ROBERT MANN – EXCERPTS FROM HIS MEMOIR - A PASSIONATE JOURNEY PART II

Published by East End Press, Bridgehampton, NY
AVAILABLE THROUGH AMAZON AND BARNES AND NOBLE

Part II – The Life Of The Juilliard String Quartet

In 1951, Robert Mann, about to be released from the army, met with William Schuman, President of the Juilliard School.

I said to William Schuman, “Look, when we find our violist, all of us are interested. I’m a composer, and we want to play music just written. Our goal is to play new music as if it had been composed long ago, and to play a classical piece written hundreds of years ago as if it had just been written.” At the time people listened to string quartets as if they were in church. We were not going to play that way and felt the music was alive and living in today’s atmosphere. It wasn’t that we were against traditional playing, or how the music sounded when it was written. We just wanted to make it as alive and meaningful in our time as it was back then.

I learned years later when Schuman and I became good friends that it was that thought that convinced him to hire us, a young quartet with a fresh point of view.

We did have a problem. The quartet still needed a violist. Schuman laid out our terms and said we could take our time to find a violist. He said that he had convinced the Juilliard board to invest $10,000 in the idea of a string quartet. Each of us would get $2,500. We would have to prove ourselves and it wouldn’t be guaranteed that the quartet would be able to continue for a second year. He did say, “If everyone likes you, I will do my damnedest to make it work.” William Schuman also wanted us to be introduced to New York audiences and set our first concert for the fall. We would have a summer to prepare as a quartet.

We found our violist, Raphael Hillyer, through the recommendation of our mentor, Eugene Lehner. We spent the better part of two days rehearsing with Hillyer and he was terrific. I remember we played the Beethoven late quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131. We agreed that Hillyer should be invited to complete our new ensemble and asked him to join the quartet. He responded eagerly but explained that he had a lot to consider and needed to consult with his family.

I am still amazed how, with all of his problems, he assented to become the fourth member of our group.

In the beginning, the members of Juilliard String Quartet didn’t really know each other that well. We knew each other as work colleagues but there was little intermingling friendship between the families outside of the musical experience. Ideally, a serious string quartet that commits to a successful survival must consist of four individuals who like and respect each other, not only as human beings, but also as instrumentalists and musical personalities. One might compare such a group to a formidable car with four passengers who are taking turns driving the vehicle, deciding where to go, how fast or how slow, etc.

After our initial rehearsing, I am sorry to confess, the Juilliard four discovered a disastrous number of weaknesses and differences. I knew Winograd and his very intelligent and contemptuous personality. I knew Koff and his acerbic wit a little because we had played together. But I had never really gotten to know Hillyer. After two days of rehearsal, Hillyer appeared on the third day without a greeting. Through the day his silence grew louder and more uncomfortable and lasted as we rehearsed into the night. The other three members conversed about musical ideas, details and suggestions. Somebody would make a suggestion and Hillyer would breathe harder but wouldn’t say a word in response. His silence was sensational. He left looking very angry. We didn’t know what to do. The three of us were upset and confused. We conferred and agreed that another day of this behavior would be the moment of crisis. We felt a great weight pressing us down into the ground and the new quartet facing failure. What’s wrong with this guy? He shouldn’t be in the quartet. We had made the wrong choice. We persisted because we were desperate. Sure enough, on the next day Hillyer took his place and played, as before, but without speaking. 

Early the following day, we met, unpacked our instruments, sat down, and I prepared to make our agreed-upon message of ending our relationship. Before I spoke one word, Hillyer, with no word of apology or explanation, began to speak to us calmly and objectively regarding our future plans and musical concerns. We somehow sensed relief and began to work together as if nothing bad had occurred. Mostly our violist seemed quite reasonable but I was painfully aware that while he addressed Koff and me, he continued to ignore Arthur Winograd. Somehow this state of affairs would continue even as the group began to establish our firm reputation and career. It turned out that Hillyer hated Winograd. Hillyer was dark and brooding. Winograd was arrogant and brilliant. They were both great wits and had brilliant minds, but their personalities clashed. 

Now back to our first summer as a quartet. I was determined that the quartet should persevere. We were going to be presented as a quartet in the fall. Eugene Lehner, our mentor, and his family lived in Newton, Massachusetts, but in the summer they went with the Boston Symphony to Tanglewood. His Newton home was empty and available and we were able to stay in the Lehner home. This was convenient for rehearsing as Hillyer’s own Massachusetts home was near Harvard across from the Charles River. He would come to Lehner’s and we would rehearse morning, afternoon, and evening. We chose some repertoire and the rehearsals began, tentative and exploratory. Each of us brought his own past chamber music experience into the daily work schedule of two and a half hours in the morning, two and a half hours in the afternoon, and as long as we could tolerate after dinner. My memory of that time was that the rehearsal schedule worked but wasn’t particularly joyful. All of us felt an abiding pressure to produce something over the next two months so that we could perform before our Juilliard School’s audience convincingly as a fine string quartet.

We learned Beethoven’s Opus 127, and the Third Bartók amongst other works. We asked the composer Irving Fine, Harold Shapiro, and a few friends of ours in Boston and Newton if we could play for them. This was our first performance. That summer the quartet also played two try-out concerts at Dartmouth, arranged by Hillyer and his parents. We played Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 3 and Opus 127, and Ravel.

Our debut New York concert, arranged by William Schuman, was on October 11, 1946, in the little hall at Juilliard (located at that time on 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue where Manhattan School of Music is today). We opened with the Third Bartók Quartet, followed by a Walter Piston quartet and after intermission, Opus 127. Menuhin and Zoltán Kodály were in the audience. It turned out to be a successful concert and so began our incredible sojourn in Juilliard.

Even though they might not have liked each other, the members of the Budapest Quartet were civilized gentlemen. They would not get angry with each other in public or have fights in rehearsals. They would compromise. The Budapest had a marvelous solution. They divided the repertoire into four parts; each person had a quarter of the repertoire on which they had two votes and so therefore could break a tie if the group was evenly divided in their opinions.

It took the Juilliard String Quartet a long time to learn how to live as a string quartet. The deep arguments and unhappiness were part of the quartet life. I would come home after rehearsals and my wife, Lucy, would say, “What do you need this for?” And my reply would be, “The music is too great to give up.”

I always tell one story. We were at Juilliard studying Haydn’s D Major Quartet, Opus 20 No. 4, which starts with an octave unison melody. The question was, where were the phrases, the pulses? We had four different points of view. I was the one who got very angry first, because we were not agreeing, and picked up my stand and threw it behind me on the floor. The next thing I knew, there was a stand coming at me from Winograd. Throughout the early days, we had many arguments of a vociferous and horrible nature. 

Another serious quartet argument had to do with repertoire. Through William Schuman’s intercession with Koussevitsky, we were given our first concert at Tanglewood during the summer of 1947. We were told to play a program of American composers, including a work by William Schuman, who at that time had written three quartets. We wanted to play some Copland, who had only composed two different movements for a string quartet. We also programmed a Walter Piston quartet, and for our final work we had a huge disagreement. Hillyer and I loved Roger Sessions’ quartet. Winograd and Koff hated it. A terrible fight ensued over whether or not to play it. There were strong personalities that clashed, but in the end what is important is that we worked it out (and we did play it). 

