Objects

February 24, 2014

Last summer I was once again a participant in the Marlboro Music Festival.  As always, the school generously provided my wife, Dorothea, and me with a house off campus.    This time we were given the former home of David Soyer, the cellist of our Guarneri String Quartet for thirty-seven of its forty-five-year existence.   Dave passed away in 2010, his wife, Janet, in 2011.

I knew Dave and Janet’s house rather well, a charming, rustic old place set in the woods, and I looked forward to staying in it.  When people asked me whether I wouldn’t feel funny living in their house now that they were gone, I laughed and said no at first without really thinking much about it.  But then I began to wonder whether Dave and Janet would in fact have liked us to be sleeping in their bed, breakfasting on their porch, or inviting friends over for coffee and cake—friends they might not even know. Dave and I had rehearsed, performed, traveled, eaten, laughed, argued, and partied together literally thousands of times during the Guarneri Quartet’s long career, a career that had begun when we formed the quartet right here at Marlboro.  On the one hand, he might have welcomed us with open arms to the house he and Janet clearly loved. Or, in that famously brusque manner of his, he might just as easily have pointed to the door and said, “Out.”

Dorothea and I moved into the house the day before Marlboro began, Walking through the place, I had the odd sensation that the Soyers had merely stepped out for a moment.  All their books were still on the shelves.  Janet’s paintings still hung on the walls.   Three stacks of cello music sat on a desk upstairs as if waiting for Dave to begin working on them.  A book titled “Harps and Harpists” lay next to the sofa.  Years earlier, Janet had been one of the leading free-lance harpists in New York City, and Dave and Janet had first met at a recording session there.

The couple living across the street who now owned the house had enjoyed a warm relationship with the Soyers.  In affectionate memory, they had decided to leave everything more or less intact and to let Marlboro use the house during the summers.  Future generations of Marlboro musicians might move into the place still knowing that it was once owned by a distinguished cellist, but it occurred to me that Dave and Janet’s belongings would be nothing more than mute objects to them.  They would not know, for example, that the American painter Jack Levine, whose framed poster hung on the living room wall, was a dear friend of the Soyers.  Nor would they realize that the many drawings and illustrations of cats scattered throughout the house were there because of Janet’s love of felines, a love that once prompted her to put a vanity license plate on her car saying MEOWWWW.

During my stay at their house, I half-expected Dave to make some kind of appearance, if not as a ghost then at least in my dreams, but that did not happen.  Instead, I continued to run into objects that contained rich memories of Dave and our string quartet just waiting to spring to life, each like a genie trapped in a bottle.   These memories could surface at any time and in unexpected ways.  One morning, Dorothea asked me to get the vanilla extract out of the refrigerator for the pancakes she was making.  As I held the bottle in my hand, out popped a memory of a complaint Dave often had during quartet rehearsals about bland playing.  Except Dave never used the word “bland.”  He would fix the guilty one of us with his stare, make a sour face, and say, “That sounded so vanilla.”  And then another memory floated up, of how I would often feign hurt when Dave used the “V” word because, in truth, vanilla is my favorite ice cream flavor.  I’d look down at my feet and mutter that I saw nothing vanilla about vanilla.  Of course, there was nothing vanilla about Dave’s playing either.  With just two or three notes, you already knew from the incisiveness, intelligence, and beauty of his phrasing that they could be coming from no other cellist in the world.

Early in our stay, I discovered another memory-inducing object: a poster hanging on an upstairs wall of the 1965 Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds.  Spoleto, Italy, was the initial stop in the Guarneri String Quartet’s very first tour of Europe.  The poster prominently featured names of the members of our Quartet, two of our musician wives, and many others who were just beginning to make their way in the musical world.  One name conspicuously absent because of her last-minute arrival at the festival was a relatively unknown twenty-year-old British cellist named Jacqueline du Pré.  At one of the concerts, she marched on stage, grinning from ear to ear like a schoolgirl, and delivered an enormously affecting performance of one of the Bach Cello Suites.  Shortly after, Jackie joined our quartet in a performance of Schubert’s Two-Cello Quintet and I joined Jackie and Thomas Schippers in Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio.

