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"Michael" from In the Key of Strawberry

Posted by Arnold Steinhardt on Aug 15, 2018 5:09:33 PM

Editor's Note: The following blog post originally appeared on Arnold Steinhardt's blog In the Key of Strawberry and is republished with permission. Steinhardt is the founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet and the author of two books: Violin Dreams and Indivisible by Four. For more stories visit here or follow on Twitter.

Guarneri Quartet
The Guarneri String Quartet (photo by Erwin Fischer)


Originally Posted August 8th, 2018

In all the forty-five years that our Guarneri String Quartet performed in public, and during the nine years since we retired, I don’t believe I’ve dreamt of the quartet more than a handful of times. This might seem odd to string quartet aficionados who know how much must go into a performance: practice and more practice, discussion and disagreements, endless and often exhausting travel, and, finally the high bar we set for ourselves in performance itself. Lots to dream about, wouldn’t you think?

I wonder myself why I haven’t dreamt more often about our quartet. Perhaps it has to do with the nature of who the members of our group are and how we operate with one another. We are a rowdy bunch—like four opinionated brothers you might say—who, while maintaining a certain amount of respect and politeness in rehearsal, have no qualms about truth telling.

A most unprofessional explanation of my Guarneri-less sleep might be that our openness and frank criticism during rehearsals—for the good of the performance rather than to squabble with each other on a personal level—meant that each of us walked out of rehearsals relatively unencumbered by smoldering resentments or unresolved issues. And therefore presumably nothing of substance to dream about.

Several weeks ago, however, I did dream about the quartet. I awoke both surprised the dream had happened and amused at its utterly mundane nature. It involved a single bar of music during rehearsal in which violist Michael Tree and I shared a passage with exactly the same notes and rhythms. As we played, both Michael and I made a slight swell in volume as indicated, but our swells unfortunately peaked at different times. This was the most minor of details that would have to be sorted out. Should I do it Michael’s way, or would he agree to my way, I asked. An impish smile crossed Michael’s face as he began to respond, but just at that moment I awoke.

Why a Guarneri Quartet dream and why about Michael, I wondered as I sat up in bed. And then as the fog of sleep lifted, the answer came rushing at me unavoidably. Several weeks earlier, on March 30th, Michael had passed away.

After the quartet retired in 2009, Michael and I remained fast friends and occasionally performed together at music festivals. Now and then I would visit with him in the very last years when his health began to fail. As chance would have it, my last visit was the day before Michael died. His wife, Jani, and I sat across from Michael as he, no longer conscious, lay in bed. I held his hand and spoke a few words to him in the hope that he heard me on some level, and then Jani and I told stories about Michael—his artistry, his humor, his importance to our musical community.

Since Michael passed away, I’ve thought a lot about our 64-year-old friendship, but there are so many moving parts to it. In 1954, as a first- year student at the Curtis Institute of Music, I heard Michael before I actually met him. He gave a recital at Curtis Hall as an already superb violinist, but what struck me was the compelling nature of Michael’s music making—the sense of rubato and nuance the way he shaped a phrase. Here was a big musical personality.

Michael and I soon became good friends. He was funny, quirky, boisterous, a great storyteller, and highly opinionated, especially about music. For me, seventeen years old, Michael was a most intriguing fellow. As he was the older, more experienced boy, I began to follow his lead in all kinds of ways. Michael wore tweed jackets. I bought a tweed jacket. Michael had a pipe collection and smoked Balkan Sobranie tobacco, so I did the same. We were two Jews, one from LA and one from Maplewood, New Jersey, both trying to pass ourselves off as English gentlemen.

During our years together at school—during one of which we roomed together—Michael and I played hundreds of hours of gin rummy, went to innumerable movies, ate endless meals with our student friends in China Town while fighting with chop sticks for the best pieces of sweet and sour shrimp, and played incessant practical jokes, one of which backfired when I enacted a scene from the French horror film, Diabolique. Unfortunately, it scared Michael half to death and almost got me thrown out of school.

