In most fairy tales, the good guy wins. How many stories have we known about princesses and monsters, in which the bad guy gets captured or slaughtered, and the good guy lives happily ever after?
Well, spoiler alert: in Barry Socher’s beloved "The Monster and the Maiden" for string quartet and narrator, the Monster is the one who lives happily ever after.
There was also Pachelbel’s "Cannonball", where the first violinist of a string quartet - usually Barry - would genteelly announce to an audience that they would now be indulged in an encore of Pachelbel’s overplayed Canon in D, much to the chagrin of the quartet’s cellist (who just mindlessly repeats the bassline for the entirety of Pachelbel’s original Canon while the other instruments get the tune). The cellist would begin grumbling, and then eventually explode at Barry during the announcement (cheekily underlining the possible tensions that might exist within a professional string quartet).
Audiences wouldn’t know what to make of the fiasco, but once the quartet starting playing, the cellist would begin to derail Pachelbel’s "Canon" with successively disruptive variations starting with weird accents or obviously wrong notes. After getting some confidence and playing to the crowd, they’d then unabashedly throw in some "Hey Jude", and ultimately end with gloriously dissonant, disruptive passages worthy of Charles Ives. The crowd would be roaring at the end. The members of the quartet might be shaking with silent tears of laughter. I usually was.
Barry kept the straightest face throughout it all, throwing dirty looks at the cellist the whole time - in the case of the time I played it with him, the LA Phil’s Associate Principal Cellist, Daniel Rothmuller, a colleague of Barry’s for nearly 4 decades.
Of course, Barry planned it all.
On Saturday evening, the LA Phil walked off the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall after a performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, and somehow, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Barry had passed away at 8:40pm. Barry, who was 68, had been valiantly battling cancer for a few years and had recently made the shift to hospice care. Gustavo dedicated the Sunday matinee performance to Barry’s memory. I can’t imagine a better tribute to him than that symphony: for Barry, playing Mahler was a spiritual experience.
Barry represented what it meant to love music, every minute of every day. He played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 35 years; at the same time, he was a true "amateur" - and I mean that in the most respectful and literal sense of the word - a lover. For him, clinical perfection, cleanliness - was rote and stupid. Musical decisions were moral decisions: if you showed up without a knowledge of what was going in the score of a Brahms quartet or Mahler symphony, he’d point it out to you without hesitation. He was an educator by knowledge and example.
He approached music with deep, spiritual conviction. Every single note was holy.
For Barry, music was a way to bring people together and celebrate the joyful, the painful, and the totally bizarre. He held an annual “Dilloween” on Halloween, dressing up with sincerity as deep as his musicality in outrageous costumes. His partner of many years, Jutta Thorne, would put out an amazing spread, generously welcoming people into their exuberantly cluttered home in Beverly Glen.
The beloved Armadillo String Quartet, consisting of Barry, violinist Steve Scharf, violist Ray Tischer and cellist Armen Ksajikian, would play from Barry’s greatest hits - the "Audition Blues" (consisting of standard violin excerpts played by a quartet with the first violinist singing about how much auditions suck), a devious arrangement of the Cantina music from John Williams’ Star Wars, compositions of "Wolfgang Amadeus Schwartz" (one of Barry’s alter egos), or even a somber, poignant arrangement of Kurt Weill’s "Youkali" tango (which was later part of the soundtrack of a Pedro Almodovar film, "Kika").
Music was a celebration to Barry, and at Dilloween, you’d either hear a reverent, hushed silences at the end of a poignant piece, or everyone would be roaring with equally reverent laughter.
Exactly one week before he died, a few of us were able to live out a similar experience in Barry’s home, in Barry’s presence. LA Phil violinists Camille Avellano and Mitchell Newman, violist Leticia Strong, cellist Barry Gold and I joined Barry’s wife Jutta, a few of their dear friends, and our colleague Danny Rothmuller. We read through a miniscule section of Barry’s magnificent library of his own music, ourselves roaring with laughter, singing badly, trying our best to do justice by Barry. We brought some Schubert and Mozart to read just in case - but we didn’t need the great masters that day. Barry was enough.
Before we ended our visit at Barry’s home, I went up to Barry. His head was turned away. I touched his shoulder, and although he didn’t speak, he did his customary exaggerated ‘double take’ when he turned towards me, and gave me a wry smile. His sense of humor was still intact.
I said goodbye. He had the most beautiful eyes.
Barry’s humor wasn’t just about jokes. Underlying the insistent groan-inducing puns was a very, very deep soul. He was incredibly well read. I remember attending my first Dilloween and he told me he was on his third reading of Douglas Hofstader’s massive tome, "Gödel, Escher, Bach".
When we visited his home the last time we saw him, my heart melted to see all 7 Harry Potter books lined up prominently on the shelves, right next to "Why Classical Music Still Matters" and "A Course in Miracles".
