Newton — On his way to becoming a benefactor for young professional musicians, Newton native Saul Cohen first attended Harvard College, then Harvard Business School, then made his mark in real estate — as one of the two founding principals for Hunneman Company and later as co-founder of Hammond Residential, where he is president.
But with a lifelong love of music firmly entrenched within him, it’s no surprise that he would someday share it — in the form of grants from the Saul B. and Naomi R. Cohen Foundation Inc., which was set up by him and his wife five years ago — with others, mostly from other countries, who are in need of some assistance in getting their musical message across.
“The foundation’s mandate is in support of the fine and performing arts, education and Judaic matters,” says Cohen, a no-nonsense businessman with a relaxed demeanor and a bone-crunching handshake, in his Chestnut Hill office. “But primarily its focus has been on music.
“Grants go directly to a number of young musicians, emerging stars that are at an early professional stage,” he adds. “My objective is to launch them. They’ve all been at the graduate school level and up, and they get varying grants.”
By that, he means some get rent money or help with tuition, while others get career counseling, new instruments or, and Cohen laughs lightly when he says this, “wardrobe, if necessary.”
Of the decision to give grants to players from other countries, Cohen explains that it happened serendipitously, then launches into a series of stories.
French cellist Alexandre Lecarme became the first to receive a grant after Cohen’s longtime friend, violinist and teacher Roman Totenberg, met Lecarme in France and later had him perform at Totenberg’s and Cohen’s favorite summer spot, the Kneisel Hall Music Festival in Maine. Lecarme ended up getting some assistance with a scholarship at Boston University, where he eventually earned a master’s degree and an artist diploma.
Scholarship money, as well as rent, wardrobe and a new instrument went to Russian clarinetist Artur Lukomyansky, who Cohen and Totenberg had met on a trip to St. Petersburg, and who later reintroduced himself to Cohen when he had a concert scheduled in Boston.
Another cellist, Jan Muller Szeraws, from Chile, was a candidate for the Kahn Career Entry Award at BU, but didn’t make the cut.
“I thought he was a very good cellist who was playing on an awful instrument,” says Cohen. “I happen to own a number of cellos, and when he came up to the concerts atKneisel, I loaned him one. He needed a performance-quality instrument.”
Cohen believes he’s helped between 25 and 30 young musicians so far, with grants as well as with paid performance opportunities — he also sponsors concert series at Temple Emanuel and at Hebrew College.
Asked how music has affected his life and what may have led to him becoming such a patron of the arts, Cohen is momentarily at a loss for words. He obviously is a bit uncomfortable when the spotlight is on him instead of on the musicians he’s helping.
But after a moment, he says, “Both I and my wife were brought up in households where amateur music was prevalent. I had an aunt who lived with us who was a wannabe concert pianist, and always practiced. The sound of music in the house is normal to me. It was the same as cinnamon sugar and chicken soup. And we’re in a spot where we can do a good deed. We can help somebody to a career, so let’s do it.”
Then he reveals that there’s, for lack of a better term, a catch to what he’s doing.
“There was a time in life when I was given a chance, and this is the way I can give somebody else a chance,’ he says. “My deal with my musicians who get the heavy-duty support is very simple. They owe me nothing, but when they’re able to do it, they’ve gotta do it to two people. They’ve got to pass it on. With a little bit of luck, 25 years from now, there’ll be a fistful of people who are helping some other young emerging artists.”
But there’s one casual remark he made that’s in desperate need of a follow-up question. He mentioned that he happens to own a number of cellos. So is he, too, a player?
He sits back, clasps his hands together and smiles.
“I’m a wannabe cellist,” he says. The smile gets wider when he adds, “I’m a retired amateur violinist. I retired at the age of 16, when I went away to boarding school. But at the age of 70, I said, ‘I like the sound of a cello. I wonder if I could try.’ I’m 75 now. I decided it was a nice instrument and wanted to know if I could play it well enough to satisfy myself.”
His voice goes very soft as he says, as if to himself, “And I can.”