Zara Nelsova: Queen of the Cellists

June 23, 2023


Ten-year old Sarah Nelson played the cello so well that the eminent British adjudicator at the 1928 Manitoba Music Festival gave her a mark of 99 and called her a genius. Together with her older sisters, Ida (violin), and Anna (piano), the Nelson Trio won another first prize and another well-known British adjudicator said they were the best young trio in Britain and the Commonwealth. The Nelson girls were the children of Grigorii Katznelson, a flute graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, who came to Winnipeg in 1910 and changed his name to Harry Nelson. Harry, his wife, Bessie, and the three girls lived at 908 Manitoba Avenue when Sarah was born and later moved to 425 Redwood Avenue.

Sarah was exposed to a wealth of classical music as a child. Theatres, movie houses, ballrooms, and hotels employed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of musicians in the days before recorded music, Harry played in the Orpheum Theatre Orchestra where he met a Hungarian-born cellist, Dezso Mahalek, who had studied with some of Europe’s finest cellists and asked him to teach Sarah when she was six and had already worked with her father for two years. Dezso later became first cellist of the Vancouver Symphony. Harry and Dezso must have played in The Winnipeg Choral and Orchestral Society and the Winnipeg Orchestral Club which mixed trained professionals and experienced amateurs to perform major symphonies and shorter pieces several times a year. They also played in mid-sized orchestras that joined choirs and soloists to perform oratorios in churches and they may have given recitals organized by the Women’s Musical Club, the Men’s Music Club and the Jewish Musical Club. These clubs also brought in famous soloists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Fritz Kreisler. Even vaudeville shows generally included one classical musician.

The Nelsons followed the adjudicators’ recommendation to take the family to London in 1928 where they struggled financially but gave the girls a good musical education. Sarah did so well in a prestigious cello academy that the London Symphony Orchestra invited her to play the Lalo Concerto at age twelve and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations the following year. The Nelson Trio, now called The Canadian Trio, earned critical acclaim for their London performances and their parents took them on a concert tour across Africa, Asia, and Australia. The Nelson sisters toured Canada in 1938, starting at the Walker Theatre that had held a fundraising concert for their trip to London in 1928.

After the tour, Rabbi Kahanovitch married Anna (pianist) to an English businessman, Sol Gold, and the young couple moved to San Francisco. (Rabbi Kahanovitch had also married the parents). Sarah and Ida returned to London where they did solo work and hired pianists to perform trios until wartime conditions made them return to Canada. Sarah settled in Toronto where she became the principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony after orchestral musicians heard her practicing through the open window of the Y.M.C.A. basement. She enhanced her stage presence by adopting the name “Zara Nelsova” composed of a false cognate, “Zara” popularized by movies starring Theda Bara and Greta Garbo, and “Nelsova,” an incorrect but euphonious russification of her last name. Ida (violin) suffered health problems and gave up performing and father, Harry, also gave up music professionally. He became a fruit dealer.

Zara Nelsova become one of the dozen best cellists of the twentieth century. Moving to New York City in 1942 and taking U.S. citizenship in the 1950s, she performed with many of the world’s best orchestras and gave chamber music concerts, even pioneering performances of unaccompanied cello pieces. She is particularly identified with Ernest Bloch’s Hebrew Rhapsody, Schelomo, and performed it in 1949 with the composer conducting. They enjoyed a warm personal relationship based on a common Jewish identity that included sharing Jewish dirty jokes. Her repertory included much contemporary music, some of which reflected advice she had given to composers.

Nelsova was known for her strong personality. She was uninhibited and outspoken. Her determination and self-confidence were dramatically revealed in her youth when she turned up unannounced at cello great Gregor Piatigorsky’s hotel room at 6:30 in the morning when he had an early train and asked to audition. Obviously impressed with her playing, Piatigorsky accepted her as a student. Later, with more orthodox introductions, Emanuel Feuermann and Pablo Casals also took her on.

James Manishen, a clarinetist in the Winnipeg Symphony and later music critic for the Free Press, wrote that when she walked onto the concert stage in 1967, “I thought I was in the presence of some kind of grand duchess who just happened to play the cello”. She was “elegantly dressed and impeccably groomed” and “carried herself [with a] regal bearing.” But she was not remote. A fellow cellist called her “a natural comedian” who kept recital audiences in stitches when she stopped to talk about subjects such the problems women cellists had finding clothes that were both practical and attractive. Nelsova performed in long, elegant gowns that looked beautiful on stage but, a fellow cellist noted at the Aspen, Colorado Music Festival, made driving on mountain roads hazardous. During the 1950 Flood, Nelsova contacted the city to offer her services to help, as did other travelling musicians. She taught at New York’s Juilliard School where she was known for feeding students who ran short of money. Zara married and divorced twice.

Zara came back to Winnipeg to perform, to teach, and to visit relatives, primarily the Morris Neaman family who lived near the Nelsons when she was a child. The Women’s Musical Club organized recitals for her in the mid-1940s. She played the Dvorak Concerto with the newly formed Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in 1949, returning in 1954, 1967, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, and finally in 1990, when she performed the Elgar concerto with Bramwell Tovey conducting. Walter Kaufman, conductor of the WSO and a noted composer, wrote a cello concerto for her that she premiered with the BBC Symphony in 1950.

In 2000, CBC issued a recording with the title: “Zara Nelsova – Queen of Cellists”. The University of Winnipeg awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1998. Zara Nelsova Awards were presented at the Naumburg International Violoncello Competition (2008) and the International Cello Festival of Canada held in Winnipeg in 2011.


Back issues of the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune

Obituaries in the Times (UK), NY Times, Guardian, The Strad

Claude Kenneson, Musical Prodigies (1998), pp. 241-46