February 3, 2011
In the spring of 1970, Judith Serkin, a cello student at the Curtis Institute of Music, told me that she and four other students at school, cellist Peter Wiley, violist Geraldine Lamboley, and violinists Lucy Chapman and Jill Levy, hoped to study Schubert’s Two Cello Quintet during the next semester. Judith asked whether I would be willing to coach them. At that point, I had only been teaching chamber music at Curtis for two years and my own experience with Schubert’s towering masterpiece was limited to not much more than one or two performances when I myself was a student at the school. We five inexperienced students had struggled to find our way through the four movements of this sublimely beautiful work written only two months before Schubert’s untimely death in 1828. Ultimately, rehearsing and performing the Quintet turned out to be a momentous occasion for all of us. Naturally, I agreed to coach the group. For one, that was what I was paid to do at Curtis, but more than that, I hoped these highly gifted young musicians, all of whom I knew well, would have their own memorable process of discovery.
During the intervening summer, I occasionally thought about the work we were soon to undertake. Surely, it was going to be a great musical adventure for each of us. But when school reopened in the Fall, Judith phoned with disappointing news. She told me that her group had begun to work on the Schubert in anticipation of lessons, and had immediately run into trouble. Two of its members (they will go unnamed) simply could not get along during rehearsals. Judith sadly informed me that the group was disbanding. I held the phone to my ear, temporarily speechless.
At that moment in time, our Guarneri String Quartet had been in existence for six years—long enough to know that we were making music successfully and that we had a good chance of continuing to survive as a group. On average, I dare say that professional chamber music ensembles don’t last very long. Witness what these Curtis students were experiencing after a mere one or two rehearsals. Was it sheer luck that the Guarneri’s personal chemistry and musical tastes happened to mesh, or was there something more? Years later after one of our quartet concerts, Harvey Schulman, a professor at the graduate business school of Columbia University, came back stage and introduced himself. He told me that he taught a class called How To Start Your Own Business, one of the most popular courses on campus. Schulman asked whether I would be willing to talk to his students. Flabbergasted, I told the good professor that I was a fiddle player, not a businessman. What could I possibly contribute to his class of young, smart business hopefuls. But Schulman persisted. He wanted me to talk about partnership. A great many people go into business with partners, he said, and the Guarneri String Quartet, still going strong after several decades with the same four original members, must have valuable information about the subject. I reluctantly agreed to talk to Professor Schulman’s class, and to my astonishment, he kept asking me to come back year after year. It seems that I did have something useful to convey. I talked to the students about things that are basic but often overlooked: respect for the partners in one’s business or endeavor, the art of giving and accepting criticism constructively, and the importance of realizing that aside from personal gain, we are all working together to create a product, whether it be a jetliner, a cheeseburger, or a Beethoven string quartet. I told them how my perception of the members of our quartet had changed over time and that I now regarded my three partners not as potential adversaries but rather as teachers who regularly dispensed valuable advice to me; and free of charge at that!
So there I stood, phone in hand, with Judith Serkin’s words resonating in my ears: “Can’t get along.” “Disbanding the group.” Somehow, it didn’t seem right that these five musicians could so easily leave Schubert on the music stands and blithely go their separate ways. It was a luxury, an indulgence to “not get along” in the comforting, womb-like atmosphere of school, but what about the less than perfect professional world they would step into after graduation. Wouldn’t they often find themselves joined in harmony to musicians that were less than matches made in heaven? I don’t remember exactly what I said to Judith but in essence it was no, I would not allow the group to disband, and yes, they had to learn to get along with each other. Undoubtedly, I asked her to pass on to the others many of the same things I told Professor Schulman’s class years later. You might say that these young musicians were also starting their own business—the business of learning Schubert’s great quintet for two cellos.
Only good things remain in my memory about the lessons that spanned the following months. Whatever differences existed in the group seemed to melt away as we strove to measure up to Schubert’s divinely inspired creation. In the Spring, violinists Lucy Chapman and Jill Levy, violist Geraldine Lamboley, and cellists Judith Serkin and Peter Wiley performed Schubert’s Two Cello Quintet in Curtis Hall. I was swept away by the power, cohesion, and sensitivity of their playing. The performance lasted almost an hour, a truly heavenly length (himmlische LÃ¤nge) as Robert Schumann once described Schubert’s large-scale works, but for those of us in the audience time seemed to stand still in the group’s masterful hands.
Last summer, I found myself at the Marlboro Music School with four of the five members of our old Schubert group. Peter Wiley came up with the idea that we sit down after one of the concerts and play through the Two Cello Quintet in remembrance of the wonderful experience we shared forty years earlier. I agreed to be Jill Levy, the missing person, for this sentimental journey. Aided by many cherished stories of our youthful adventure, we “performed” the Quintet in a Marlboro rehearsal room without any of us threatening to disband because of irreconcilable differences. Those five young people of yesteryear had all developed into highly successful musicians who not only played their instruments superbly. Along the way, they had acquired the art of “getting along”.
From right to left: Geraldine Lamboley, Peter Wiley, Judith Serkin, Lucy Chapman, and Arnold Steinhardt. Photo by Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu.
I wish Professor Schulman had been there to hear the Schubert. Seeing how beautifully we all worked together, he might have wanted to ask my former students to speak to his class. He wouldn’t have been disappointed. They now have plenty of experience starting a business.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!