Eva Heinitz, nation's 'grande dame of the cello,' dies at 94

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She was this country's official "grande dame of the cello," a legendary musician who played chamber music with Albert Einstein and earned the highest approval of conductor Otto Klemperer.

Eva Heinitz, who had been both the inspiration and the terror of generations of local music students and colleagues since arriving in Seattle in 1948 to teach at the University of Washington, died early yesterday. She was 94. Born in Berlin on Feb. 2, 1907, she was a temperamental, brilliant wunderkind who soared to the top as a soloist with Europe's great orchestras while she was still in her 20s.

Then came Hitler. Miss Heinitz, who was half Jewish, found her life in jeopardy, along with the dozens of Jewish musicians who dominated the Berlin arts scene.

"The culture, the energy, the talent, it was all unbelievable," she later said of that era. "That we (Jews) could be in danger from a political movement never entered our minds. We were the most loyal of all Germans, the backbone of society. Many, including several of my relatives, went to the concentration camps still unable to believe it could happen."

After the sudden death of her mother, she fled Germany, first to Paris and then to London, which was flooded with refugees, and finally to New York. She was married briefly to an older man, a lawyer and fellow German refugee with a musical background, but the marriage and her musical career proved incompatible.

Miss Heinitz came to Seattle in 1948 with $2.50 in her pocket to join a faculty quartet, and was immediately hired as faculty cellist. During her 28-year tenure, she also became one of the founders of the early-music revival, which brought a renewed interest in music and instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Along with her cello, she was a revered exponent of the viola da gamba, a relative of the cello that had languished in comparative obscurity. She spurred its rediscovery through her concerts, her work with the UW's Collegium Musicum ensemble, her courses and master classes from Berkeley to New York, and her recordings for the Delos, EMS, Amadeo/Vanguard and Columbia labels.

In 1991, she was honored for her "significant contributions" to both cello and viola da gamba by her international colleagues, who gathered in Indiana to confer upon her the title of "Grande Dame du Violoncelle" - great lady of the cello. Cellist Janos Starker, who visited her in Seattle between concert appearances last month with the Seattle Symphony, made the presentation; other luminaries, from Bernard Greenhouse (cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio) to the late violin legend Josef Gingold praised her achievements.

"She was one of the great artists of our time," said Starker. "She was an absolutely uncompromising musician."

Miss Heinitz was one of those rare individuals who said exactly what she thought. Her bluntness could drive students to tears, but it also inspired them to do their best.

Colleagues adored her. Cellist Cordelia Wikarski-Miedel called her "truly great." Pianist Randolph Hokanson described her as "one of the best musicians I've ever known." Composer/singer Peter Hallock called her "a treasure," and conductor Klemperer called her the world's best viola da gamba player.

Miss Heinitz raged against old age - "I'm too old," she grumbled at 90 - and she liked to answer phone calls from admirers saying, "I'm not dead yet! But I'm close!"

She is survived by grandnieces Catherine Schatzel of Seattle and Lusana Hernandez of Honolulu; niece Nina Yagupsky of Ridgemont, N.J.; nephew Miguel Weil of Buenos Aires, and grandnephew Chris Heinitz of Ackworth, England.

Plans for a memorial, including a concert remembrance, are pending.