Our Town Hall debut was in December of 1947. During our first year as a quartet we played almost every American composer. During our second summer, we had convinced the people at Tanglewood, Koussevitsky mainly, to let us come teach and play a number of concerts. We would play the Viennese composers—Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and we would also play Beethoven. We opened our first concert playing Opus 130 and the “Grosse Fugue.” We got the most horrible review that anyone ever got from a guy who wrote for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield. He said that we didn’t understand the first movement and played it too fast. The “Cavatina” was beyond us. He paraphrased Winston Churchill and said, “The Grosse Fugue never had so much sweat and muscle expended for so little result.”

At Tanglewood we learned the six Bartók Quartets. This was publicity-worthy for us because all of the magazines picked it up and talked about our young quartet. It shocked all of the elders because the articles said that we played old music with vivacity and verve as if it had just been written! So despite the Berkshire Eagle review, we had success at Tanglewood. In 1949, we played all the Bartók quartets in two concerts at Times Hall in New York City, something no one had ever done in America, and only one other quartet had done in Europe. According to the New York Times review by Olin Downes, so many people wanted to attend that “the stage was crowded to the last seat and the listeners eddied about the quartet which had just enough elbow room, and no more, for its performance.” There was not a seat in the house and there were mounted policemen to control the crowds! Shostakovich, who was visiting New York at the time, actually came to that concert and told us he liked it very much. Our reputation for playing contemporary music was firmly established. Playing this music wasn’t a duty for us; we wanted to do it.

Tempi and contemporary music

One of the hallmarks of the Juilliard String Quartet was its reputation for playing fast tempi. Especially in the Beethoven string quartets. If you know your musical history, however, we were just following Beethoven’s wishes.

It was actually Rudolph Kolisch (1896-1978), the violinist, whose 1943 article “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music” was responsible for the promulgation of the Beethoven metronome markings. Now this is something that’s quite historic because there have been many fights raging about these marks. 

Before Beethoven wrote his late quartets he had a relationship with a man named Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. It was a strange relationship because they were sometimes friendly, and sometimes they wouldn’t talk to each other. Maelzel was going to London and he invented something called the Orchestrion, a mechanical orchestra. Beethoven composed his Wellington Symphony, the Battle Symphony, for this instrument. Beethoven wanted to go to London with him but unfortunately it didn’t work out and they had a fight. Later, Beethoven began to write to friends saying, “How can we tell if we have simple Italian directions, how fast or how slow a piece goes?” An example that Beethoven wrote about is that if you have a piece marked andantino, how do we know whether it’s faster or slower than andante? He also made reference a number of times to the fact that his music was played in such a way that it didn’t possess his character. In one famous letter that he wrote to a friend, he heard that his Ninth Symphony had received enormous success in Berlin at its premiere. He said, “The metronome markings will be sent to you very soon. Do wait for them. In our century such indications are certainly necessary. Moreover I have received letters from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the [Ninth] symphony was received with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings.” What he did was to add metronome marks to all his quartets up through Opus 95. He also metronomized all of the symphonies, the Ninth Symphony included, and some songs, and his metronome marks were printed. But nobody ever played them. I used to like the Budapest’s playing because they played this music a little faster. We all loved it.

Once, when we were practicing the allegretto from Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 59, No. 2, studying with Lehner, he asked, “Why do you play it so slow?” We answered, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well you know what the metronome mark is—a 69 to the whole measure (dotted half note).” We tried it and we couldn’t believe our ears. That was crazy, nobody played it that fast. He said, “What does Beethoven ask you to do?” So we looked and in Italian, Beethoven had written, “Play the first part with repeats. Then, play the second, the trio through, and then play the first part again, senza repetizioni (without repeat) and then play the trio a second time. Then come back and play for a final third time, the first part.” Nobody ever played it this way. Everybody only played the trio once. The one thing that convinced us that there was something to it was that in the faster tempo, you were propelled to play the trio a second time. In other words, the timing of the whole piece assumed a different time structure. So we became convinced that there was something to Beethoven’s metronome marks. You have to understand, to play fast you have to develop a new kind of technique. Over the years we did this.

In 1946, the Budapest was the reigning quartet. As I mentioned, they played fabulously, beautifully. They played always in tune, and their ensemble was always perfect. However, they did not play much contemporary music and basically performed Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. When the Juilliard String Quartet started to play concerts there were not many American quartets earning their living from playing concerts. At this time, the chamber music concerts in America were being given by almost all of the European quartets who were brought here to perform. On these tours, no quartet came without playing between thirty and fifty concerts. They traveled by train in those days. Tickets to the concerts were affordable and the concert halls for string quartet concerts were mostly filled. One of the problems was that musical organizations paid minimal salaries for a string quartet. We would play concerts for $150. We would hope for $500, but we were playing wherever we were paid. 

In our beginning days, the Juilliard String Quartet couldn’t get jobs. The first year we had about a dozen concerts given to us from friends we knew. We also received commissions from friends who wanted their works played. In those early days, we were able to book concerts because we played contemporary music. Our manager would try to get us a job in, say, St. Louis, and say that we would like to play quartets by Haydn, Beethoven or Brahms, and the reply would be “No, we already have the Budapest or the Pro Arte quartet playing those pieces. We will only take the American quartet, the Juilliard String Quartet, if they play Bartók or another interesting piece that we don’t know.” If they had a commission or needed to have a contemporary work played, then we got called. When we played these concerts, we always sneaked in a Haydn or Beethoven quartet. Also, Claus Adam, the Juilliard String Quartet cellist between 1955-74, and I were both composers and we were open to the new expressions and techniques of contemporary music that were not part of the existing repertoire. Of course there were those pieces that we played once and then said, we don’t ever want to play that piece again. But then there were the exceptions, such as Elliott Carter or Schoenberg. Each performance brought more and more fulfillment until we felt these pieces were as exciting and meaningful to play as Beethoven.

You have to understand, the Juilliard String Quartet had its own personality and its own involvement in the music we played. It received a lot of critical response, not only from the audiences but also from the music critics. Chamber music was considered by cultured people who loved it as the most beautiful and nonaggressive experience that you could have. You could come to a concert and on par with looking at a great painting you could contemplate the sounds of a Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven quartet. And then came along those damn Juilliards who were digging in and playing strong accents. We were much more aggressive in terms of drama. We wanted to play a calm phrase beautifully, and we did. We also felt, however, that Beethoven, for instance, was this absolutely dramatic, aggressive person who wasn’t compromising his expression and so we played in a way that almost none of the great quartets played. A lot of the music we chose to play demanded that its power be uncompromising and not necessarily beautiful. So the critics didn’t understand what we were doing.

We felt that you must have beauty, but you must also have dramatic strength. Strength is not beautiful. It is something else. We never avoided that dramatic strength and for that in the beginning, we were criticized. In the early days we were asked not to play Beethoven because we played it so aggressively. The most dramatic instance was in Amsterdam where for the first time we got boos as we left the stage. At later concerts, the Amsterdam audiences gave us standing ovations. I believe this change occurred because people began to realize that music is not just beautiful. It is also an arousing, meaningful expression that says many things. 

Playing in a string quartet

You cannot be an outstanding chamber music player unless you hear all of the sounds and integrate them into your brain as one. You cannot be a person who just plays and hears your own sound more than the others. This requires years of experience. A quartet brings together four people who listen to each other’s sounds and agree that they are amenable. As you start rehearsing, different personalities begin to open up and appear in the process of the rehearsal. One person may like almost all of the music played faster. Another person might genuinely like it slower. Now the differences may not be enormous, but they can be enough that you won’t agree about the interpretation if you are stubborn. However, you always have to make compromises. You can’t play only the way that you want. 

