Alexander Kouguell: Celebrating a “Long and Interesting Life” as a Cellist and Teacher
Cellist Alexander Kouguell is a man of the world. A Professor Emeritus of Music who speaks Russian, English, French and Arabic, he has performed in venues from Syria to South America, from France to Flushing. He is, in short, at home wherever music can be played and enjoyed.
“Music was my life from the day I was born,” says Kouguell, who notes that teaching music has also been his life—for 68 years at QC, in fact. He joined the college in 1949 when the music department was located in the current power plant building, retired in 1990 at age 70, and returned soon after as an adjunct, working until fall 2017.
A professional cellist since he was 18, Kouguell was born in Russia to musically gifted parents. With a mother who was a pianist and a father who was a pianist, composer and conductor, Kouguell inherited the “music gene” and was playing the piano at the age of four. By the time he was ten, he had “fallen in love with the cello” and has played the instrument exclusively ever since.
Kouguell’s fluency in Arabic stems from his many years living in Lebanon, where his family moved when he was a child. “My father founded the music department at the American University of Beirut,” he says, “and my mother also taught there. So I grew up in an academic atmosphere. You can say that I’ve been going to school all my life.” After earning both music teaching and music performing degrees in Paris, Kouguell returned to Beirut, receiving a BA in English and MA in Comparative Literature. The literary field continued to exert a strong appeal for Kouguell, who immigrated to America in 1946 and soon enrolled at Columbia University, where he earned a PhD in Comparative Literature.
But it was music, which he calls his “first love,” that determined the course of his life. When composer and QC graduate Leo Kraft, a member of the college’s music faculty, met Kouguell in New York City, he told him, “We could use a cellist.”
“I applied for the job and was accepted,” says Kouguell, who had previously taught for a year at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where he was also a leading cellist with the Baltimore Symphony.
During his tenure at the Aaron Copland School of Music (so-named when established in 1981), Kouguell was a member of the Queens College String Quartet composed of faculty musicians. He taught courses including chamber music, stringed instruments, and music appreciation and for 17 years, offered lecture and performance classes on the Beethoven Quartets and the “History of String Quartets.”
“It didn’t matter how many students I had in classes—music appreciation sometimes had an enrollment of 50. I enjoyed all of it,” says Kouguell, who was the first coordinator of the Bachelor in Music program.
“The college always had a distinguished faculty and excellent students. But now the standards are even higher,” he says. “The music school is one of the best in the country.”
Some of Kouguell’s students have gone on to head music departments in high schools and at colleges, and others play in U.S. orchestras. Among the graduates with whom he stays in touch are Andrew Luchansky, professor of cello and chamber music at California State University School of Music in Sacramento, Julianne Eberl, music director and conductor in the Portland, Maine public schools, and nearby, Charles Wang, director of strings at Bayside High School.
“I’m very grateful I had the opportunity to work with such good people,” he says.
Asked about changes that he’s witnessed as a longtime teacher, Kouguell answers, “Computers are on the scene. Students can now learn pieces on YouTube.” Once, when some chamber and cello students attended a class in his home studio—Kouguell and his wife, Florence, live just off campus—they marveled over his records. “They had never seen LPs!” he says. Kouguell’s own work has been recorded on such major labels as Columbia and Decca; he has donated many of those recordings to the Queens College library.
In addition to teaching, Kouguell has enjoyed an active performance career as a member of the National Orchestral Association (principal cellist), the Musica Aeterna Orchestra, the Clarion Music Society of New York, the Silver Mine Quartet, and the New York Chamber Soloists. He has toured in Europe, North America, South America, and the Middle East. Having to buy an adjoining seat for his delicate cello whenever he flew, he got used to receiving that airline ticket in the mail addressed to “Mr. Cello.”
A few years ago, he and his wife established the Alexander and Florence Kouguell Cello Scholarship for a talented cello soloist at QC who excels academically and also participates in chamber music and the Queens College Orchestra.
“Being a teacher has been very satisfying,” Kouguell says. “I’ve also seen lots of countries and made many friends through music. I’ve had a long and interesting life.”