October 5, 2016
Just a few years ago, at two different schools, I coached students who had banded together in the hope of becoming professional string quartets. Each quartet consisted of strong players and gifted musicians, and they not only played well together but, most importantly, each quartet had something personal and meaningful to express in their music-making that made me sit up in my chair.
I wondered what chance these groups, the Calidore Quartet* at the Colburn School and the Dover Quartet** at the Curtis Institute of Music, had in making a successful career. Despite their obvious talents, I had to admit reluctantly, not much. Would their musical ideas evolve similarly? Could they disagree and then learn to compromise or even give up a passionate conviction in favor of someone else’s? Could each member acquire the ability to accept criticism openly, even gratefully, and in return be able to dole it out with grace and respect? Most hopeful young string quartets fail in one way or another to even make it out of music school.
And what if they had graduated intact and were off and running as a group? Would the players get along personally in the insulated, hothouse world of the string quartet in which they would necessarily rehearse together, perform together, travel together, go to after-concert parties together, and even have to listen to each other tell the same old jokes and stories over and over?
I remember ever so clearly the excitement surrounding our newly formed Guarneri String Quartet in 1964. What a treasured gift had been handed me. I was about to begin working on some of the world’s most exalted music with three enormously gifted colleagues. And yet, that excitement was quickly moved to the side in rehearsal as I soon discovered that my gifted colleagues often had different ideas than I did. If I suggested slowing down at the end of a phrase in, say, a Mozart quartet, the others might just as easily think the opposite. But how could that be? My suggestion was so right, so perfect for the phrase, so whole-heartedly beautiful, even inevitable. This happened to each of us, of course, over and over again. An idea would be put forward, discussed, argued over sometimes heatedly, and either eventually accepted, or just as easily dismissed out of hand.
Those stressful encounters might have been the moment when our young Guarneri Quartet foundered in rehearsal, and we, a marriage of four rather than of two people, would regrettably file for divorce in string quartet court because of irreconcilable differences. Gradually, although sometimes painfully, we began to work together, to learn from one another, and to respect our differences. (The end of that Mozart phrase might actually sound better without slowing down, I came to realize). But would the Dover and Calidore Quartets be able to also agree about broader issues such as tempos, dynamics, repertoire, and if it ever got that far, on whether to play in, Des Moines, Iowa, for less than their usual concert fee?
My pessimism (or was it cold sober realism) about a successful string quartet career may have been justified in general, but happily not in this case. Both the Dover and Calidore quartets graduated from their respective schools and went on to defy the statistical odds. They are now under management, playing concerts all over the world, and doing so brilliantly.
I had the good fortune to attend both quartets’ debut concerts in New York City. As I sat expectantly waiting for the Calidore Quartet, Jeffrey Meyers and Ryan Meehan, violins, Jeremy Berry, viola, and Estelle Choi, cello, to make their way onto the Carnegie Hall stage, my wife, Dorothea, turned to me and asked whether I was nervous for the quartet.
New York City is the nerve center for aspiring American musicians. Of course, I was nervous.
Before the concert, I ran into violinist Eugene Drucker in front of the box office, and in the hall, I met violist Larry Dutton and cellist Paul Watkins, all three, members of the Emerson String Quartet. A moment later, I spied a few rows down cellist Marcy Rosen, founding member of the Mendelssohn String Quartet. What separated us from the rest of the music lovers in Carnegie’s Weill Hall that night was the fact that we had all been teachers and mentors of the Calidore Quartet. I had coached them often while they were students at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. They had won the Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition run by Marcy Rosen while still students at the school, and she has kept in touch and subsequently presented them on her concert series at Queens College. Since graduating from Colburn, the Calidores went on to mentor with the Emerson Quartet at Stony Brook University.
There we were, members of three successful and long-lived string quartets now listening intently to the young Calidores. But missing at the concert were two other Calidore mentors belonging to this elite, decades-old string quartet club: Martin Beaver, violin, and Clive Greensmith, cello, members of the Tokyo Quartet.
Months earlier, I had listened to the Dover String Quartet, Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, and Camden Shaw, cello, perform at New York City’s New School. Although I was the only one of their teachers present, members of six long-lasting professional string quartets had a hand in mentoring the Dovers; At the Curtis Institute of Music it was Peter Wiley, cello, Michael Tree, viola, and I, violin, in the Guarneri Quartet; Shmuel Ashkenasi, violin, in the Vermeer Quartet; and Steve Tenenbom, viola, in the Orion Quartet; and at Rice University, James Dunham, violist in both the Sequoia and Cleveland Quartets, and Norman Fischer, cellist in the Concord String Quartet.
Both the Calidore and Dover String Quartets performed with polished ensemble, virtuosity, and thoughtfulness in those New York concerts. I could feel an almost physical rush of pleasure—perhaps my string quartet colleagues felt similarly—in witnessing just how far these young players had come from their student-day beginnings. It was deeply satisfying to think that all of us (whose combined string quartet longevity add up to a startling 250 years) might in one way or another have helped them on their journey.
String quartet mentors certainly shaped my own young life: Josef Gingold, violin, in the Primrose Quartet, Jascha Brodsky, violin, in the Curtis Quartet, Felix Galimir, violin, of the Galimir Quartet, and every member of the Budapest Quartet, Joseph Roisman and Alexander Schneider, violins, Boris Kroyt, viola, and Mischa Schneider, cello. These musicians taught me the nuts and bolts of playing chamber music, they provided rich historical background, and they illuminated music’s miraculous yet elusive underpinnings.
I listened raptly to Gingold tell tales about his studies with the visionary and charismatic Belgian violinist, Eugene Ysaÿe; to Galimir speak about the Galimir Quartet working with groundbreaking composers Alban Berg and Maurice Ravel, to Alexander (Sasha) Schneider describe the unique challenges he encountered in his years as the Budapest Quartet’s second violin, and to his brother, Mischa, vividly recall the Quartet’s uncertain beginnings and dramatic evolution. And sandwiched in between inspirational stories about music and the musical giants these illustrious musicians had encountered in their long and influential careers were less serious tales: Sergei Rachmaninoff urging the young Jascha Brodsky, who played a daily chess game with Sergei Prokofiev on a boat destined for America, to tell Prokofiev his music sounded like crap, or the Budapest String Quartet having an uncontrollable laughing fit while performing Eduard Grieg’s String Quartet with the composer’s widow sitting in the front row.
Now that the Calidore and Dover Quartets are out in the post-mentored, crowded, and highly competitive chamber music world, I hope that they continue to grow as artists, that they stubbornly mine the old, traditional repertoire for new meaning, and that they dare to present new music to sometimes curious, but often unwilling ears. But will they be successful enough to join the ranks of those weathered string quartets of their mentors?
Our Guarneri Quartet was often asked whether we had a five- or ten-year career plan. Already well aware in our early years of all that could go wrong and often did in quartet life, our answer with an inner smile was mostly the same: We have a one-year plan. We have concerts next year.
The Calidore and Dover String Quartets have every reason to look forward to long and successful careers, but at least for now, their one-year plans are in place.
They have concerts next year.
*The Calidore String Quartet recently became the grand-prize winner of the inaugural M-Prize Competition sponsored by the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. The $100,000 prize is the largest award for chamber music in the world.
**The Dover String Quartet is about to release their debut CD honoring the Guarneri Quartet by including the last two Mozart string quartets (those from our very first recording some fifty years ago), a Mozart Two Viola Quintet with Guarneri violist Michael Tree, and a liner note comment by yours truly.
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