The simplest way to explain differences in interpretations is to use as an example a Haydn quartet that begins piquantly and jovially. A quartet member says it should be played faster because in Haydn’s day, the music was played faster than it is today. Another member prefers it slower. We now have a difference of opinion and we are playing the Haydn in concerts. What do we do? We compromise. The first night, we play it fast, as one member of the quartet suggested. The second night, we play it slower, the way the other person wanted it.

There are not only big decisions such as a tempo character, or how fast or slow you play, but also maybe the phrasing. One member wants to emphasize a harmony and another likes the rhythm to be a little different. Compromise means that there are different ways to look at decisions in musical interpretation. This is the most difficult thing for someone entering the quartet profession to learn how to deal with.

Another challenge is to concentrate on the music throughout the whole piece. At first I could think about a moment and then my mind would wander. I would think about the audience while I was playing, about the heat of the room, about the acoustics, and so on. It took me years before I could really concentrate on every note through a movement without interruption. That’s inner concentration.

Also, one of the things that I’ve always contended is that notes do not exist in isolation and that all quartet members need to play each note in relation to the way the preceding note has been played. This means you will play the second note different every time because the first note is never played the same. This connection between notes needs to be true through a whole movement. 

Each time a new quartet member joins the group, dynamics change. I remember I had a meeting with Hillyer in 1955 and I said, “Now look, we have a chance to play with a wonderful, collegial new cellist, Claus Adam.” We thought that once Arthur Winograd left the quartet that Hillyer would be happy. Claus had previously been the cellist of the New Music Quartet in New Haven, with Walter Trampler, the violist. At the time we asked Claus to join us, he said that he didn’t think he was ready to join another quartet. But then he finally decided that he wanted to. Hillyer, who was very fastidious in his playing, hadn’t been happy with Arthur Winograd, but unfortunately, he also took a dislike to Claus. 

One of Hillyer’s problems with Claus, who was a magnificent cellist in his own way, was that he was not a natural cellist because he started studying so late. Claus wasn’t always secure in the higher thumb position on the cello. Hillyer could be very insensitive, not because he was a bad person but because he was so uncomfortable with himself.

I was living on LaSalle Street and it was in September at the start of a new season. I got a call from Hillyer saying that he and Isidore (Izzy) Cohen, who had replaced Koff in 1958 as the Juilliard’s second violinist, wanted to talk to me. They told me, “We can’t stand playing with Claus Adam. We want another new cellist.” I told them, as long as I was in the Juilliard String Quartet nobody was going to be kicked out. Of course, later on we would ask Izzy Cohen to leave the quartet, but at this point I resisted Hillyer’s desire.

Later, when the Juilliard String Quartet was composed of myself, Claus Adam, Samuel Rhodes and Earl Carlyss, Claus said to us, “Look, it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience to be part of the Juilliard Quartet. We have had a lot of successes and it’s been a very important part of my life. Now I’m getting pretty old and I’m composing more and I want to do more teaching. I don’t want to travel so much anymore.” So we started looking for another cellist and Claus continued to teach cello at Juilliard.

When we wanted a new member for the quartet we didn’t advertise. Each of us would provide a potential list of candidates and we would talk to a few friends to see whom they might recommend. That’s how we heard about Joel Krosnick. He had been the cellist of the Iowa Quartet.

The only reason we ever had a problem with Eugene Lehner was that he thought when a new person joined the quartet they should not get the same salary as the older members because they hadn’t earned it yet. Our point of view was, if the new person was good enough to be in our quartet and play at the level that we did, he deserved the same salary as the rest of us. 

At the time that Claus was leaving the quartet and Joel Krosnick was joining as our new cellist, Bob Freeman, who headed Eastman, tried to entice the quartet to move from Juilliard to Eastman. Earl, Sammy and myself met with Bob without Joel. He offered us a million dollars and jobs for all our wives. But we knew we would have to change our name, and I wasn’t about to do that. We didn’t take the offer and Joel joined the Juilliard String Quartet.

With this new Juilliard String Quartet (1974) of myself, Earl Carlyss, Samuel Rhodes, and Joel Krosnick—three of the members were young enough to be my sons. I had not even thought about the fact that Claus and I had balanced out the younger members of the quartet. And now, I was the old fellow with strong ideas and three young guys. It wasn’t that I didn’t accept or open myself up to other people’s opinions. But when I felt strongly, I felt very strongly. 

I also was a little like Claus. I was never as secure as most of the other members of the quartet. In the early days, I had a lot of trouble playing truly in tune. And throughout my professional life some people thought that I was a superb player, and others felt that I played a little out of tune, or that I had a stiff bow arm, and so on. But basically, people responded very well to my playing.

However, with this new young Juilliard String Quartet, we were learning the repertoire over again. Most people would say to me, “How can you stand it? Here you are with another change in the quartet and you have to learn all of the Beethoven quartets over again. Aren’t you tired?” My answer was, “My God, are you kidding? This is a chance for us to begin to explore the piece with a fresh ear, a fresh mind, and a fresh point of view.” The reality, however, was hard at first.

We had to learn a lot of new music and we were on our first tour with Joel Krosnick in the United States. We were in our hotel room in Denver, Colorado, under pressure to learn Beethoven’s Opus 135, practicing the slow movement. Sammy said, “You know, we have played this before in a particular way. Could we consider a different relation between the variations than the way we are playing it now?” 

What Sammy was suggesting wasn’t an assault on how I wanted the piece played, but it meant giving up my ideas about the slow movement. This was a moment in the music that I really loved. There weren’t many moments in music where I wasn’t flexible. But I was being very resistant in my fashion, which was one of my flaws.

All of a sudden, Earl, who was very religious and the son of a Lutheran minister, exploded. He said, “Bobby, if you don’t open yourself up to the things we are trying to find out, I can’t stay in this quartet.” He actually got up to leave. I said, “Come on, Earl, stay here.” So we had a big talk, and I realized that although these three young men were less experienced than I was in terms of playing in a quartet, they were as intelligent, or more intelligent, than I was. I had two paths that I could follow. One was to continue to be the kind of person I was with my strengths and weaknesses. This would result in either their or my leaving. Or, while I was not as young as they were, I could be as open and allow us to fully explore what they wanted in the music. Also, I could accept the fact that while I was the first violinist, I was only one participant out of four, with only one voice. 

I won’t say that I changed overnight, but I do believe that this struggle pushed my better instincts to take hold. I would say it took a few years before I could begin to look at a piece that I’d played, maybe fifty times, as if it were the first time. My quartet members bore with me, and I eventually became just as flexible and open as the rest of them. That wasn’t easy to do. Playing in a quartet is teamwork. Whether it’s a baseball team or a team of people doing research, everyone has to understand that certain people have strengths and weaknesses, and they are different from yours. The reason that a team is successful is because you know how best to reveal the strengths and hide the weaknesses. 

Earl eventually left the quartet because he and his wife Ann Schein took wonderful positions at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. As much as he loved the quartet, he wanted to make more of a life with his family. He gave us a year’s notice so that we had plenty of time to search for a new second violinist. 