Concert poster

As I stood before the poster, memories of those noonday performances that were inevitably followed by irresistible Italian food, heavenly espresso, and lively post-concert talk came alive.  With those memories, which had not surfaced in decades, a whiff of the excitement I experienced as a young musician drifted across the time barrier, and also a remembrance of my innocence and therefore my lack of anxiety in facing a future that might see our string quartet career end abruptly in only a year or two. (In fact, that career miraculously lasted for almost a half a century.)

Days later, an anthology of humor in the Soyers’ living room caught my eye. As I opened the book, a small folded piece of paper slipped from between the pages and fluttered to the ground.   It had been used as an improvised bookmarker but in fact, it turned out to be Dave’s registration receipt from the Grand Hotel Baglioni in Bologna, Italy, room 332, check-out on February 10, 2000.  When I dredged up my year 2000 date book later in the season, I discovered that we had played a concert in Bologna on February 7th that year, the final concert of our last European tour with Dave.   Dave and Janet must have stayed on to enjoy the city.  Two objects, the Spoleto festival poster I had been looking at only days earlier and the Bologna hotel receipt I was now holding, basically bookended Dave’s entire Guarneri Quartet career.

David Soyer receipt

Towards the end of Marlboro, Peter Wiley and his wife, Marcia, came over to the house.  Peter, a former student of Dave’s and his successor in our Quartet, suggested that we visit Dave and Janet’s grave just a minute or two away down a crooked little path.  Janet had picked out the beautiful stone beneath which their ashes now lay and had arranged for their names and birth and death dates to be chiseled on it.  Dave and Janet’s ashes, just like the stone that rested over them, had now joined the world of inanimate objects, and these exercised their special memory-drawing power.  Peter, Marcia, and I stood there on that warm, late summer day and were reminded of one Dave story after another.

There were the stories about Dave terrifying pianists who dared to play too loudly, about his love for animals and how he would surreptitiously feed my dog from the table during rehearsal breaks despite our strict orders not to.  There were other stories about his tough love that had sometimes made his students cry but ultimately turned most of them into first-rate and grateful cellists.  Then there was the story about an occasional student of Dave’s who had played a work for him at one lesson and only managed to have a second lesson on it months later.  The student had hardly begun to play when Dave cut him short and demanded to know who had given him such a stupid idea for a phrase.  The student, looking embarrassed, answered, “You did, Mr. Soyer, at our last lesson.”    Dave glowered at him for a moment.  Then his face brightened and he said, “You know what this means, don’t you.  You’ve stayed in the same place and I’ve moved on.”

My mother once said rather mournfully after reading the obituary of someone she particularly admired that great men shouldn’t have to die.  Whether people great or not, male or female, should have to die is one thing, but it’s sad that every single one of us in all our memorable, endearing, quirky, and exasperating ways is doomed to be forgotten sooner or later.  Years from now, anyone who cares to know about Dave as a musician and cellist will be able to get a fairly good idea from the many records he has made, but the objects in David and Janet’s house—the bottle of vanilla, the Spoleto poster, the Bologna receipt, etc.—will have lost the power to tell their stories.

Tacked up on one of the walls of Dave’s house hangs a photo of him under which is printed:  “They say I’m David Soyer.”

At least those of us who knew him will be able to look at the photo and affirm that indeed he was, still is, and will always be the remarkable David Soyer.

David Soyer was born on this day, February 24, in 1923.  Happy birthday, Dave.

David Soyer

photo credit: Dorothea von Haeften

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Comments

  1. From Dr Solomon on February 24, 2014

    What a wonderful tribute to a fantastic musician. I was startled at the beginning as I did not know that David had passed away; by the end of the article I was smiling. Thank you for such a moving article!

  2. From Sherry Jakey on February 24, 2014

    We will never forget Soyer. What a grand gentleman and performer he was.

