R.I.P. Michael Grebanier, SF Symphony Principal Cellist

Janos Gereben on December 30, 2019
The FOG Trio of Michael Grebanier, Garrick Ohlsson, and Jorja Fleezanis

Michael Grebanier, the San Francisco Symphony’s principal cellist for the past 43 years, died on Dec. 19. The Brisbane resident was 82 and still on the orchestra’s active roster, although he had not played for some time, being in ill health.

His widow, Sharon, has been a violinist with the orchestra since 1973; she was also first violinist with the Aurora Quartet.

SF Symphony cellist Barbara Bogatin said in a Facebook post: “Michael’s playing was a model of elegance, beauty, and musicality. Colleague, friend, leader, ardent union supporter — he will be missed.”

Violinist Ellen Pesavento commented: “We lost another wonderful man and an extraordinary musician.”

Michael Grebanier | Credit: SF Symphony

Grebanier, occupant of the Philip S. Boone Chair, joined the SF Symphony as principal cellist in 1977. He studied with Leonard Rose at the Curtis Institute, and at age 19 he won the Walter Naumburg Competition and made his solo debut in his native New York City.

He was a member of the Cleveland Orchestra for four years, and at 25 became principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, the youngest first cello in that orchestra’s history, serving there for 14 years.

With pianist Garrick Ohlsson and former SF Symphony Associate Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, Grebanier formed the FOG Trio, and he was affiliated with the Marlboro and Casals festivals.

He recorded the Prokofiev cello sonatas and the complete music for cello and piano by Rachmaninoff (Naxos). His instrument was a 1698 cello by Francesco Ruggeri of Cremona.

In 2011, Grebanier underwent back surgery, but later rejoined SF Symphony and the FOG Trio. 

He was a frequent soloist with SF Symphony, appearing in the cello concertos of Barber, Dvořák, Elgar, Hindemith, Walton, Haydn, Finzi, and Shostakovich, Saint-Saëns’s A minor Cello Concerto, Bloch’s Schelomo, Strauss’s Don Quixote, William Schuman’s A Song of Orpheus, and Brahms’s Double Concerto with violinist Chee-Yun.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski in rehearsal with SF Symphony cellists Peter Wyrick (standing) and Michael Grebanier | Credit: SF Symphony

Other SF Symphony roster news for the current 2019–2020 season, the orchestra’s 108th:

* It’s piccolo player Catherine Payne’s 25-year anniversary as a member of the SF Symphony. She was the first musician hired by Michael Tilson Thomas after his appointment as music director. Watch Payne’s “Meet the SFS Musicians” video.

* Jessie Fellows joins the SF Symphony as assistant principal second violin.

* James Lee Wyatt III, section percussion since 2001, fills the position of assistant principal timpani/percussion as a one-year sub. The position became open following Raymond Froehlich’s retirement at the end of last season. Robert Klieger fills the open position of section percussion as a one-year sub.

* Sabbaticals during 2020: violinist Cathryn Down.