By now we had learned and recorded all of the Elliott Carter quartets. We wanted somebody who had enormous virtuosity and an ability to adapt and to play without fear. We were lucky to find Joel Smirnoff, who fit in marvelously. Smirnoff was very different from me. He was colorful and a radical. He’d given up violin for a while and attended the University of Chicago as a non-music major. During this period he studied dancing and played jazz violin. 

After we became established, the Juilliard String Quartet played between 100 and 150 concerts a year (that’s over 6,000 concerts during my fifty-one years in the Quartet). In retrospect, I can say that the first twenty-five years of the quartet life were pure hell. The next years were purgatory, but the last years were pure heaven.

 

ROBERT MANN – EXCERPTS FROM HIS MEMOIR - A PASSIONATE JOURNEY

Published by East End Press, Bridgehampton, NY
Available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Part I – From Childhood to the Formation of The Juilliard String Quartet

Robert Mann died on January 1st of this year, at the age of 97. He was the founding first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, in 1946, and played with it for 51 years. Mann was born in Portland, Oregon. His father was a tailor, who loved classical music, though he did not play an instrument. His mother learned to play the piano while working in a piano store, and also became a good singer. For a while, the family lived in Tillamook, a town near the Oregon coast. At the age of 9 Mann was told by his parents that he must learn to play an instrument, and he chose the violin.

Excerpts from Robert Mann’s memoir

… But my passion was fishing. I loved to go through the wetlands of Oregon because there was a lot of rain. Tillamook was bounded on each side by two very good fishing streams, the Trask River and the Tillamook River. I would take a pail of dirt and worms and very minor fishing equipment. I would fish during the day while my parents were working in their tailor shop and make sure that I was home before they got home. They would ask if I had practiced, and of course I was a good liar.

Tillamook is also where I discovered my love of nature. I caged a pet porcupine, slept on the ground in the wild, and listened to the whimpering night cries of mountain lions in the distance. I also loved hiking. The mountains on the coast of Oregon are not precipitous, but they are pretty high and remarkable. No coast could be more beautiful. I loved climbing cliffs. I took chances all the time.

One misty, wet afternoon, I clambered over a rocky cliff unsuspecting of the cave beneath. The view from the summit was obscured by the drizzling rain, but the percussive roar of mighty waves drew me down a most slippery descent. I succeeded because I was young and agile. I found a thin ledge, thirty feet above a violent, unending attack of powerful cascading waves. What a discovery! The waves that would hit this cliff were fantastic. They were mountains of waves. While the waves sprayed over me, they never threatened to dislodge me into the roaring water. There is something ego-  fulfilling about being able to get along in the wilderness by yourself. I would perch on the ledge above and listen to the waves and their rhythm. I believe one of the reasons why I have such fantastic rhythm is because I was so fascinated by watching these waves. I would spend an entire day there when I wasn’t in school, sitting on the ledge by myself, just watching the waves.

Another fascination of mine was watching meteor showers. I would sleep outdoors and watch the meteors cross the sky. It was fascinating to see the variance of the large ones that didn’t go that far, and the little ones that went farther. What better environment to develop a keen ear, a sharp eye for alert response in future existing chamber music teamwork. Every round trip of the sun, every change of season added a new dimension to my unborn musical vocabulary. New variations constantly stirred my imagination with every furious storm. With all the senses brought to life in a very young body, I think Tillamook’s conservatory that I attended before the age of thirteen was the best. 

My days in verdantly wet Tillamook were numbered as my father decided to return to Portland to try another trade, grocery merchant. I was twelve years old when he brought me to play for Eduard Hurlimann, the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. He was equally at home playing chamber music, leading the symphony violin section, or performing a concerto. Mr. Hurlimann had one of the most beautiful bow arms of any violinist that I’ve ever seen. When he played, it was as masterful as his handling of a fly fishing rod. He knew all about wild mushrooms and was a good fisherman who loved fishing as much as I did. That caught me and I was lucky that he accepted me as his pupil.

Mr. Hurlimann said to my father, “You know, Mr. Mann, your kid is no wunderkind. He will not be a great soloist, but if he works hard and practices, I’m almost certain that he can make his living with music. I will take him as a student but you must promise that only Robert will come to his lessons from now on.” 

He agreed to teach me on scholarship, and, when I was fifteen, introduced me to Bach’s solo works, including the partitas and sonatas. You might say that these are the Bible for violinists. Everyone from the great violinist Joseph Joachim on up through the years has studied them. I would come to my lesson not having practiced more than about fifteen minutes a day. I couldn’t fake anything with him. If I hadn’t practiced, he’d get very severe and would listen for about five minutes. Then he would say, “Okay, Bobby, I don’t want you to waste my time. Go home and when you’ve practiced enough, call me and I will give you a lesson.” 

I was learning the Bach C Major sonata, which is a difficult one. The slow movement, the Largo, has a very beautiful and simple melody. This three minutes of music has remained a musical touchstone throughout my life. One day, I arrived around 1pm for my lesson. Hurlimann was intrigued with how I was translating the sounds into phrasing and nuances so that listeners could enjoy them, without knowing what the variation and differences were. He cancelled all of his lessons that came after mine. We spent the whole afternoon working on the third movement. He played it. He had me play it. We broke it down and studied every note, harmony, and phrase. From the opening double-stop sound (of melody and bass line) continuing the music’s course until it cadentially came to rest with its three-note broken chord, there wasn’t a nuance of phrase, any evolvement of harmony, any structural arc that he didn’t gift to me with profound love for Bach, the violin, and me. I honestly felt that I was born musically on this day. I began to think music was very interesting and started to practice more. This was the day I gave up my dream to be a forest ranger in a national park and became a musician.

I wasn’t aware that when I played, people liked the emotional message. They would tell me, “That was wonderful.” They seemed to recognize something I was totally unaware of. I wouldn’t know why. I really didn’t. I was always struggling to play better. But I was aware that music not only intrigued me, it meant something deep to me.

There were two realities for my wanting to be a chamber musician. Musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, and Ruggiero Ricci would come and play concerts in Portland. I knew, and Mr. Hurlimann knew, that I was never going to be a great solo violinist. I didn’t have the chops to play, to control the instrument in that way. I also didn’t have the desire. 

But in Portland, Howard Trugman, the manager of the symphony, loved to have kids come to his apartment and play. I had a group and we read at least once a week all of the chamber music that we could get our hands. It seemed to me, since I was quite good at reading classical chamber music, that I could be a chamber musician.

When it became time for me to study elsewhere, Mr. Hurlimann, who was a very bright man, said that I had to go and study in a very sophisticated city where music was more meaningful than in Portland. At this time, for serious young string players, there were two outstanding schools to go to for study, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard Graduate School in New York. Both were free at the time. At age eighteen, I sent my application to the Juilliard Graduate School and was accepted into the Institute of Musical Art (which later merged with the Juilliard Graduate School to become the Juilliard School of Music.) I can’t tell you why I chose New York over Curtis. I think I thought I wasn’t that good, and that it would be easier to get into Juilliard than Curtis.

But I was a lousy student. I was discovering New York and didn’t practice much that first year. At Carol Glenn’s house, where I was living, there was a jazz fellow who was learning classical harmonization, and we used to go to his room and sit around. We would listen to a radio show called Lights Out. At around three o’clock in the morning we would go down to Blenheim’s cafeteria and have what we called the one-eyed Egyptian sandwich, which was an egg fried in the middle of a white piece of bread. 

