An Appreciation: Robert Mann (1920–2018)

February 21, 2018, 7:00 PM · Robert Mann loomed large in my life as a teenager in Seattle during the 1960s. As I was discovering the world of string quartet music it was Mark Sokol who first introduced me to the recordings of the Juilliard Quartet. Mark later went on to study with Robert Mann and to help form the Concord Quartet. If life were fair, it would be Mark who would write this appreciation.

Many times Mark and I stayed up late into the night listening together in awe of the Juilliard Quartet's first Bartok LPs. We were blown away by the gutsy bold playing, the timing, and the wild slashing tempos. Mann, along with Robert Koff, Raphael Hillyer, and Arthur Winograd, had a blazing, colorful, wildly propulsive sound that went right to the heart of the music.

Mark’s dad, Vilem Sokol, was my teacher during many of my teenage years and he had known Robert Mann at the time of the formation of the Juilliard Quartet after World War II. Mark knew and loved to tell stories of Robert Mann's violinistic ability, his enormous kinetic energy, and his leadership that made him seem much larger than life to a young lover of string quartet music. I vividly remember Mark and I comparing those earliest Bartok recordings with the Juilliard’s second complete Bartok set which had another kind of boldness. And then there was their Berg, Webern, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Carter...

The force of Robert Mann’s playing seemed to jump out of the recordings into our imaginations and it certainly cemented a desire in me to want to play quartet music forever. There were many other string quartet groups to explore, which I later did, but the singular Juilliard sound fired Mark’s and my imaginations and I’m certain helped lead to the formation of our two groups.

I met Robert Mann only once. It was after his last San Francisco performance as first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet. It felt good to be able to tell him how his fiery, no holds barred quartet playing made an opening in the world of possibilities for me to imagine taking a stab at it for myself. From a great distance Robert Mann’s dedication to music, his intense focus and brilliant quartet playing found a way to transmit itself to me, and I know that those teenage listening sessions helped me find a path that eventually led to Kronos. And that’s how music works – we hear something that grabs us and won’t let us go and we have no choice but to follow.

Another contact point was the one time I snuck into a Juilliard Quartet rehearsal. That was in Victoria, British Columbia, during the American war in Vietnam. I got to the concert early [that’s always a good idea] and was able to hear a little of their warm up rehearsal. At this point, the only thing I remember is Robert Mann saying he was afraid a pitch was flat and everyone else in the group thought it was sharp. I don’t remember what I thought. They played Schubert that night exquisitely. I remember Robert Mann’s words before the encore: ‘the only thing better than Schubert is more Schubert.' Then they played Quartettsatz.

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