All of that, of course, was merely a way of letting off steam while we tackled the serious business of becoming musicians. But there was more. At that time, many violinists in the school, and that included Michael and me, hoped to be the next ravishingly brilliant violin soloist. As for chamber music, the exalted repertoire was our education, our joy, and our inspiration. Michael was one of many who studied chamber music as part of the school curriculum and often enjoyed playing string quartets late into the night for sheer pleasure, but for a career? Chamber music and more specifically string quartets might be a cherished sideline, but surely they were hardly a way to make a living.

That was about to change with the ever-increasing presence of the Marlboro Music Festival. Here were great soloists of the time such as Rudolf Serkin, Marcel Moyse, Alexander Schneider, and Pablo Casals performing chamber music to large and enthusiastic audiences. Marlboro proved the lie that chamber musicians were merely failed soloists. The festival opened up a new world of possibilities by blurring those lines between soloist and chamber musician.

Several of us from Curtis, including Michael and John Dalley, violinist, found Marlboro irresistible. We spent summer after summer studying and performing the hallowed chamber music repertoire. And gradually but somehow inevitably, our priorities began to evolve. Michael and I first began to talk with each other about forming a string quartet, then we talked with John Dalley, and finally with cellist David Soyer.

When the decision to form a quartet at the end of summer 1963 took place, David would obviously be the cellist, but who would the violist be? The three violinists, John, Michael, and I had all loved playing viola, but before any discussion could take place, Michael firmly claimed the position for himself. John and I put up no argument, for we had often heard Michael performing as violist. Violinists who pick up a viola often cannot avoid still sounding like violinists. Their vibrato is too fast, they tend to skim the strings in the violin manner, whereas the viola demands a slower bow speed and a different bow pressure in order to plumb the dark, rich, and seductive sound the instrument is capable of. But Michael was a natural, and he must have sensed at that moment that his future lay with this larger instrument.

One of our very first performances as a string quartet in 1964 at Marlboro was of Paul Hindemith’s Quartet Opus 22. Frank Salomon, co-administrator of the Marlboro Music Festival, played a recording of the performance for me not long ago. I had no idea such a recording existed and I was nervous to hear what easily could have been a tentative performance by four guys just starting out on their quartet adventure. Hindemith, a violist himself, had given ample and challenging solos for the instrument. The four of us played well enough, but Michael sounded phenomenal as a masterful instrumentalist, as a team player, and as a fully formed and charismatic musician. All those jokes about poor violists were rendered obsolete at that moment.

For better or worse, rather than blending in a unified sound and interpretation at all times, we chose to maintain our individual personalities whenever possible. This was clearly evident in Michael’s swashbuckling opening viola solo of Smetana’s From My Life Quartet. No one else could have sounded like Michael—unabashedly open-hearted, daring to impatiently move forward with the music’s increasing intensity, and all done with immaculate precision.

And then, the Guarneri String Quartet went on to perform on the world’s concert stages for the next forty-five years with only one change of membership when cellist David Soyer retired and Peter Wiley took his place. How did that happen? The simple answer is that we played well and people kept on hiring us. But the concert field has other such successful groups that have changed members at will or collapsed entirely. Our luck was that we had a workable and mostly enjoyable chemistry. And Michael was an integral part of that: full of useful ideas, able to take criticism well, almost never moody, and with an over the top sense of humor.

String quartets have often invited me to perform with them as guest violist. This has put me in the unique position of seeing how they operate first hand, and how every one of them seems to have a distinct personality. One group was overly polite and could hardly muster criticism. Another was serious, sharply critical, and uncomfortably tense. A third talked more than it played during rehearsals. The Guarneris? We could be intense, argumentative, sometimes immersed in seemingly insignificant details, but our overarching mood was open, good-natured, and often raucously funny.