It was a terrible year for developing my violin playing but a wonderful year of growing up and, unfortunately, getting an ulcer. One man, Conrad Held, who was on the Institute faculty and taught violin and viola, wrote in his notes on my end-of-the-year jury, “Never in my whole life experience have I ever seen such a talented well-prepared young man deteriorate so much in the space of one year.” I never forgot that. And, I did manage to pull it together, practice a bit, and graduate from the Institute of Musical Art that year.

After graduating, I didn’t want to go home to Portland. I learned about an interesting spot near Tanglewood named South Mountain, which was the estate owned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. There she had sponsored and commissioned the Webern string trio, the Third String Quartet by Schoenberg, and other pieces. Maestro Willeke, the conductor of the Institute of Musical Art’s orchestra, was there; he invited faculty and students for a festival of studying and playing chamber music at South Mountain. Since they needed a violist and I was willing, I was in demand again. I ended up spending that summer at South Mountain, practicing and trying to improve my technique before taking the exam to enter the Juilliard Graduate School. I got into the Juilliard Graduate School, but I was still more interested in chamber music than I was in solo violin. I must have been involved in at least four chamber music groups at that time.

Chamber music started in the 1700s or even before. In the 1700s, 1800s and into the 20th century, playing chamber music was not considered a profession. Playing chamber music was a way that musicians enjoyed each other. They got together, even the greatest violinists, to play an evening of quartets. That was the way everyone experienced chamber music. 

In the early 1900s, concert venues were becoming more important and a few quartets began to appear and have big careers. The first one in the 1900s was the Flonzaley Quartet. The quartet’s first violinist, Adolfo Betti, came to the Mannes School in the 1940s and taught chamber music. In one of his groups he needed a violist and I killed myself to get into it. I took lessons with this great musician. The Flonzaley Quartet you could say was the first quartet that traveled the world playing concerts and earning a living as a chamber music group.

The Naumburg Competition

The Naumburg Competition, named after Walter Naumburg, an amateur cellist and chamber music player, was a competition for soloists. It gave the winner a concert debut in Town Hall in New York City, completely free. Mr. Detheir (my teacher) said, “You know you’re not good enough to win the Naumburg but it would be a good experience for you to try out.”

I practiced all the requirements but didn’t take it seriously. If I had, I would have dropped out. When the time came time for the Naumburg Competition, I only knew the first movement of the Prokofiev second concerto by memory. The judges wanted to hear everything you played. If they were nice in the beginning, they would ask, "What would you like to start with?” Luckily this happened, and I said very politely, the first movement of the Prokofiev concerto and I played it. I was hoping that the judges would immediately go to another piece because they wanted to hear me play Bach and so on. It worked, and I didn’t have to play the last movement. I got into the semi-finals, which were held a week later. I killed myself and memorized the Prokofiev concerto so I could get through the slow movement. It was the last movement that was a problem for me. It’s a rondo and very brutal and I wasn’t confident playing it.

Also making the semi-final round were six other violinists—all girls. The semi-final round also had a different jury. They asked me, “What would I like to start with?” I said, “The first movement of the Prokofiev concerto,” and that was fine. All of a sudden a member of the jury said, “You know, I’d like to hear the last movement of the Prokofiev.” I turned to my pianist, who had gone on tours with Paul Robeson and William Primrose and had a funny sense of humor. I turned to him and asked, “What do I do now?” He said, “You have two options. You can say you don’t know it and they kick you out. Or, you can start playing and stop when you have to.” God’s truth, I went through and as I reached the end of the part I knew, the judges said, “Thank you,” I just couldn’t believe it. Next the jury wanted to hear the Chausson Poeme. I made it to the final round. 

The final round took place at Town Hall, a performance hall in midtown Manhattan. At the finals, a lady juror who I learned later was one of the great lieder singers of the day who was famous for her singing of Debussy, asked, “You have this Nardini sonata on your program. What is that?” I explained that Nardini was an Italian Baroque composer from the eighteenth century. She asked me to play the larghetto movement, the slow movement of the sonata. The one thing I could do well was to communicate warmth in my phrasing, the reason anyone listened to this kind of music. The lady juror later told me that they recognized the other violinists had better technique and were much better, but no one communicated the slow movement the way I did with the Nardini larghetto. Two winners were chosen in the 1941 competition – Willy Kapell and me. Playing that movement was the reason I won the Naumburg competition.

The War Years

I had my two draft numbers and the Portland number was high enough that I was sure that I wouldn’t be called that year. But Eventually I was drafted into Fort Lewis in Washington and sent to Camp Crowder in western Missouri, near Joplin. We were told to bring only a toothbrush and an extra pair of underpants. All else—verboten! “Dare I? Yes, damn it.” Covering my Tillamook “Strad” and bow inside a canvas bag, I concealed it during the train ride and barracks assignment. 

Avoiding prying master sergeant eyes, I covertly shoved the fiddle under my bunk. Standing in line at attention, reality interrupted. The loudspeakers in Fort Lewis spoke loudly: “Private Robert Mann, Private Robert Mann—report on the double to Barracks C 102.” I dropped out of line and ran. Breathless I entered C 102. At the end of the room, three soldiers were lounging on a chair and a bed. A corporal held a guitar under his arm. A master sergeant barked, “You the creep with the fiddle under your bunk in A 105?” I thought that they were going to confiscate my fiddle. He threatened, “Go get it now on the double.” 

Miserably crushed, I ran, I got it, and I returned. The guys hadn’t moved. The guitar corporal said, “You play?” I nodded. “All right,” he continued, “You know that there ‘bumblebee’ piece?” What the hell was going on? Truth was, without knowing why, before induction, I had practiced the Bach “Chaconne," “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the popular movie theme from "Intermezzo" and (jackpot!) “Flight of the Bumblebee,” by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The corporal added some information for his buddies. “The world record for this piece is one minute and fifty-three seconds, held by an accordion player.” He turned to me, “You think you can beat that?” I shrugged. “We’re going to time you!” The master sergeant took out his watch. “Get set! Go!” I hadn’t even tuned up and of course had no accompaniment. I scrambled down the opening chromatic runs as fast as cold fingers could move. The seconds ticked by and then I approached eight bars of music that must repeat. Excuse me God, I cheated and I didn’t repeat. That helped save my skin. Having shaved off five seconds, I desperately headed into the final notes and ended on a pizzicato chord. The drab room sensed the tension (mine) and silence (theirs). “Waddayou know, fellas,” the master sergeant chuckled. “This creep is only one second behind the world record. We can’t put him on kitchen police.” “Naw, you can’t do that,” echoed the corporal. “So we’re not going to send you to the artillery in Missouri or whatever.” “Let’s send him over to the officer’s mess. He can play for them while they eat.” So you see, I got to keep my Tillamook “Strad” and continued to play “that there ‘bumblebee’ piece.”

I had to go through basic training and I didn’t touch the violin for six weeks. Camp Crowder was in the Ozarks and on the one day that we had off, most of the guys would rush to Joplin to try and find girls. Instead, I would go outside of the camp and find little streams that had these wonderful vines hanging from the trees. I would practice like Tarzan, trying to cross the stream on one vine. 

