From the Archive: Nov. 14, 2010 | First Person

Century club

Roman Totenberg
Bill Greene/Globe Staff
Roman Totenberg

Are you still teaching and playing? I’m still a professor at Boston University and have six students who come to my house. I practice every day, but I don’t perform. I like people to remember me at the height of my performance ability, and there are certain things you can’t do once you’ve reached the age of 100.

What do you play when you practice? I start very prosaically with some exercises, then usually something of Bach, almost every day. [Cellist] Pablo Casals used to do that too. You feel playing Bach is like taking some sort of potion in the morning for your health.

Looking back over your decades of performing, which moments stand out? I once played for President Roosevelt at the White House. The ambience was quite informal back then. Jack Garner was the vice president, a Texan who was not very, so to say, salon-like. He took off his shoes. Afterward, Ms. Roosevelt served dinner herself. I was so impressed by this hospitality and this simplicity of behavior. I had just played a few months earlier for the king of Italy, which was the most stiff thing. You had to come and bow. I had to wear a cape and a high hat. Mine didn’t fit me very well. It was borrowed from the Polish ambassador!


After the war, how did it feel to return to Poland, where you were born? The first time I went back was the most touching, because I hadn’t been there for years and so much had happened. My recital in Warsaw was completely sold out. After the concert, a man came to me with a package. He had collected my letters and high school work and was bringing it to me as a token of admiration. Those were moments when you find people who really care.

How are you feeling today? Like a child prodigy! I’ve had a good life, so to say. I’ve been fortunate to make friends easily and keep the friendships. That’s why I never felt this was a new country in which I didn’t know anyone. Through your friendships, you create a certain aura that travels with you, and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re in Boston or Paris or Kalamazoo.