Michael was the ringleader when it came to jokes and stories. Often he would relate an event that both of us had witnessed but that I hardly recognized in his retelling. Michael would get carried away as he turned a simple story into a full-blown melodrama full of details that I had hardly been even aware of. Knowing Michael full well, the rest of us could not help laughing even as we rolled our eyes in disbelief.

When it came to concerts, however, Michael was utterly serious. After performances, he often made notes of what he felt had been lacking. At the next performance of the work, whether it was the next night or three months away, Michael would bring his comments to us beforehand. This was laudable and also extremely useful.

That is, except once in Eindhoven, Holland.

Michael came to each of our dressing rooms before the concert to ask permission for him to begin the last movement Fugue of Beethoven’s Opus 59#3 Quartet a little more slowly. He felt that we were playing the Fugue at such a clip that many details were falling by the wayside. We all agreed. Why not take a tad off the tempo of this wildly brilliant movement for clarity’s sake. But Michael miscalculated as he began the Fugue. With the best of intentions, his tempo sounded as if he was practicing in slow motion. The rest of us looked at each other in astonishment. After practicing for months to play the almost impossibly fast tempo that Beethoven indicated, we somehow managed to get through this waterlogged rendition.

In the wings immediately after, Michael raised his voice to carry over the applause that was still continuing. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he said, looking sheepish. “I miscalculated.” “Never mind” answered Dave. “We are going out there and playing the movement again at the RIGHT tempo this time.” “Alright. Alright,” said Michael with a somewhat crazed look on his face. As he put bow to string, I was entirely unprepared for the fastest tempo I had ever heard. Again, the rest of us looked at each other in disbelief. How on earth were we going to play a tempo that would have astonished even the great Beethoven. The Eindhoven audience was given the once in a lifetime experience of hearing both the impossibly slowest performance of Beethoven’s fugue ever, followed by the impossibly fastest rendition ever.

Lucky them.

What do quartet members do on tour after they have traveled, checked into the hotel, practiced individually and rehearsed? In their free time they might read a book, watch TV, or go for a walk. But for Michael and me it was tennis. If possible, we would arrange ahead of time for a court and even players for doubles drawn usually from the chamber music board. Tennis rackets were usually stored with our instruments in the plane’s overhead racks. Were we accomplished players? Not particularly, but it didn’t really matter. We loved the game, it was good, healthy exercise, and Michael and I always pushed ourselves to the limit in order to win.

Ironic that in performance only a few hours later. Michael and I were often playing phrases together that required consideration, thoughtfulness, and deep cooperation rather the competitiveness needed as we bashed the tennis ball back and forth. In the second theme of the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, Michael and I play in octaves this achingly tender melody, making a slight nuance together as the harmony changes, and finally lingering oh-so-softly at the end of the next bar—an “ooooh” moment for the audience if we do it well. This was music making, of course, but you might also call it a very special kind of friendship that existed between Michael and me for those fleeting moments of the second theme.

The Guarneri quartet acquired a curious rehearsal technique early on, one that happened without planning or discussion but that somehow stuck. We never complimented each other. It was assumed that each of us was expected to play well and that comments were only for constructive criticism. For example, if Michael had ever said to me, “Oh Arnold, I just loved the way you played that phrase,” my first thought would have been that I was about to be fired.

But the Guarneri Quartet retired almost ten years ago and somehow that releases me to say something to you, Michael, that I would not have dared to say in all those forty-five quartet years together.

I loved your playing, Michael. I loved the freedom, the expressiveness and the very personal character of it. I loved the melancholy in it and that gorgeous dark chocolate sound you were able to muster at just the right moments. That won’t be forgotten by all of us who had the privilege of hearing you, working with you, and by those fortunate students who studied with you.

We thank you, Michael.

Michael TreeMichael Tree, 1974. Photo © Dorothea von Haeften.

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Topics: Violin, Viola, Arnold Steinhardt, Blog, In the Key of Strawberry