“A Good Attitude and a willingness to discover”: Cellist Adrien Zitoun

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Cello, MSO Musicians

Adrien Zitoun’s basement studio contains an upright piano, a full-length mirror, a wall of neatly categorized books and sheet music, and cellos of various sizes. His own instrument is propped against a chair. But when he wants to demonstrate something, he grabs it.

Zitoun, a native of France, came to the United States to study cello at Indiana University, and then joined the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony’s training group for young musicians. There he studied with Loren Brown, a former Milwaukee Symphony principal cellist who now plays in the Chicago Symphony.

“Without him, I might still be taking auditions,” says Zitoun, who won a position in the MSO in 2001. “You come out of conservatory, and your sound is like a Ferrari. To play in an orchestra, you need to have more four-wheel drive.”

He picks up his cello and plays a passage from the second movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony. “If the principal bass is on the jury and listening to that, it’s going to feel awkward. It won’t feel right.” A cellist might see only a melody for cello, but Brown taught him that it has to fit with the basses’ part, too — like the way Zitoun plays it the second time: “It might feel like it’s rushing, but it’s not really rushing.”

He puts the cello down and continues, “Every school teaches you to become a soloist. But solo playing doesn’t help you in an orchestra. It’s all teamwork, especially in the strings.”

Zitoun began playing in France at age 5. At that time and place, “it was really hard to find a small cello,” he says. “There’s pictures of me playing a quarter-size instrument, and my feet are hanging down.”

After getting a master’s degree from the Lyons conservatory, he came to the United States to study with the great cellist and teacher Janos Starker. “He always had the opposite answer that any other teacher would have,” he remembered. “People could have been rejected in some places and he would see strengths in them.” One maxim that Zitoun absorbed was, “Don’t do something contrary to the music with your body.” It’s instinctual to stop breathing when approaching a fast passage, for instance, but the resulting body tension won’t produce good music.

A few years after arriving in Milwaukee, Zitoun started the Philomusica Quartet, along with MSO members Nathan Hackett and Jeanyi Kim and Kim’s husband, violinist Sascha Mandl. He also plays regularly with Present Music, Milwaukee’s new-music ensemble, where he is usually the only cellist onstage. Playing in smaller groups, “I can hear myself. In the orchestra I have to be part of the team. But in those other places, I can decide for myself how I want to do something.”

“Adrien has a good attitude and a willingness to discover new things,” said Kevin Stalheim, artistic director of Present Music. “And he cares enough to prepare before rehearsal. This music is unique and often difficult.” Unlike the string section of a regular orchestra, Stalheim said, “we work collaboratively. Adrien has ideas, and he’s open to other people’s ideas. It’s a very congenial atmosphere.”

Today, Zitoun does a lot of teaching in his home studio, but he’s not as intense as Starker or Brown were with him. Most of his students aren’t seeking professional careers – in 18 years, he thinks he’s had four who did – but “I want them to be music lovers. I hope they’ll go to concerts, become subscribers, download from iTunes.”

He also recently wrote a cello method book for adult beginners, along with his wife, cellist Braden Zitoun. The couple live in Shorewood with their two children, ages 12 and 10. “I grew up in big cities,” he says, “but I don’t mind that it’s a little more quiet here. It’s great for kids.”