much that he began taking classes at Queen Street Settlement Music School at age 12.

"The cello was an instrument that became available to me,” he said, “and despite its size, I liked the beautiful sound of it. It’s one of the instruments closest to being a human voice. I love that. So I treat it as a voice when I play.”

Lipscomb went to Shoemaker Junior High and Central High School (216th graduating class), but it was not until he attended the University of Iowa that he decided to become a musician, studying the cello with Paul Olefsky, which continued in Philadelphia for two more years at Temple University. Then he went to the Manhattan School of Music to study with Bernard Greenhouse of the Beaux Arts Trio.

“What a great teacher and gentleman he was. I owe so much to him. With his help, I went to study with Pierre Fournier in Switzerland for six months. While in London, I hung out with members of the Guarneri String Quartet and met Daniel Barenboim (world-renowned pianist and conductor) and Jackie Du Pre (one of the world's greatest cellists). Those were definitely great times!”

After four years at the Manhattan School of Music, Ron played in the Symphony of the New World, conducted by Duke Ellington, when Ron was interviewed for a New York Times article in 1967 entitled “The Negro in Search of an Orchestra,” about racial discrimination in the world of classical music. On that issue, Ron says today that he came along after the black pioneers in classical music in New York, “so I missed the worst of it (racial discrimination).”

Then 24, Lipscomb was quoted in the New York Times as saying he appreciated the effort to extend the musical franchise to black musicians, but “…this should be seen for what it is: a middle-class operation with integrationist ideals, having no relation whatsoever to the mass of black people.”

Ron was playing in orchestras and working in recording studios, even playing as a substitute in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He went on a tour to New Zealand, Australia and Japan under Leonard Bernstein’s direction and another tour to Scandinavia and Russia, and he played with the American Symphony under the world-famous conductor Leopold Stokowski .

While at the Manhattan School of Music, Lipscomb was in a summer program studying under another legend, cellist Pablo Casals. “That was truly inspiring,” said Lipscomb. “He was 87 when I studied with him. Thirty years dropped off him when he picked up the cello ... I worked very hard to express the music.

“That was an amazing experience. I wanted to study with him in Puerto Rico, but Martina (his wife) was very protective. I would have loved to spend even more time with Pablo Casals. He was such a seminal musician and person of integrity.”

In addition to classical music legends, Lipscomb has performed and recorded with many celebrity entertainers and singers, including Frank Sinatra, Gladys Knight, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye and Sammy Davis, Jr., and he recorded with James Brown for his “Live at the Apollo, Volume II.” But unlike many classical players, he can jam with the best jazz artists as well.

Ron is now teaching virtually in the Philadelphia Orchestra Community Services Program and at Bryn Mawr Conservatory. What is the best advice he ever received from a teacher? “One of my teachers used to say that practicing was 'like putting money in the bank.'”

Ron said he would also like to take the opportunity to mention his father. “He loved music and spent so much time taking me to lessons and rehearsals. He was my rock.”

For more information, email rkl75140@gmail.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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