Reading string quartets with a legend

May 1, 2015, 5:05 PM · The following originally appeared at Go there for more pictures from the reading!

This past holiday season I was thinking, for the millionth time, about the wonderful documentary High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet. I've laughed over moments from this movie with just about every friend and colleague, especially those who are chamber-music minded. The four members of the Quartet are truly characters in the movie, and unfortunately only three of them are still with us today.

Over the years, I got to meet all of the Quartet members but never worked with any of them except for the cellist David Soyer, with whom I coached at Curtis. I also got to play in several groups with him at the Marlboro festival. Sadly he passed away in 2010, but in the brief time I knew him, I found him to be exactly as he appeared in the movie. In truth, I found all of them to have been well represented on screen!

Anyone who has seen the movie will remember the bittersweet collection of scenes where the members talk about reading new repertoire together, in order to decide what they would play the following season. Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist, wistfully recalls the many times he tried to convince his colleagues to play the Fritz Kreisler string quartet. The Kreisler was shot down every year!

Since the Quartet retired, Arnold has gone on to write a wonderful book, Indivisible by Four, a memoir of his musical life including, of course, plenty of material about the Quartet.

He also updates his blog monthly, and the stories there are priceless! It's called In the Key of Strawberry. Check it out!

Back to the holidays. I was wondering if Arnold still read quartets even now, or if he had sworn it off and was enjoying time away from the violin. He had certainly earned it if anyone had! So I wrote to him. I hoped that he would remember meeting me a time or two, like the time after an LA Phil concert where he stunned my wife and I by appearing out of nowhere. Arnold Steinhardt, in the flesh! In my note I asked simply if he'd be up for reading some quartets the next time he was in town. He's from LA, after all, and teaches at Colburn. And much to my surprise, he wrote back right away saying that he'd love to!

Well, that was easy.

The big moment came just two days ago, and along with Akiko, we had our Assistant Principal Viola Ben Ullery and Principal Cello Bob DeMaine to join us. Bob checked out an assortment of quartets from our library: Mozart, Schubert, Ravel, Tchaikovsky... we didn't know what mood we'd all be in, but figured we should be prepared. I don't think that any of us was prepared, though, for the moment when we sat down and tuned. This is really happening...

Two hours flew by as though it were 10 minutes. I wish that I could remember more details, but when I wasn't playing I managed to snap some pictures. As Bob would tell me afterward, "I tried to soak up everything about his playing! That kind of playing is becoming extinct." And it's true. Expression on every note, whether main voice or accompaniment. Direction, variety, real meaning. There were a few moments, once the strangeness of the experience wore off, and after the usual self-consciousness of sight-reading fell away, that I could simply enjoy the sound of our instruments blending together. And then we finished, and it was late, and we were eager for dinner!

As Arnold had told me beforehand, "Let's play some and then eat some more!" So we coasted down the hill that is Grand Avenue to Industriel restaurant, and continued the magical evening.

It's easy for most of us to forget that before Arnold joined the Quartet, he played for many years as second chair in the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. My counterpart, in a way, more than 50 years ago! Although my current boss is much more benevolent than Szell, according to just about everyone who worked for him. We swapped some orchestral war stories, and I asked about Curtis back in the 50s. Once again, time flew by and Akiko and I realized that we had better get home before we turned into pumpkins.

The best part? Arnold saying, "We should do this again sometime." I agree!

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May 2, 2015 at 03:42 PM · Thank you for this blog, Nathan. I am currently reading "Indivisible by Four", having enjoyed "Violin Dreams" so much and ready to think about string quartets. (I just got a viola.) Thanks also for reminding me of AS's blog, which I haven't looked at in a long time, and the film, which I wasn't aware of. AS is full of a lifetime of stories that I find importantly pertinent to everything having to do with the violin. I look forward to hearing of your next "adventure" with him.

As a footnote, I just finished the chapter where AS discusses recording with Arthur Rubenstein, and HIS lifetime of stories. What a rich world the world of music is.

Second footnote, 2015-05-10 (snuck in--this article is already archived!) I couldn't find "High Fidelity" at our library but did find "The Art of Quartet Playing" by David Blum with the Guarneri Quartet. It is very technical but also very enlightening. It includes a chapter-long interview with each of the members and covers their take on the role of their instrument in playing quartet music.

May 4, 2015 at 02:49 AM · What I loved about the Guarneri was being to hear all 4 voices with such clarity. One could easily take dictation from them. With David's playing, you always knew where the bass was and could clearly sense the direction of these phrase. They played for so many years at such a high level. Amazing!!

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