1946 - The Juilliard String Quartet Is Born

In the army we were given two-day passes about once a month. We lived for our passes. It provided us time so we could take a ferry boat over to New London, Connecticut, get on a train, and have a day or two playing chamber music with friends in New York City. I would stay with my friend from Portland days, Isadore Tinkleman, who became one of America’s finest violin teachers. We also used to congregate at the Larchmont home of Edgar Schenkman, who was a violinist and a conductor. We became very close. Schenkman was also a friend of William Schuman, a composer who became the head of Juilliard. In fact, when William Schuman came to direct the Juilliard School, Schenkman became the main conductor at Juilliard. Schenkman and his wife Marguerite played violin and viola, and I would get Arthur Winograd, my cellist friend, to come with me to read chamber music with my older friends.

One night after we played and were having fun eating and drinking, I mentioned to Edgar Schenkman, “You know, there used to be a Curtis String Quartet, and there was even a resident quartet at Oberlin. Don’t you think, now that Juilliard has William Schuman as a new president, that there should be a quartet at Juilliard?” Edgar, who was an absolutely wonderful and marvelous man, said with his severe but friendly wit, looking like he was the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, “I happen to know that is one of the things William Schuman is interested in.” Hearing this news, Winograd, Bobby Koff, a violinist, and I started talking about this idea. Edgar told us, “I want you to write a letter to me. In this letter it has to say what role you think a resident quartet would play in the future of Juilliard. Send the letter to me and I’ll see that Schuman sees the letter.” So the three of us got together and wrote a letter. After Edgar received our letter, he got back to me and said, “You know, Mr. Schuman is a composer. In your letter, you didn’t stress enough about the importance of playing contemporary music. That is something you should think about.” Now it was getting near the time that I was getting discharged and all of a sudden Edgar told me that William Schuman wanted to have an interview with me.

We were dying because, while we had Arthur Winograd, the cellist, and the violinist Robert Koff, and myself, we didn’t have a violist. We were trying out every violist we knew to make a full quartet. I went to the interview with Schuman and confessed we were without a violist for the quartet, and I said that we would find one. Schuman was the most unusual combination of an absolutely marvelous free-wheeling imagination and a strict, formal, responsible mind that made him perfect to head Juilliard. He put me at ease because we immediately started to talk about Beethoven, chamber music, and contemporary music. He asked, “Well, what kind of a quartet would you like to have? Why should I hire you? Why shouldn’t I hire the Budapest Quartet? I’ve considered them for the job, but they would cost a lot of money. I’m interested in having a young quartet that really has potential.” The Budapest was a great, great quartet; however, they never played contemporary music. They didn’t like it. They only played the music of Haydn and Brahms and maybe Ravel. Schuman was a composer himself and he wanted a quartet that would play not only his music, but music written by composers such as Aaron Copland, Wallingford Riegger, some of Schoenberg’s quartets, and the music of other important contemporary European and American composers.

I said to William Schuman, “Look, when we find our violist, all of us are interested. I’m a composer, and we want to play music just written. Our goal is to play new music as if it had been composed long ago, and to play a classical piece written hundreds of years ago as if it had just been written.” At the time people listened to string quartets as if they were in church. We were not going to play that way and felt the music was alive and living in today’s atmosphere. It wasn’t that we were against traditional playing, or how the music sounded when it was written. We just wanted to make it as alive and meaningful in our time as it was back then.

I learned years later when Schuman and I became good friends that it was that thought that convinced him to hire us, a young quartet with a fresh point of view.

End of Part I.

Part II – Life in the Juilliard String Quartet, to Follow

The Fortieth Anniversary of the Founding of Symphony Space, Broadway and 95th Street

EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH SYMPHONY SPACE CO-FOUNDER AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR ISAIAH SHEFFER. (JOANNE COSSA, AT THE TIME the  MANAGING DIRECTOR OF SYMPHONY SPACE, WAS also present.)

                                 Date around 2000 - interviewer unknown.

This material was sent to me by Ethel Sheffer. Ethel read excerpts at the January 7th celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first WALL TO WALL BACH on January 7th, 1978—a free, twelve-hour event which gave birth to Symphony Space. I have made a few additions from exchanges with Isaiah that I have kept over the years.

Isaiah and I served as co-Artistic Directors of Symphony Space for 10 years, following which Isaiah became sole Artistic Director until shortly before his death in 2012.

                                                                                                       - Allan Miller

*

Interviewer: Symphony Space is a nationally recognized cultural institution, now almost a quarter of a century old, which is launching new program initiatives in spring 2001 and opening an expanded and improved facility in spring 2002. All this began as a one-shot, with a single, legendary event. How did it happen?

Isaiah Sheffer: One evening in late 1977, Allan Miller came across the hall in our apartment building on Riverside Drive and said he was doing some programs in venues away from Carnegie Hall with the American Symphony Orchestra. At the time he was the orchestra’s conductor for special programs, and in that capacity he’d decided to do an event on the Upper West Side. The question was, where? My wife Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner who was active in Upper West Side politics, said, “Why not the old Symphony movie theater? We’ve just been picketing the liquor store next door, which has been selling to inebriates, and our line passed right in front of the marquee.”

So Allan and I went to peer through the doors, and there was a slip of paper with the name of a man who had been renting out this shabby, defunct movie theater. We took it for one day, January 7, 1978, for an event called Wall to Wall Bach: a day-long, free community concert, where you could bring your fiddle and play alongside the professionals, or bring your voice and sing along in the B Minor Mass. It was Allan’s idea. He’d done similar events with the Denver Symphony and other organizations.

Allan and I were old friends who had collaborated on various projects for television and live performance, with my responsibility being the words and his being the music. We had done Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat for WNET, as well as some events for the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. So I helped with his plan.

We got a lot of volunteer help. We borrowed light bulbs, we borrowed music stands, we called on all the people we knew in the neighborhood, which included stars such as Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman. And we had the American Symphony Orchestra with some thirty professional musicians.

Of course, the community is extraordinary. That very first Wall to Wall involved West Side residents such as the Zukermans, Jaime Laredo, and Claude Frank, who simply said, “Yes, I’ll come and play some Bach.”

It’s also remarkable to think about the community participants who weren’t famous. We have a videotape from the first Wall to Wall, where someone asked a little girl with a fiddle how she’d felt, playing with Pinchas Zukerman. She said she’d been a little nervous, but it had been OK. That little girl turned out to be Pamela Frank.

Throughout that day, from 11 A.M. to 11P.M., which was free to everyone, thousands of people came and went. Our children clicked the clicker to count the people coming in; they passed out the programs, which the neighborhood printer had run off for us cheap. The day turned into a legendary event. Thousands now claim to have been there who never could have attended—it’s like Ted Williams’s final home run. But five thousand were there.

Calvin Tomkins wrote about the event in the New Yorker, quoting Ethel at the end: “You should have seen a woman who just gave us five dollars. She had tears streaming down her cheeks, and she said it was the happiest day of her life. ‘I’ve never played with an orchestra before, and today I made my debut with Pinchas Zukerman.’”

We ended that glorious day with the B Minor Mass, conducted by Allan, with hundreds of people who came along, picked up a copy of the score, and sang as the chorus. I was in the chorus, too, and I’ve been told many times that in the middle of the “Gloria” I was weeping at what a great day it had been. But the part of me that wasn’t weeping was scheming: “We’ve got to take over this joint.”

Founding of Symphony Space

Interviewer:   Why would you want to take over a derelict movie theater?

