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Stephen Kates, 59; Cellist Played With Many Orchestras

January 27, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Cellist Stephen Kates, who at 23 placed third in the 1966 Tchaikovsky International Competition and later made solo appearances with major orchestras around the world, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has died. He was 59.

Kates died Jan. 18 of lymphoma at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Kates, who was born in New York, lived in Los Angeles for a time and studied with the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky at USC. A professor of cello at Johns Hopkins Peabody Conservatory of Music for 28 years, Kates last performed Dec. 18 for hospital personnel who took care of him during his illness. He played Debussy's "Clair de Lune" and "Ave Maria."

"He was a wonderful cellist," violinist Itzhak Perlman told The Times on Sunday, describing Kates as "a very old, very good friend" with whom he first played at age 15 and who later was best man at Perlman's wedding. "He had a beautiful sound, a lyrical sound, and his lyricism was a special quality."

Kates had intended to retire and launch a graduate school for cellists in Monterey, but he became ill about two years ago.

The son of David Kates, who played the viola with the New York Philharmonic for 43 years, Kates grew up in a family of musicians, including two uncles and his grandfather, all of whom played cello. As a preschooler, Kates would sit near his grandfather while he played, Kates told the Internet Cello Society in September.

Born May 7, 1943, Kates came to Los Angeles in his early 20s to study with Piatigorsky in master classes at USC.

"Simply watching his incredibly natural bow arm was an education in itself, not to mention the way he produced sound," Kates told the Internet Cello Society. He added, "Piatigorsky taught me to look directly into the eye of the music and to become physically unencumbered by emotional considerations, though without eliminating a drop of emotion, which is a neat, Zen-like trick that took years to master."

While studying with Piatigorsky, Kates won the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, which he compared to "landing on the moon for the United States."

Also while at USC, Kates played chamber music with violinist Jascha Heifetz.

"Watching him 16 inches away from my bow and playing lines with him was pretty much the thrill of a lifetime," Kates said. "You could compare the experience to playing a round of golf with Tiger Woods or having batting practice with Sammy Sosa."

After he left California, Kates studied at Juilliard, where he received his degree with honors.

Kates loved to garden and fish, and he was skilled at doing imitations, especially of some of the famous musicians he worked with.

That skill "has a lot to do with being able to play an instrument, since one has to create a variety of tonal colors and articulations when imitating others," Kates said.

He said last year that one of his regrets was that, at Piatigorsky's urging, he shared his imitation of the great Russian cellist with him.

"I don't sound like dat!" Piatigorsky bellowed.

" 'But you do sound like dat!' I insisted, but knew I was done for," Kates said. Piatigorsky stalked off without another word.

Kates acquired his treasured Montagnana cello in the late 1960s from the widow of G. Allen Hancock, an amateur cello player from Los Angeles and a member of the family for which Hancock Park is named.

After more than two years of sometimes harsh negotiations, Hancock's widow offered the instrument to Kates for a steep price.

"But then I had the task of raising the money, which was not easy," he said. "It took me 2 1/2 weeks with no sleep, trying every possibility of borrowing money. I even considered my local bank, and I am not talking about a bank loan."

When all seemed lost, an unidentified philanthropist provided the money. It was the first cello Kates had ever owned outright.

Kates played in the Los Angeles area many times, including a 1965 performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Times critic Albert Goldberg said of Kates: "His tone was warm and sensitively modulated, his taste impeccable in resisting sentimental blandishments, and his technique was of the kind given by nature to those born to play a particular instrument."

Kates is survived by his wife, the former Mary Louise Robbins, of Annapolis, Md.; his father, of Pittsburgh; and his brother, Michael, of Somers, N.Y.

A memorial concert is planned for the spring at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

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