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Students, Faculty + Alumni

Cellist Thomas Mansbacher '74 MM to retire from Cleveland Orchestra

Thomas Mansbacher

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Thomas Mansbacher ('74 MM) has a lot on his mind. A crossword puzzle addict, the cellist has a brain literally chock-full of trivia.

But that's far from all his head retains. Scattered between all the minutiae that enable him to complete even complex puzzles in moments lie some powerful, crystal-clear memories.

What's more, on the eve of his retirement at the end of the summer from the Cleveland Orchestra after 37 years, the cellist is only poised to soak up more, to increase his storage capacity and load it with new data and experiences.

"I hope I can learn something new," said Mansbacher, relaxing at his University Heights home. "The next phase is wide open. I can do anything."

Here are a few of the things Mansbacher, a native of St. Louis, is almost certain to do: hike the world, take cycling trips, and practice Bikram Yoga, a branch of exercise and meditation performed in sweltering hot temperatures.

The latter, especially, has proved a fountain of youth, making the father of two grown daughters feel like he's still in his 30s. He minced no words in proclaiming it one of the best things he's ever done.

Music, too, will remain a priority, and not only because he'll continue serving the orchestra as a substitute. Just as Mansbacher feels obliged to complete at least one crossword puzzle every morning, so does he plan to commence every day in retirement by playing Bach.

"I can't imagine not doing that," said the cellist. "It's part of my life. That's not going to change."

Also not budging: Mansbacher's memories. Never mind that the events in question occurred some 35 years ago. The cellist remembers his audition, his first day in the orchestra, and early concerts under former music director Lorin Maazel like they took place yesterday.

Start with his audition. After barely making the application deadline, Mansbacher, then a new member of the now-defunct Denver Symphony Orchestra, was deflated when he couldn't play Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Only his sadness was unwarranted. As he was flying home, nursing his sorrows, his now-ex-wife got the call saying he'd been hired.

Then came his first day on the job. A student of the great George Neikrug and a graduate of Washington University and the Yale School of Music, he'd subbed in major ensembles before, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Not bad for a musician whose undergraduate degree is in urban affairs. Cleveland, though, was something different.

"It was an eye-opener," Mansbacher said. "The clarity and beauty of sound were just extraordinary. I was astonished. I felt like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, like I'd been invited to join a very exclusive club."

His first five years in the orchestra remain his favorite. Nothing against music director laureate Christoph von Dohnanyi or his successor, Franz Welser-Most. In fact, the cellist expressed nothing but praise for the latter's recent series juxtaposing two seemingly disparate composers.

Still, Mansbacher said he holds late former music director Lorin Maazel, who hired him in 1977 and served until 1982, in special esteem. Both of the two performances still lodged in his permanent memory bank took place under that one conductor.

The first is of the Brahms Symphonies in Berlin. "People would not stop clapping," Mansbacher recalled. The other is of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" at Carnegie Hall, described by the cellist as "ferocious" and "hair-raisingly perfect." "The critics said it was too perfect. They'd never heard anything like it."

A third unwavering memory relates less to a specific concert than to a person: conductor Louis Lane. When he, the apprentice to legendary former music director George Szell, stepped onto the podium at Severance Hall, Mansbacher still remembers how the orchestra snapped to attention like never before and proceeded somehow to exceed even its usual high standards.

"You could hear a pin drop," Mansbacher said. "We went even one level better. It was palpable. You could feel the difference."

Teaching was another major part of Mansbacher's career. Just as his childhood home was filled with classical music – along with Cardinals baseball on the radio – so was his adult home long saturated by the sounds of a thriving private studio catering to adult amateurs. One student stayed with him a whopping 25 years.