July 1, 2014
After having performed on the world’s concert stages for forty-five years, the Guarneri String Quartet finally hung up its instruments and bows and retired in 2009.
Well, yes and no.
Every once in a while the four of us, John Dalley, Michael Tree, Peter Wiley, and I, get together to perform something somewhere. We might play in a two-viola or piano quintet. Or it could be a duo, a trio, or even in an octet. But no string quartets! After performing hundreds of different quartets in thousands of concerts, we decided to close the books on the enormous and exalted string quartet repertoire and to move on.
Still, we remain performing musicians and we continue to relish playing together. It could have gone another way: Enough of those guys! Enough togetherness with the same way of making music, the same take on life, and even the same old, stale jokes. But it didn’t. John, Michael, Peter, and I hope I’m included, still play beautifully and with the same sense of detail and strong personality that distinguished our quartet. Moreover, we still enjoy spending time together, and a brand new joke occasionally surfaces amongst the old chestnuts.
This last May, Christopher Rex, principal cellist of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the director of the Amelia Island Music Festival, invited us to perform a concert of sextets at the festival with him and the Atlanta Orchestra’s concertmaster, David Coucheron. “So,” said my wife, Dorothea, “the Guarneri String Quartet performs again.” “No,” responded I, “it’s us four with other musicians.” “That’s still the Guarneri.” “No it’s not.” “Yes it is.” We have the same conversation before every post-retirement appearance.
Amelia Island has special significance for us. We’ve not only played there many times, but it is also the site of our very last quartet concert before retiring. The final work on that program was Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, which ends in a burst of exaltation and optimism. We then gave a single encore, the deeply mournful last movement of Bela Bartok’s Sixth String Quartet. Those two works, the Beethoven and the Bartok, seemed to encapsulate our thankfulness for the blessed string quartet career we have had but also our sadness that it was ending at that moment.
A month before the upcoming Amelia Island performance, Peter and I ran into one another at the Curtis Institute of Music where we both teach. “See you in May,” I said to him, smiling. “See you in May,” he answered, smiling back. A few days later, I spoke to John on the phone. “What’s concert dress for Amelia?” I asked. “White dinner jackets are out, casual dark pants and shirts are in. See you there, Arnold.” A man of few words, that John Dalley. Then Michael called to confirm our repertoire. Michael and I have a little routine when we leave messages on each other’s answering machines: “Hello Arnold, this is Michael Tree. I don’t know if you remember me. We played in the Guarneri String Quartet together. Please call me back.” My answer on his machine: “Hello Michael Tree. Your name is vaguely familiar. What instrument did you play in the quartet?” The repertoire once we finally spoke was confirmed as two masterpieces for six strings: Brahms’ Sextet in G Major, Opus 36, and Dvorak’s Sextet in A Major, Opus 48.
We arrived at Amelia Island in typical Guarneri Quartet fashion—John, Michael, and I at different times by plane, Peter by car. When we were playing one-hundred-plus concerts a year, our diverging transportation needs often led not only to different arrivals but also to the suspicion that we didn’t get along. “Everything alright in the quartet?” a concerned presenter sometimes asked when picking me up at the airport at a different time than everybody else. It seems that people have the impression that a quartet is one monolithic entity rather than four individuals. A chamber music series once presented us with a single diary in appreciation for the many concerts we had played for them. Did they think that we traveled, ate, said our nightly prayers, and then slept in one bed together? And did they assume that before turning off the light, we snuggled under the covers together and wrote something in our diary?
Dear diary, Wonderful, sunny day. Concert went well. Food, so-so.
That diary never got used.
Rehearsals began the morning after we arrived at Amelia Island. I looked over my stand at Michael and John, the two violists in this group, and shook my head in wonder. We had met in 1954—sixty years ago—at the Curtis Institute of Music where we were all students. Those were days of silly pranks as well as practice, of serious study of the virtuoso repertoire but also of chamber music parties that often lasted well into the night. John, Michael, and I often played together in works such as Schubert’s Two Cello Quintet, Brahms’ G Major Two Viola Quintet, or a Beethoven or Mozart string quartet—with breaks for potato chips, beer, and pretzels. Little did we know that the Guarneri Quartet would form only a handful of years after those reading sessions.
To the left of John and Michael sat cellists Peter and Chris who had both been chamber music students of ours at Curtis in the 1970s. We had known Peter as an eleven-year-old when he began to study with our quartet’s original cellist, David Soyer. Peter could not have imagined then that one day long into the future he would become the cellist of our quartet when David retired. Chris is not only a distinguished cellist but also the founder and masterful director of the Amelia Island Festival. And to the left of me sat violinist David Coucheron, someone I was meeting for the first time that very moment. David, a marvelous violinist, was the youngest person ever to become concertmaster of a major American symphony orchestra.
Our three different generations of musicians rehearsed sextets for the next two days. Between rehearsals, no beer, pretzels, or potato chips was offered. Instead, Marcia Joyner, a valued member of the Amelia Island concert board and an old friend, made sure we were wined and dined. Over steaks, fried oysters, pasta, and cheesecake, we made lively chatter and, of course, jokes. Michael told one that had as its punch line a deprecatory noise made by one of his students. He delivered the student’s noise with a poker face that made us roar with laughter.
Then it was my turn to tell one close to home:
A concert manager calls his best friend in excitement.
“Guess what. I’ve just hired a fantastic string quartet to open next year’s chamber music series.”
“Wonderful. Who’s in the group?”
“Well, I’ve got Wiley playing cello.”
“You managed to get Peter Wiley?”
“Actually, no. It’s Max Wiley, but he’s an excellent cellist.”
“What about viola?”
“I got Tree.”
“You got Michael Tree? That’s amazing.”
“Actually, it’s Moishe Tree, but he’s really an outstanding violist.”
“OK, but who are the violinists?”
“Dalley is playing violin for one.”
“Wow. John Dalley. Congratulations.”
“Ummm, actually not John. It’s Oscar Dalley, but he’s a terrific violinist.”
“What about the other violinist. Who’d you get?”
“You managed to get Arnold Steinhardt?”
The concert went well and the audience gave us a lovely reception. It was the very first time our quartet had performed with David and at least the fifth or sixth time with Chris. Afterwards, we all went out for dinner—even John who is ordinarily early to bed and early to rise. We raised our glasses in a toast to friendship, to continued music making, and to Brahms and Dvorak. What was left unspoken as we sat around the table were the deep-running musical and personal bonds between John, Michael, Peter and me that unwaveringly persist to this very day. At that moment, I couldn’t help wondering if and when our quartet would be involved in another performance. I can already hear the preconcert conversation with my wife, Dorothea:
“So, the Guarneri String Quartet will perform again.”
“It’s not the Guarneri String Quartet.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
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