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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Thank you for these revelations. I laughed a lot but ended up moved to tears. Thank you so much for the unending joy you five have brought to our lives.
Your tales of a life in music are deeply moving and enjoyable. Thank you.
Playing your hearts out: The generosity of that passion has enriched all who heard you, and we are forever in your debt. If, as the Dalai Lama says, the purpose of life is to be happy, the Guarneri have moved masses of people closer to that goal.
Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful memory. In 1969, as a fan of Pablo Casals, I discovered the Marlboro Music Festival through Jamie Laredo who was the first chamber music performer at the newly formed Center for Inter-American Affairs in New York City where I was working. I became a life long follower of the Guarneri Quartet and the many world class musicians and quartets that came from that MMF tradition — and have been a Marlboro neighbor for over 42 years. I really enjoy following your strawberries! Thank you Arnold for sharing your poster! Jean Boardman
Eine wunderbare und außergewöhnliche Geschichte. Es war immer eine große Freude, Euch zu hören. Und ich vermisse Euch seit 12 Jahren. Herzliche Grüße. Peter
Loved this background story (well-written as usual) and, being in the midst of yet again moving, could appreciate the problem of dealing with the accumulation of “meaningful” items still remaining despite many moves.
With so many omnibus releases being issued on Cd by conductors/ soloists, it is time we had the Guarneri Quartet recordings issued in a collection.
You all played your hearts out right into ours, and thanks to recordings you still do. Thank you!
Dear Mr. Steinhardt:
Looking at this poster brought back the memory of the quartet in residence at Eastern Music Festival in the mid 1970s. You were very kind to this piano student as I showed you the Guilford College. A year or two later you played in Lexington KY and were gracious again backstage afterwards. Your interpretation of the Ravel quartet will always be one of the most exquisite musical memories of my life.
Your blog has sustained a lot of people during this pandemic — beautiful writing, warm and tender moments and insightful probes into our national psyche (what the falafel is wrong with us?) have been a joy during a dark period.
Best regards for continuing health and peace.
That is what it is all about!!! You played with your heart!!
and that is what is so great about making music with like-minded friends/colleagues. There are so many things about each piece of music that are great, sweet, sad, perfect, difficult, etc. and the sharing of music is what makes it irresistible…. I so enjoy reading your stories and thoughts….with affectionate regards, Orin
Another gem. You write your heart out…and so well.
This is a wonderful story! Thanks very much for sharing the all-too-human side of spectacular music making.
Thank you so much for such a warm-hearted text, Mister Steinhardt. Your music accompany us forever. We love reading your lines. Warmest regards.
What a wonderful story about Nantucket. It reminded me of the time I performed in the same church (bells of by then), in the early 1970s. I and my husband Ian schlepped my harpsichord, in our station wagon, to the church, and went to our B&B. The owner, a crusty old Nantucketer whose name I forgot, said,” Strasfogel (Ian’s last name), what kind of name is that!”, not a good introduction to the island. The recital went well, we loved our stay, but as we were pulling out into the road, a truck side-swiped us. He was a resident of Nantucket, we were strangers, the court ruled in his favor and there went my $500 fee in car repairs!
Thank you so much for this particularly heartwarming post, though I enjoy them all. L’chaim to you.
What a lovely and moving story! Thank you so much for the reminiscences you share. They are a treasure!
I’m a new reader, a native Santa Fean and I sympathize with your accumulation of Stuff. My career as a university faculty member made me leave NM for Los Angeles (to pick up a Ph.D.), then SUNY/Buffalo (where the Guarnari helped with the annual “endowed” performance of the Beethoven Cycle, a beloved ritual), then Washington DC (Academic Director of the Fulbight Scholar Program) where my late husband Ira and I heard the Guarnari play numerous times). Ira used to tease me that I had a crush on Steinhardt because I always mooned about him after every concert. Years later, we moved to Santa Fe and I was home again. When Bernie van der
Hoeven (my fellow Pro Musica board member) told me that Steinhardt had moved here, I was very happy that he had joined the musician diaspora in Santa Fe. About the Stuff: it always moved with me and I realize that I can’t move again. I’m home and so is the stuff. A closing note….just before the shutdown, Pro Musica presented the Brentano Quartet and I greeted them backstage. They said they always enjoyed performing in Santa Fe because it seemed a welcoming place for musicians. I agreed and mentioned that Steinhardt had moved here. Their eyes got very big and then one of them asked me about real estate prices in Santa Fe.
I have a (regrettably)very beat-up version of the poster from a performance at Garden City (NY) High School on Saturday, April 25th (1970 I believe). You all signed it; I was a “groupie” from the very beginning (my piano teacher was David Soyer’s sister), and I heard one of your first performances in NYC.
I have the same poster, albeit in regrettably rough shape, advertising your concert at Garden City (NY) High School on April 25, 1970. You all autographed it for me; I was a “groupie” from close to the beginning when I heard you perform one of your first concerts in NYC in the Guarneriazoic Period (my piano teacher was David Soyer’s sister). Thank you for this wonderful reminiscence.
46 years in that apartment! and 41 for us on our “farm”! we miss you. but we like the “human hive” in great barrington, even with covid variants. i hope you are free of this in
new mexico. i play your debussy quartet album to fly above the medical world. and good grief, stage seats at the met for bartók. never to be forgotten. sandy
I spent decades going to Guarneri Quartet concerts, beginning in 1975 when I was an undergrad at Stanford. The first time I saw you guys you did Op 130, to this day my favorite quartet, with the Cavatina my favorite piece of music in the world. I went on to have a modest career as a composer and I am forever indebted to your ensemble for enriching my life and educating me as to the possibility of transcendent beauty inherent in chamber music. I once saw Mr Steinhardt get up out of his chair in a moment of primitive frenzy during Bartok #3. I’ll never forget it.he stood there, crouched, wailing on his fiddle like a madman. Glorious!
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