He was a voracious reader and studier of scores and all music. Many of his pieces - serious or otherwise - are absolutely brilliant studies of counterpoint, harmony and rhythm. He would often stay up all night composing. I will hope to play his pieces with my colleagues for the rest of my life.
Barry was a devout educator, composer, arranger, chamber musician, concertmaster, and conductor. He was a dear friend and collaborator of Peter Schickele, the hilarious musical prankster known as PDQ Bach. He even took the Armadillos and the music of PDQ Bach to Carnegie Hall and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Reading the loving comments on his Facebook page after the news of his passing - he had friends who knew and loved him for decades. He championed new music and Jesus Christ Superstar in the same breath. He lead a 34 hour long marathon of the complete quartets of Joseph Haydn in 1984. He also led several river-rafting trips with dear friends and colleagues - on the Rouge in Oregon, Utah’s Green river, and the Dolores River in Colorado - and even at the Grand Canyon - where you’d get out of the water, shivering and soaking wet - and, of course - read string quartets in the canyon.
There was no “professional Barry” - I get the sense that to him, everything was personal. His friends mattered as much as the music did.
After a 35 year long career in the LA Phil, he knew orchestral scores inside out and backwards. During Philharmonic rehearsals of a Beethoven symphony he must have played hundreds of times, he’d point out just how lovely a certain clarinet passage was - just how perfectly the harmony worked with the counterpoint - how I should play a little quieter there, because the violas had something important one could enjoy - how if you tweaked the way you looked at a rhythm just enough, you could play the entire movement in a different meter. He took wonder, creativity and musical geekdom to the highest level. I absolutely adored him.
He was kind to everyone, but held them to a high standard, because the music demanded the highest standard of us. He was deeply kind to substitute musicians. I learned many good lessons from him - not just how to be a good musician, but how to be a good person who lived through the way great music could bring us together.
I remember a story about his piece "FinTango", a tango mashup of themes from Sibelius following the form of Sibelius’s "Finlandia". The LA Phil performed this piece at the Hollywood Bowl at Barry’s last service with the orchestra, but as I understand it, "FinTango" was premiered as a string quartet when the orchestra was still at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. In fact, the premiere took place after a Philharmonic concert, when Barry led a string quartet of Phil members to set up outside the music director’s dressing room and play "FinTango" until a bemused (and probably utterly nonplussed) Esa-Pekka came out to see what the hell was happening.
Exactly. Dude had "cojones". I believe he handed Esa-Pekka the score when they finished.
I joined the LA Phil when I was 19, in 2007. The first image seared into my memory of Barry onstage at the Hollywood Bowl was that of a guy who looked like Brahms - very serious - but with a stuffed, plush armadillo peeking out from under his seat. A colleague told me that he was part of a well-respected and prominent string quartet with a certain peculiar mascot. He never treated me like an inexperienced kid, even though that’s what I was. His welcome was warm, challenging and genuine.
Barry was the first colleague to ever invite me to play a chamber music event with him at Walt Disney Concert Hall on the Philharmonic’s series. I played 2nd violin to him in a quartet by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, who also passed away earlier this year. At rehearsal the day after the performance, Barry handed me a piece of his called "Violin, Too", for ‘2nd Violin and Piano’, and he inscribed it to me:
'To Robert -
Once, after playing a quartet concert as 1st Violinist of my Armadillo String Quartet, I received the compliment that I must be a good 2nd Violinist. Last night, the 2nd Violinists were the inspiration for the evening. Here's to many years of making music together.
With friendship and admiration, Barry'.
I was lucky enough to play with him for a few more great years.
One can’t write or even think about Barry without mentioning his Jutta. They were inseparable. They were partners for many years, and Barry and Jutta were the first example I ever experienced of a couple in their 60’s with teenager crushes on each other. They were utterly, undeniably adorable. To her, he was a burly, wild, hunky genius, and to him, she was the sexiest woman alive. Soulmates.
A few months after I joined the orchestra, Jutta and Barry had me over at their home for salmon and wine. They insisted that I drink and enjoy myself, and they could have cared less that I wasn’t 21 yet. They chatted with me for hours, asking about my life, telling me stories of theirs. They were generous and loving. It seemed like this was the way they were with all of their friends.
Barry and Jutta finally, quietly married right before his first brain surgery in 2012, a few months after I met my wife, Samantha. They were utterly thrilled that Sam and I had found each other, and they greeted her like a member of the family.
On my first tour with the orchestra, while the orchestra was warming up onstage, Barry told me that he had first seen Jutta in the audience at the Pavilion. Even though she was sitting far away, he could see her eyes. He was in love with her forever.
(Many thanks to my colleagues Daniel Rothmuller, Armen Ksajikian, Camille Avellano, Joanne Pearce Martin, Mitchell Newman, Leticia Strong, and Barry Gold for their additions, editions and photos, and their support of this post.)
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