Michael Tree was one of the great violists of the twentieth century and a beloved personality in the music world. He was born in Newark, New Jersey on February 19, 1934 and died yesterday (March 31, 2018) at the age of 84.
Michael was the son of Samuel and Sada Applebaum ('Baum' is German for 'Tree'). Having begun violin lessons with his father, a well-known violinist and teacher, Michael went on to study at Curtis with Efrem Zimbalist. As a soloist he played with major ensembles including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it was in 1964 at the Marlboro Music Festival that Tree became a founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet with whom he would play for the next forty-five years until the group disbanded. The impact of the Guarneri Quartet on the world of chamber music was simply gigantic, and their many recordings live on as a testament to their artistry. Tree was also a founding member of the Marlboro Trio, and he is the soloist for several albums of standard solo viola repertoire as well.
At various points in his career, Michael Tree was on the faculties of Curtis, Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, the University of Southern California, the Maryland School of Music, and Rutgers University in his native state of New Jersey. At viola congresses we jokingly greeted each other as 'the other violist from Newark' (where I was also born), which we imagined to be a pretty small club. Another thing we had in common was that we both played several fine instruments by the Japanese-American luthier Hiroshi Iizuka. I remember trying out his wonderfully-rich 17 ½-inch (!) viola in Iizuka's shop in Pennsylvania, and I even own a shirt with a picture of Michael playing that viola on it.
As a teenager I was lucky to get to play for Michael, and my memory is that he liked to discuss at length possible fingerings for a particular phrase so that it could come across as naturally as possible. More can be read about Michael's ideas on violin and viola technique in volume two of The Way They Play, written by Tree's parents, Samuel and Sada Applebaum. Michael's playing came across as very natural with a warm sound, and his personality away from the viola was similarly kind and warm. His many students have been posting fond memories of his influence on their lives all day today, which I'm sure will continue over the next months. Michael's death is a real loss to the world of Classical music.
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