July 2, 2021
I recently came across a poster advertising the very first professional concert of our Guarneri String Quartet. I tend to hang on to things that seem meaningful to me—letters, photos, articles, newspaper clippings, concert programs, mementos, and everything and anything else that catches my fancy. Sooner or later, however, my collection of “meaningful” items overflows and must be stored in desk drawers, filing cabinets, boxes, nooks, and crannies. Inevitably, other groups of collectibles arrive and cover the ones preceding it like so many geological eras. For example, there’s the Kidazoic era, followed by the Teenazoic, Adultazoic, and the Fiddleazoic eras.
Those eras could have kept on piling up forever if my wife, Dorothea, and I hadn’t decided to move from New York City to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’d lived in the same apartment for forty-six years, and I was suddenly faced with the task of dealing with my dubious collecting habits.
And there it was—our very first concert poster. I found it while unpacking, among PR photos, articles, reviews, and awards from the Guarneriazoic era. Having placed the poster by my desk where I can catch a glimpse of it now and again, I often reminisce about that concert, which took place on July 20, 1964. Our quartet, John Dalley and I violins, Michael Tree viola, and David Soyer cello, had traveled from Vermont where we were attending the Marlboro Music School and Festival. We had no concert manager and the only concert on our schedule was the one we were about to play on Nantucket Island.
In fact, we had only recently decided on calling ourselves the Guarneri String Quartet. Discussions on the subject often dissolved into jokes: let’s call ourselves the Still Unnamed String Quartet, or how about the Not Yet Ready for Prime Time String Quartet. Boris Kroyt, the violist of the legendary Budapest String Quartet, heard about our plight and came to the rescue. He had played in a Guarneri Quartet between the two World Wars, but the group disbanded in the late 1930s. “I give you the name as a present,” he generously offered. We grabbed it.
The Guarneri Quartet played two string quartets on that first concert: Hindemith’s Quartet, Opus 22, and Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A Minor, Opus 13. Why those two quartets? Easy answer: they were the only ones we had learned to date. After intermission, Peter Serkin, not quite eighteen years old but already a remarkable pianist and artist, joined us in Dvorak’s Piano Quintet to end the concert. We performed at the Unitarian Church, which had one drawback: no one knew how to turn off the church’s hourly bell pealing. The bells either accompanied us, or we arranged a discrete pause at crucial moments. Afterwards, Jane Wallach, head of the concert committee, treated us to quahog chowder, a Nantucket specialty, and the next day we all took the ferry to the mainland and headed back to Marlboro.
What were we in our newly formed quartet thinking at that moment about the future? Most string quartets don’t survive very long. Musical differences, bad personal chemistry, or the strain of constant togetherness rehearsing, traveling, and performing take its toll. Our mentors at Marlboro, pianist Rudolf Serkin, one of the school’s founders, and violinist, conductor, and one-time member of the Budapest String Quartet, Sasha Schneider, were both extremely encouraging, and had even produced a bottle of champagne when we formed. Mischa Schneider, cellist of the Budapest Quartet, joked he’d heard so much talk about how good we were going to be, that he advised retiring before we even began. “It will only be a disappointment,” he said with a poker face.
When many months earlier the four of us finally sat down to read through our very first string quartet ever, Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor, K421, I was in heaven with the glorious music coming out of our instruments. John, on the other hand, thought that we sounded terrible and would have heaps of rehearsing ahead of us. Was this an ominous sign of basic musical differences, or a harbinger of strong opinions that would ultimately coalesce into a musical concept?
But all this was ahead of us and not to know. What we four did know and feel deeply about was the Mozart we were in the midst of playing, and the Mendelssohn and Hindemith quartets performed much later on in our first concert. Such miraculous music! And those three quartets were only the tip of the musical iceberg when considering the almost limitless masterpieces of the quartet repertoire awaiting us.
If the quartet at that moment had ordered a crystal ball in order to look into the future, we would have assumed the thing was defective and asked for our money back. The crystal ball would have shown that we performed thousands of concerts, made dozens of recordings, were joined by almost innumerable distinguished guest artists, had a glorious last chapter of our career when cellist David Soyer retired and his former student, Peter Wiley, took his place, and finally played our very last quartet concert forty-five years later at Amelia Island, Florida, on October 27, 2009.
Interviewers sometimes asked us whether our quartet had a five-year plan. I tried to suppress a laugh when confronted with the idea. The Guarneri String Quartet had a one-year plan. If we were booked for concerts the next year, we would continue. If not, we would hang up our instruments and bows and retire as a quartet.
But an early retirement was not in the stars. The four—or should I say five—of us never tired of the great string quartet repertoire, and our deep respect for one another as instrumentalists, musicians, and people seemed only to grow with the years. Regrettably, the same old jokes repeated year after year by unnamed members of the quartet would sometimes wear thin, but never the miraculous Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and so many other quartets no matter how often we performed them.
There were undoubtedly many factors contributing to the longevity of the Guarneriazoic era, but looking at the quartet photograph on our very first concert poster brings back a significant memory. The photograph was taken by the American photographer, Gjon Mili, best known for his work for Life magazine. His friend and our mentor Sasha Schneider had arranged for the photo session at Mili’s studio. Chairs and stands were set up and we prepared to play the Debussy String Quartet for the photo shoot. Mili took test photos to make sure that everything was visually in order, and then delivered what amounted to a mini-sermon as we sat waiting in our chairs. “The photos will be lifeless if I alone am involved,” he said. “In fact, the success of the photograph depends entirely on you. I want you to play the Debussy Quartet as if your very lives depended on it.”
And so, we, the newly formed Guarneri String Quartet, played our hearts out for Gjon Mili. The photo ultimately chosen from that first photo session was not only compelling in terms of visual form, but clearly showed four musicians in the midst of a high-energy and deeply committed performance. As far as I know, Mili was not a musician, but the advice he gave us on that day might have been at least one clue to our remarkable longevity as a string quartet. For the music lovers who came to listen to the Guarneri Quartet perform for the next forty-five years, we played our hearts out.
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