January 1, 2009
A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member of the Guarneri String Quartet, I’m tempted to add a couple of words of my own to the caption: Life without Mozart string quartets. But why stop there? Given the immense richness and variety of the string quartet repertoire, I might also have included the names of other composers whose quartets have added meaning to our lives: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Dvorak. And Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré. And Bartok, Smetana, Grieg, Stravinsky, Shostokovich, Sibelius, Ligetti, Kurtag, and Ives. Oh, and Tchaikovsky.
This first day of January, 2008 is a poignant one. It is the beginning of the year in which the Guarneri String Quartet finally closes shop. When next year comes around we will never play those beloved strings quartets again. I will miss the magic in this music and the heady atmosphere of the concert stage, but I will also sorely miss our listeners. The composer’s notes make no sound on the printed music page and the performer’s rendition moves no one in an empty hall. We musicians want an audience. We need an audience. And after having given so much of ourselves in preparation and in performance, the applause, the bravos, and a few backstage congratulations at concert’s end mean a great deal. At heart, it’s all about that New Yorker drawing. We yearn to fill the desolate back alley lurking in all our lives with something meaningful.
Accolades, no matter how effusive or sincere, tend to vanish into thin air just as music does with that last bow stroke across the strings. Moments after leaving the concert hall there is little left of them save a vague, lingering memory. But listeners occasionally reveal their feelings by writing letters that have a certain staying power. I can read a letter, squirrel it away in my desk, come across it months or even years later, and reread for a second or third time about a work or a performance long forgotten that gave someone pleasure. Here are two such letters that I cherish:
Arnold: about the Bartok:
I felt I was watching the unfolding of an extremely finely crafted artwork, before my eyes—like an old master painting, a Vermeer. It was like a sound sculpture, with almost palpable shapes; glittering places (playing next to the bridge); whispered and moaning places (played with a mute); silently tapered endings (as in the last two bars); the feeling of twisting and undulating gestures in the air over the players; and the range of introverted emotional values aroused by the very idiosyncratic diminished harmonies.
There was a certain point 1/3 of the way through when it hit me what was happening, all of it, what kinetic thing was being created on the spot. Something happened about a new discovery of music, that it is less abstract and ephemeral than I thought, more physical and visual.
(Written by Sandy Noyes, a friend of mine, after a Bartok String Quartet performance of ours in 1998.)
Dear Guarneri Quartet,
The farewell performances of a beloved artist are always difficult to accept, always filled with regret and melancholy for us in the audience. I have been a devoted listener in so many of your concerts that it is unimaginable I won’t be able to look forward to another concert next year.
I began listening to you during your debut performances in New York, more than forty years ago, when I was still a student at Juilliard, and none of us was gray-haired. In California, I heard you almost every year in Stanford University, and the Herbst theatre in San Francisco, and in Carmel. I have heard each step of your growth and development as artists. Each of those concerts lives in my memory as highlights of my musical life.
I want to give you my heartfelt gratitude for the many hours of exquisite joy you have given to me, for the insights to the music you played, the Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, and Grieg quartets, as well as the ensembles with other artists. Critics all over the world have praised your brilliance and perfect ensemble better than I could. But I can tell you that for me, there was always your unmistakable beautiful sound, your unfailing musicality, your exciting virtuosity, your deep and logical understanding of the composer’s thoughts. As a pianist, I learned about music listening to you. You instilled in me a life-long love of chamber music and string quartets.
Now, how am I going to manage without my annual pilgrimage? You have wonderful recordings, I know, but there is a special exhilarating joy being in your audience, watching and hearing you make the notes live and bloom in the moment. I know this can only happen when the artists commit fully at each performance. I am then transported to the place where only art exists, and the voice of music is the only possible human language.
Thank you for a lifetime of inspiration and understanding. Thank you for the lessons in how to work. Your joy in that work is sustaining and nourishing for me. Thank you for bringing new depth and compassion to the pieces you have played countless times. Thank you for helping me see the timeless beauty in the music you so obviously love and respect. Please know your work made my musical life richer. So, farewell beloved Guarneri, and many sincere wishes for a deserved rest, and a continued happy life for all of you, with deepest gratitude. You made my life better.
(Written by Josephine Alvarado and delivered by her backstage after a concert in Carmel, California earlier this season.)
In these beautifully expressed letters, I sense that if Sandy and Josephine have any back alleys at all, they are filled with music rather than empty bottles and cans. For our many listeners over the years, I can only hope that your alleys (and minds and hearts) are also filled with music’s treasures. And if the Guarneri String Quartet has had even a small part in bringing Mozart and his friends into your lives, we are greatly honored.
Happy New Year!
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