Cellist Jurgen de Lemos

Conductor and cellist Jugen de Lemos introduces us to the Littleton Symphony Orchestra.

Jurgen de Lemos runs the Littleton Symphony Orchestra through a rehearsal. Photo by Jon Rose.

With a career that encompasses more than half a century, 82-year-old Jurgen de Lemos is as passionate about his musicianship as ever. De Lemos graduated from Germany’s Hochschule für Musik with a double major in cello and composition. In Paris, he learned from the great French cellist and teacher André Navarra and won many international competitions. Awarded a Fulbright scholarship, he moved to the United States to study at Juilliard with Leonard Rose, and, in Los Angeles, with Gregor Piatigorsky. He was the youngest cellist in the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. From 1968 to 2009, de Lemos was the Principal Cellist of the Denver (now Colorado) Symphony Orchestra, and he taught cello and chamber music at the University of Colorado for 23 years. Since 1990, he has conducted the Littleton Symphony Orchestra, occasionally putting down his baton and picking up his cello.

What inspired you to play the cello?
“I was 10 years old and we had a very mean Latin teacher at school. One of my classmates was prompted to play the violin for the teacher’s birthday and I witnessed the performance. I wanted to do that with music, too! I attended a recital put on by a Czech cello professor and I found the sound I liked. I became his student and that’s how it started. Although practice is a matter of degree of natural talent, I still worked very hard in school. But [smiling] there was some beer drinking, too.”

What brought you to Denver?
De Lemos and his wife, Mimi, moved to Denver after she completed her Master’s in violin. “The conductor of Denver Symphony, Vladimir Golschmann, was looking for a principal cellist and a violin player. Unlike today, back then orchestra numbers were expanding. I was fascinated with the Rockies and I preferred Colorado over New York. The idea of the open country and mountains was, maybe in a naive way, very appealing to me.”

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What are the major takeaways of your career?
“Under Piatigorsky, I had to justify how I was playing, to give an explanation about why I wanted it a certain way, and that opened my mind. For the first time I felt I was becoming myself.” De Lemos seems to have appropriated this sympathetic approach throughout his career. As a teacher, he said, “It has been wonderful to see how talent develops and how far you can get with initially untalented people.” As principal cellist, de Lemos appreciated the variety of sound in the orchestra and opportunity to showcase his amazing talent. In conducting, he said the saying goes, “Never rehearse what you can’t hear.” He emphasizes respecting the musicians’ schedules; most of the Littleton orchestra members support themselves with other fulltime jobs.

What is one piece of music that inspires you?
“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He wrote this just after he lost his hearing and it has a psychological development. I know it because I’ve studied composition. We associate a minor key with tragedy, sadness. The major key is triumphant. In each movement of Beethoven’s symphony there is the minor that progresses. At the end it’s triumph!” When you hear a wonderful piece of music, de Lemos says, “your mind is there.”