  3. From Carlos Cabezas on February 24, 2014

    Happy birthday, Mr. Soyer. Beautiful writing about a wonderful cellist.

  4. From Patricia Willwerth on February 24, 2014

    Beautiful, heart-warming and tear producing.

  5. From Mark Klein on February 24, 2014

    Thank you so much for sharing these memories of David Soyer. I really enjoy reading about the history of the Guarneri Quartet, and especially about the relationships and experiences the Quartet members shared.

    Happy Birthday, Mr. Soyer!

  6. From Maru Rangel on February 24, 2014

    David will be always alive for us! Thanks a lot for these beautiful memories of him!
    Maru and Paolo

  7. From Annabelle Weidenfeld on February 24, 2014

    What a beautiful moving piece about dear Save
    and Janet (whom I hadn’t realised also died). How
    many memories you brought back for me and
    those early years of the Guarneri while with Van Wyck.
    the Quartet’s manager in London,Dave
    used to tease me about the colour of my shoes
    and so much else. How, as spokesman for the
    Quartet, he used to try to organise the visit to England
    to coincide with the annual boat show in London! But that sound,
    that wry smile and Janet, so warm! How I loved
    them both and how I loved hearing about all
    those objects which made them come alive again.
    Love to you and Dodo, Annabelle

  8. From Gemma Serpenti on February 24, 2014

    Sooooo nice and impressive ….this “Happy Birthday David Soyer”……he was ,and always will be, my favourite cellist. My husband and I heard him playing in Amsterdam on his last European tour with the Guarneri’s …it was as if he was a young man, playing the cello so beautiful and intense. So sad , his wife Janet also passed away….We’ll never forget them. David’s sence of humor was unique and so was he as a cellist.Really, really unforgettable!

  9. From Paul Rosenthal on February 24, 2014

    Dear Arnold, I always get tremendous pleasure from what you have to tell and the way you tell it, whether in your gracious prose or your gorgeous violin-playing. This story touches me in a personal way, as the house of which you speak so fondly has fond memories for me as well. It was sold to David Soyer by Linda’s, my wife’s uncle, Ed Shapiro, whom we used to visit there on occasional trips to enjoy him and, of course, the music at Marlboro. We stayed over there many times, and of course, have our own, (not quite so intense) musical associations with the wonderful house as well. Thank you for so many special moments that you leave for us all. Warmest, best wishes always, Paul

  10. From Leslie A. Miller on February 24, 2014

    I am not a musician, but a dedicated member of audiences.
    I grew up seeing and hearing David Soyer play, many times. My parents lovingly spoke of him, I think even had known him a bit.

    His playing and his personna was always an important part of the music in our family. Thank you for this story. It helps me understand…

  11. From Robert Hutcheson on February 25, 2014

    How important it is for those of us who CAN remember and CAN write to tell our stories, just as it is so important to recognize gratitude for the many pleasures of knowing, living, and working with such phenomenal people as David and Janet–and you, Arnold, for posting your memories, texts, photos, and other evidences of a marvelous and hopefully unforgettable life.

  12. From Christine Reed on February 26, 2014

    Very touching and beautifully written, Arnold.

    Love to you and Dodo… Chris

  13. From Cho-Liang Lin on February 28, 2014

    Thank you, Arnold, for keeping Dave so vividly alive in our minds. I remember cranking up my stereo and play the Guarneri’s Death & Maiden at full blast like a rock album and being thrilled at hearing how Dave attacked those ascending triplets near the beginning. Yea, I was a Guarneri groupie and always will be.

  14. From WK on March 7, 2014

    Just discovered that I share the same birthday on Feb 24th, I’d like to share a funny encounter after a quartet concert quite some years ago. Upon knowing that I am of Chinese descent, David very eagerly said he knows some Chinese words, then proceeded to say “Gow see mow see”, which is Cantonese for dog poop cat poop. Very cute and funny.

