Virtuoso Cellist, Teacher George Neikrug Dies at 100

May 15, 2019
By Erich Burnett
photo of late cello professor George Neikrug
Photo credit: courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Member of Oberlin String Quartet made 1966 solo appearance in New York to honor conservatory's centennial.

By the time George Neikrug joined the Oberlin Conservatory faculty in 1965, he had long since cemented his reputation as one of the world’s outstanding cellists.

In the three decades that followed—most of them as a member of the string faculty at Boston University—he became similarly revered for his free-spirited style of teaching, an approach that echoed the unfiltered expression that for so many years had poured out through his playing.

“As humans, many of us are taught not to attract attention to ourselves," he told Boston University's BU Bridge newspaper before a performance in 2000. "But as a performer, you have to go out and use your instrument to cry and scream. Many of the great musicians are those who haven’t lost that childlike quality.”

Neikrug died March 8, 2019, one day after his 100th birthday.

A native of the Bronx, Neikrug built his reputation in part on remarkable performances presented in his hometown, beginning with his professional debut there in 1947 at Town Hall, one of numerous memorable engagements at the New York University venue. A 1960 Carnegie Hall performance of Bloch’s Schelomo with Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony gave way to their seminal recording of the work together for United Artists.

Early in his seven-decade career, Neikrug was a member of the Paramount and Columbia recording orchestras, for which he performed on countless soundtracks including Spartacus, A Place in the Sun, and Shane. He later served as principal cellist of the major orchestras in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.

He also performed throughout the U.S. and Europe as a soloist under the baton of such legendary conductors as Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein, and Yehudi Menuhin.

"I was most impressed with his profound and accurate understanding of the cello,” Menuhin once said of Neikrug. “He is a first-rate musician, and I cannot recommend him too highly."

As a young cellist, Neikrug studied with legendary teacher Emanuel Feuermann. He later recalled it as an experience that often underscored his own steep learning curve at that age.

“Despite his efforts, I found that my lessons with him resulted in the feeling that he was great and I was hopeless!” Neikrug told The Strad in 2000. “I would play something and move my fingers all over the place. Then he would stand up and play something, knocking it off with total ease and perfection. So I felt like a fool all the time.”

At age 24, Neikrug began a 15-year period of study with Demetrius Dounis, a gifted teacher, player, and physician who was renowned for guiding string players through technical challenges and injury. Neikrug became a major voice in spreading the "Dounis Method" of teaching, which emphasized maximum, instinctive expression and focused on rooting out technical deficiencies one at a time, so that they could be more efficiently unlearned. Neikrug credited his mentor for inspiring his passion for pedagogy.

“If he caught me doing one thing wrong, I’d have to do it over again,” he told The Strad. “So I learned this tremendous amount of concentration…I would say that Dounis taught me to play more like Feuermann more than Feuermann did, and it’s too bad Feuermann wasn’t around to see it!”

From 1942 to 1945, Neikrug’s performance career was interrupted by service with a U.S. military air transport division in North Africa, through which he earned the rank of corporal.

In 1957, with the Cold War raging, he became the first American to be invited by the Romanian government to present a tour of that country; his six appearances with the Bucharest Philharmonic paved the way for numerous other performances across Europe and beyond. In the 1963-64 season alone, he performed with 25 major European orchestras.

Neikrug joined the Oberlin faculty in 1965 after two years teaching at the Musikakademie in Detmold, Germany. He had devoted 1961-62 to a stint as a Fulbright professor at the Frankfurt Hochschule fur Musik and also taught briefly at the Peabody Institute.

During his two-year tenure at Oberlin, Neikrug was a member of the Oberlin String Quartet, alongside faculty violinists David Montagu and David Cerone, and violist William Berman.

His 1966 solo recital at Town Hall marked his first New York appearance in 17 years and was the first of eight Oberlin concerts in New York that academic year in honor of the conservatory’s centennial. Neikrug’s program included works by Bach and Kodaly, as well as the world premiere of Sonata No. 2 by his son, Marc Neikrug.

Among the elder Neikrug's notable students was Andor Toth Jr. '69, whose 30-year tenure on Oberlin's faculty began in 1972.

Neikrug went on to teach at the University of Texas before settling in 1971 at Boston University, where he remained until his retirement. Neikrug's students earned seats in prominent orchestras across the country and around the world.

"Teaching is one profession where your skills increase with age," he told BU Bridge.

For many years, it seemed Neikrug's performance skills could keep up the pace as well. In 1979, at age 60, he earned acclaim for performing Bach’s six unaccompanied cello suites at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, a feat he routinely accomplished in Boston in previous years. He continued to perform at a high level well into his 80s.

“There are no indications in the manuscripts that we have of the suites on how to play them,” Neikrug told The New York Times in advance of the 1979 Bach performance. “You are on your own, and you are constantly having to make compromises between freedom and discipline, historical and contemporary sound, emotion and intellect. It is something like language and punctuation. When you move a comma, you can change a sentence's meaning. In the Bach, if you change the musical phrasing, you can change the work's meaning.”

In 1995 Neikrug received the Artist-Teacher Award from the American String Teachers Association. The following year, he was presented with Indiana University’s Chevalier du Violoncelle, a lifetime achievement award.

Neikrug was married to fellow New Yorker Olga Zundel. He leaves two sons, composer Marc Neikrug and actor Barry Neikrug.

You may also like…