Sheffer: Early that morning, while Pinchas Zukerman was warming up his ensemble, Allan and I were busy cleaning the bathrooms—the Ur-bathrooms, three generations of fixtures ago. And we looked up and said to ourselves, “Oh my gosh, this place has good sound.” It was pure, dumb luck, since the building had first been a fish market and then a skating rink—but it turned out to have good acoustics.

Just like that, we discovered the accidents of architecture that have contributed to the success of Symphony Space. The place, quite simply, is audience-friendly. Even at the start, when the stage was still some platforms that my colleague and mentor Joe Papp had lent us, poets and actors and musicians who performed here would say, “Hey, it’s a good room. You can hear and see.” That’s why we’ve always resisted having a conventional proscenium arch, curtain and orchestra pit—anything that would create a gulf between the performers and the audience. The actors onstage in Selected Shorts, or the musician performing a trio, feel the back row is not very far away.

Joanne Cossa: There’s an extraordinary intimacy between the performer and the audience. It has something to do with the odd shape of this interior, which is more of a square than a rectangle. When an actor is reading in Selected Shorts, you can literally hear a pin drop. I remember when William Hurt came off stage and said, “Where do you get these people? They listen.” Well, our audience is special, but so is the theater. It has an electric communication that’s very unusual in a place with this many seats.

Interviewer:   So you began scheming. What was the next step?

Sheffer: The next morning, as our children helped us sort the nickels, dimes, and dollars that had been thrown into the hat, I made up the name Symphony Space, meaning a space in the old Symphony movie theater, but a space where you could do much more than the building had ever contained before. We incorporated with a few friends. By May 1978, we had a temporary lease. In June, we organized another Wall to Wall, just to show the world we could do such a thing, and over the summer we held some other events—and all the while we were busy with our professional lives. I was directing a show in Philadelphia, at the Playhouse in the Park, when Allan called to say that Bevis Longstreth, our current board chairman, had gotten us our first grant, for $10,000, through his friends at the Ford Foundation.

Interviewer:   How did you program Symphony Space at the start?

Sheffer: Our temporary lease, which ran from May through December, allowed us to do whatever we wanted, except for five nights a month when the owners could present boxing and wrestling matches. We used to go out on the street and hustle people to help us dismantle the wrestling ring, mop the place, put up the platforms for the stage, and lift the piano we had borrowed on to the makeshift stage. When they lined up we gave them a few dollars­—most of them went around and got in the back of the line again. We didn’t mind; we paid them twice.

By September, Allan and I felt ready to rule out some squares on a piece of paper and make a calendar for October 1978. Allan said, “OK, on this night I’ll have some friends perform some Mozart trios,” and I said, “On this night, I’ll have some friends do a play reading. “The challenge was to fill in the blanks. Allan and I soon realized we could never dominate this place; there were simply too many days in the year. So we decided Symphony Space would serve two functions. A percentage of the calendar would be devoted to our in-house productions. For the other days, we would make this place as economically accessible as possible to other individuals and ensembles in many arts.

We let the word go out that this place was available—and after three months, we found ourselves having to institute systems to filter requests. There was no real stage and no lighting; we were cleaning and fixing when we could, with a group of volunteers; and yet we had a multitude of requests from recitalists, theater groups, dance ensembles, and many contemporary music groups who up to that time had been performing in university halls and churches. By January, 1979, we knew there was an expressed need from all quarters to use this place.

(The following is from a memo from Isaiah to Allan.) “We had lots of difficulties with the old theater. About a year into our tenure there was trouble with the boiler. The audience for METROPOLIS, a performing group, was wearing their coats, but no one left or complained about the cold. Haas, the manager of METROPOLIS, and I had a little scene as he asked couldn’t we take $100 off the rental price because it had been cold. I said no, we were sorry, we had done all we could, which was true, and that he hadn’t lost a penny or one customer, and I didn’t think we should be punished. He finally paid me the $500. (That Sheffer; he’s tough.)” 

Cossa: The early Wall to Walls had John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Morgan Freeman, Beverly Sills, Barbara Cook, Madeleine Kahn, and Dawn Upshaw. They immediately responded to the notion that events with unusual formats were happening at this place at 95th Street.

Sheffer: When we held play readings, Broadway stars would come to participate, which gave us our first glimmer of what we might later do in Selected Shorts. We received that same level of community support with Bloomsday on Broadway, our annual reading of James Joyce's Ulysses, which we began in 1982. The list of participants has included Bob and Ray, Fionnula Flanagan, Milo O’Shea, Claire Bloom, Frank McCourt, and Lili Taylor.

So you see, our mission was always community-based. We were just lucky enough to be in one of the most diverse and brilliant cultural communities in the world.

Opening the Doors to the Community

Interviewer:   But you also had community involvement from artists who were not famous.

Sheffer: Groups quickly responded. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players came along the very first year and remain with us till this day. Young Albert Bergeret, who was running the Barnard-Columbia Gilbert and Sullivan program, needed a place that wasn’t City Center but that wasn’t a college basement, either. He found it here, and Symphony Space has since become NYGASP’s unofficial home.

Cossa: That aspect of our programming has been tremendously important—because as time went on, Symphony Space drew people who had expertise in other fields, so that our programs were constantly broadened.

In the late 1980s, for example, we asked the World Music Institute to become part of our Performance Subsidy Program. Before I came here I didn’t know anything about ethnomusicology; I didn’t know about Moroccan Gnawi trance music. But I knew that Robert Browning did. And though we were too poor to say, “We’ll hire you and you’ll put on a lot of concerts,” we could give him a home, so he could present a great part of his season. That partnership is now twelve years old.

Sheffer: I take great pleasure when someone comes up to me at the onion counter at Fairway and says, “Loved your Nigerian dance troupe.” For all that I don’t know about Nigerian dance, I’m thrilled to have helped bring that person and that troupe together.

Interviewer:   On what terms did you rent Symphony Space to NYGASP and other groups?

Sheffer: That first year we set up a simple scheme, whereby you put down $250—”you” being a recitalist or a theater company—and you would have this place for an evening, if Allan and I judged you were meritorious and your work was of artistic interest. We made some judgments based on speculation and hope—such as the legendary Night of the Accordion Sextet, which will not be mentioned again. And you got back your $250 out of the contributions that came in at the door. So groups initially used this place for free—and that spread the awareness of Symphony Space. That was the beginning of our present Performance Subsidy Program.

Cossa: The Performance Subsidy Program creates partnerships with other institutions that are small but have something of artistic value to this community. They get a 35 to 40 percent discount on the rent, beyond the discount that we give to every 501(c)(3), on a rate that’s already below market to begin with. On top of that, we give these partners production and marketing services. In return, we have things on the stage that we don’t have the resources to produce ourselves.

Interviewer:   In terms of Symphony Space’s contribution to the larger culture of New York City and the nation, why is it important to throw open the doors to all these different artists and groups?

Cossa: There is always a need for performers to be able to show their work, whether well-established in their careers or not—to try out things in a non-threatening atmosphere where they don’t have to worry about the New York Times critics, in a place that is friendly and inviting. That was what Symphony Space offered at the beginning and continues to offer. This place became attractive to the cultural community, and earned great loyalty from them. That loyalty contributed enormously to our ability to survive.

Sheffer: Here we were, creating a gathering place for all these different arts and all these different communities, and doing it in unexpected circumstances. We were viewed at first as brightening a downtrodden block in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood. That gave a sense of adventure to Symphony Space—which is one of the many reasons why, when our epic real-estate struggle began, we were so determined to hold our ground.

