John Celentano, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Chamber Music at the Eastman School of Music, died Monday, April 13. He was 96 years old.
A violinist, Professor Celentano had a long and notable career as a performing artist, teacher, lecturer, writer, and broadcast commentator. He taught violin and chamber music at the Eastman School for 35 years beginning in 1946, also serving as String Department Chair, and he remained active as a chamber music coach after his retirement in 1981.
“Mr. Celentano was a great teacher and mentor to me. I had the privilege of studying chamber music with him for four years at the Eastman School of Music,” said Peter Salaff, director of String Chamber Music at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Salaff was a founder and violinist in the Cleveland Quartet. “He inspired us to make music with vitality and color even when we were sight reading or starting a new piece. He taught with tremendous enthusiasm, energy and a wonderful knowledge and understanding of the music. He was very serious and demanding, but his sense of humor helped us to work through challenging moments in the music. When the Cleveland Quartet was hired to teach at Eastman, I had the joy of sharing a teaching studio with him. As a mentor, Mr. Celentano was always there for me when I had a musical or pedagogical question. He was so giving of his time and expertise. His guidance was a profound part of my life as I’m sure it was to other students and colleagues.”
Born in Montreal, Quebec, on Oct. 22, 1912, Professor Celentano received his bachelor’s degree with the Performer’s Certificate in 1937 and his master’s degree in 1941 at Eastman School. After serving in the United States Army and Air Force from 1942 to 1944, he studied in Milan and with noted violinist and pedagogue Raphael Bronstein in New York City.
Professor Celentano performed all over the world as a soloist, orchestral violinist, and chamber musician, appearing with cellists Gabor Rejto, George Finckel, and Luigi Silva, violinists Andre de Ribaupierre and Andor Toth, pianist Arthur Loesser, the Cleveland Quartet, and other artists. He was founder and first violinist of the Modern Arts String Quartet (1948 to 1953) and founder of the Festivals of Modern American Chamber Music in Woodstock, N.Y. As the second violinist of the Eastman String Quartet—the first teaching ensemble to tour for the U.S. State Department—he gave concerts, workshops, and lectures in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
“To us chamber music students, Mr. Celentano was one of the ‘Eastman Greats.’ His energy was legendary: he not only coordinated chamber music for all the string players and many pianists at Eastman, he also taught all the ensembles himself, and he maintained an active performing career throughout his decades-long tenure at the school,” said Howard Spindler, a former student of Professor Celentano. Spindler, who teaches in the Eastman Community Music School and is a former chair of the community music school’s piano department, is active as a chamber musician and accompanist. “His teaching was powerful; his knowledge of orchestral, violin, and chamber music repertoire was encyclopedic; his understanding of psychology was profound. Though he was brutally honest with his students, he remained a perfect gentleman.”
Said Kathleen Murphy Kemp, who is assistant principal cello of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and teaches on the collegiate and community education faculties at Eastman, “Mr. Celentano was a consummate musician and a dedicated chamber music coach. He was totally immersed in the education of the students. He was very demanding of us and expected the highest level of artistry in all genre of music making, as he did of himself. We developed an intense appreciation of the chamber music literature that we all hold to this day. He made a tremendous impact on hundreds of musicians and he will be missed.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, Professor Celentano served as radio and television commentator for the Evening at Eastman chamber music broadcast series, and narrated and performed in chamber music presentations on Rochester Area Educational Television.
Also highly regarded as an orchestral musician, Professor Celentano was a member of the Rochester Civic Orchestra from 1936 to 1942, served as associate concertmaster of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1946 to 1952, and was concertmaster of Rochester’s “Opera Under the Stars” orchestra from 1952 to 1976. From 1967 through 1969, he participated in the Alaskan June Music Festival as concertmaster, chamber musician, and soloist under celebrated conductor Robert Shaw.
On the 90th anniversary of Professor Celentano’s birth, his former students Stanley Chepaitis, associate professor of violin at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and violist Christopher Parra, associate professor at Bucknell University, founded the Celentano String Quartet. The ensemble also includes violinist Swana Chepaitis and cellist Linda Jennings.
“I can say without hesitation that Mr. Celentano’s mentorship has been the guiding force in my life, and not a day goes by that I do not find myself passing along his wisdom to my own students,” said Chepaitis.
Professor Celentano lectured, performed, and gave workshops at schools throughout the United States. His articles appeared in Orchestra News, Instrumentalist, The Strad, The School Musician, American Music Teacher, ASTA Magazine, and other publications. Professor Celentano was a performer-speaker at conventions of the Music Teachers National Association, the Music Educators National Conference, and the American String Teachers Association (ASTA), which honored him with its Distinguished Service Award in 1981. School Musician called him “one of a vanishing breed of truly great chamber music coaches and expert string pedagogues.”
Professor Celentano is survived by his wife, Mary; sister, Frances Celentano; brother, Rosario (Rosetta) Celentano; great nephew, James Barilla; and many other relatives. A Funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, April 17, at St. Anne Church, 1600 Mt. Hope Ave., Rochester. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St. Rochester, N.Y. 14604.
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