  15. From sandy noyes on March 26, 2014

    lovely story arnold. i’ll be careful how i use the word “vanilla” with you from now on!
    sandy 3.26.14

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June 2, 2010

Something New, Something Old

I happened to be performing in Los Angeles just as the city’s new and glittering Disney Hall opened several years ago. A week earlier, I called my mother who was living in Southern California to tell her of my arrival. “Oh, wonderful,” she said. “You can take me to Disney Hall.” That was fine with [...]
Joe Vita

May 4, 2010

Joe Vita

I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic [...]
Twelve Note Story

April 23, 2010

Twelve Note Story

Take a deep breath and try to settle down. I know, I know. The task is daunting, but you’ve worked hard. Just be relaxed. Be focused. And now get practical. For starters, think of a good tempo. Not so easy based on the first two or three notes that are slow and deeply personal. Better [...]
News Alert

March 30, 2010

News Alert

The United States Bureau of Weights and Measures has just announced at a national news conference that chamber music may cause global warming. The issue first came to the bureau’s attention when directors of several distinguished music conservatories notified it of alarming and unexplained rises in temperature at odd times of the school day. Government [...]
Sophisticated Traveler

February 28, 2010

Sophisticated Traveler

I planned to take the 2 PM Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York City. That would have gotten me into Boston by three with plenty of time to grab a bite, take a taxi to Jordan Hall, change, practice some, and relax a bit before the Guarneri String Quartet concert at 8 PM. But an [...]
Grammy Award

January 18, 2010

Grammy Awards

The Guarneri String Quartet was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Chamber Music Performance this year for our Hungarian Album on RCA Red Seal. The CD consists of Ern? Dohnányi’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2, three works of striking beauty. The Grammy Awards (originally called [...]
Shall We Dance?

January 4, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves [...]
Looking for Work

December 1, 2009

Looking for Work

The Guarneri String Quartet retired, yet Arnold Steinhardt continues to perform in public. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften. Violinist in Recently Retired String Quartet Looking for Work * Skills Proficient in chamber music. Works best with people willing to overlook occasional lapses in intonation, phrasing, and tone. Performs virtuoso solo works, but no higher than [...]
Birth Pains

November 4, 2009

Birth Pains

Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 421 in D Minor, occupies a special place in the hearts of the Guarneri String Quartet. It was the very first music we read through after deciding to form as a group. Why that work? Hard to remember after all these years, but I would guess that its emotion charged and [...]
The Guarneri Quartet

October 6, 2009

For the Very Last Time

On June 12, 2007, the Guarneri String Quartet sent out the following announcement: Dear Friends, We, the Guarneri String Quartet, have decided to retire at the end of the 2008-9 season, our forty-fifth year before the public. This has not only been a long journey, but a deeply satisfying one as well. What could be [...]
Gray's Papaya

September 1, 2009

Gray’s Papaya

“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and [...]
Second Concert

August 3, 2009

Second Concert

The following is a slightly extended version of Second Concert, that appeared in the June publication of the new magazine Listen: Life with Classical Music. Our string quartet played a concert at Emory University in March of this year. Whenever I’m in Atlanta, I stay with my friends, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, ministers who [...]
Arthur Rubinstein

July 7, 2009

Really

A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concert… really.” In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what [...]
Life, Death, Music

June 13, 2009

Life, Death, Music

Last summer, Emily Hsiao, a teenager whom I’d never met, e-mailed me. She asked whether the Guarneri Quartet would have time to listen to music students in her high school when we played in Ann Arbor, Michigan that winter. Only hours after my visit to the school, a brutal attack on one of those students [...]
Almost on the Riviera

May 11, 2009

Almost on the Riviera

Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need [...]
The Abode

April 1, 2009

The Abode

Alter Bock, a dedicated amateur string quartet player, has just announced plans for the creation of a home for retired chamber musicians. “I’m concerned that these wonderful musicians I’ve heard and admired most of my life have a nice place to spend their golden years.” He spoke to me from the music room in his [...]
Yehudi Menuhin

March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

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 [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]