We held on even when developers made tantalizing promises that after they’d demolished the building, they would put up something that would include “a state-of-the-art theater”—a phrase to be wary of, my friends. We were extremely skeptical that a plastered cubicle, located two escalator flights down in some real estate development with six movie theaters and an apartment house, would be nearly as good as the theater we had, or could have anything like the spirit of Symphony Space.

Many other arts organizations begin by setting themselves up in business and then say, after a while, “We’ve got to do some community outreach.” We were just the opposite. We started with community outreach. And while we’ve become professional and institutional, we continue to have these community support structures. Of course, our community is extraordinary.

The connecting threads, I think, are a sense of adventure, a sense of accessibility to the artists, a sense of innovation for the audience, and a sense of friendliness and warmth, all while top professional standards are being maintained. That’s the real trick. If you can make it really top-flight, and at the same time keep it warm and encouraging participation, then you’ve achieved something.

High Fidelity - The Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet

Excerpts from a Documentary Film, 1989
Directed and Produced by Allan Miller

ARNOLD STEINHARDT, JOHN DALLEY, Violins
MICHAEL TREE, viola; DAVID SOYER, cello

The Guarneri String Quartet, the preeminent quartet of its time, was formed at the Marlboro Music Festival in 1964, and played until its retirement in 2009. David Soyer, the quartet's cellist, was older than the other three, who had met as students at the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1950's. Soyer retired in 2002 and died in 2010. (Peter Wiley took over the cello role during the Guarneri's last years.)

The following are verbatim remarks made by the members of the original quartet, drawn from the documentary film I made. They are transcribed from rehearsals, interviews, and conversations with each other. In some cases I have rearranged the order of the comments to give them a coherence they would otherwise lack without the context of the musical and other scenes to which they were attached.

OPENING SCENE

Audience member: “What is it that keeps you together as a group? Why do you all stay together?

David - Well, we manage it somehow. It certainly...

John - Money.

Michael - Never hurts, eh? But we are the oldest in America, aren't we? twenty-three years.

John – There are thousands of reasons to stay together and thousands of reasons to break up.

Arnold - Well, I think there are two main reasons, aside from money. And those are, number one, that we love playing quartets still, we still love playing quartets, and the repertoire, and number two I think people are hiring us to play concerts and so I think the success and the activity just oils the machinery.

Michael – Yeah, but a lot of other quartets have had changes – equally successful quartets have had many changes along the way. Frankly I don’t know why it is that we haven’t changed members. 

Arnold – Are you about to announce your resignation?

Michael - This would be a perfect time and place – no that’s a tough one to answer. 

*

Michael - I don't think any non-quartet player has the least idea of what quartet playing is in terms of commitment and flexibility and compromise and all of the things personal and musical that make up a quartet.

Arnold - It's been said often that, my gosh, how can you play in a string quartet? You can't do what you want.

John - The minute you put yourself down in a quartet situation there are certain constraints that operate immediately on you as a player.

David - It's a difficult situation with the jealous guarding of one’s own personal opinions about music which are always up for defense.

John - You have to almost completely give up your own personality but you have to retain it at the same time.

David - I had the experience of playing in string quartets, and I know that as far as the personality problems are concerned, quartets break up usually because of personal problems, not musical problems. There's, you know, the quarreling and fighting among the four, and sometimes a perfectly good quartet in a musical sense - fine players - but they very often don't last because they don't get along.

Michael - We are mindful of the fact that we are today the oldest original quartet in the world and we're proud of it. I think we have tremendous pride in the fact that we've managed to overcome personal difficulties and occasional problems and make it work, because we see so many casualties along the way.

*

REHEARSAL

Michael – Arnold, you put a dot like an accent – that’s better but it still sounds like you have a dot over the note.

Arnold - David, you bolted at Letter D and I could hardly keep up with you.

David – If you don’t want to change the tempo at D - yes, but by this time it's already much slower – by now its not even the tempo of the opening any more. Now, if you want to keep the same tempo, what tempo do you want to play it in?

Michael – a little bit faster – we do that in every-

David - from Letter A to Letter D it gets very much slower, which is all right in itself - I don’t mind that.

Arnold – I don’t think it gets at all slower between A and D. I think it’s the identical tempo. (Arnold plays, then David plays.)

David – That’s the tempo we’ve been playing. If you want me to play faster I will. I'd prefer to. But I’ll play it the same tempo – that’s it.

Arnold – it could move a little bit, afterwards.

David – That’s what I was doing.

Arnold – It should move.

David - That's what I was doing, but now you're complaining it was going too fast.

John – Each entrance should have the impression of going ahead.

Michael – Let’s be reasonable.

David- I thought that was reasonable.

Michael – Its melody...

Arnold - I think that's a good tempo.

Arnold - You're either running or we're holding back.

David - You're getting ahead of us.

Arnold - No, no. It's always been that way.

*

Arnold – You’d think that after all these years we’d pretty much fall into a certain groove and agree on things, but no, that doesn’t happen.

David - One of the things you get in a quartet rehearsal is the fact that you're criticizing and getting criticized. Many players can't take that. It's one of the things that creates great sensitivity, raw spots. If someone is told, “That's out of tune,” the attitude has to be, “OK, that's out of tune and I'll fix it.”

Michael – We’re very, very lucky to be doing what we’re doing and we'd be damn fools if we let personal issues, no matter how serious, interfere with the whole. Frustrating, but wonderfully challenging.

Arnold – There has to be candor in a quartet for it to survive.  

David - Sometimes the problems are never resolved, and there are situations today, I mean, when one of us would say: “I’ve never agreed with that, I still don’t agree with it, I probably never will and I’ll go to my grave not agreeing with it."  But we do it that way. Ok, well, maybe that’s a compromise, I guess.

*

Arnold - It’s not our style to say, “Gee, Arnold, that was really beautiful.”

David - But I think if you saw some other quartet rehearsal you would find a great difference. Their manner is, “Uh – that was wonderful – it sounded so beautiful. Uh, I really hate to say anything about it at all – it was really beautiful; but do you suppose it could, oh, no, no, it was really too nice. No, never mind, but could you possibly play it a little faster, or louder, or softer, or slower, or whatever it might be - or more in tune?”

Michael - I think all of us have felt leaned on or possibly persecuted at times, but then that feeling passes from one to the other just as a melody would within a quartet.

REHEARSAL

David – It’s nitpicking, hair splitting and sounds like SHIT.

Michael - How can nitpicking be done over ten bars?

David - Easily: that's what you're doing...Literalism is not my bag.

Michael - Aw shit.

Arnold - Sometimes I think we should travel with a Talmudic scholar to figure out all the decisions we have to make.

Michael – Strength, individuality, and a feeling that each of our voices can be easily set in relief from the others. And yet, of course, at moments it’s important that we do play in a more concerted way, and that we blend our musical ideas, and that we compromise and make adjustments – all of that happening at the same time.

Me, off camera – That’s impossible.

Michael – It’s impossible.

*

Michael - We've always been a leaderless quartet or put it this way: we're a quartet of four leaders, four strong, assertive individuals and that implies a certain give and take, a certain democratic way of doing things.

David - What happens at rehearsals is not compromise, but you begin to see it in another way because you couldn’t, as I say, play with any conviction at all if it goes against the grain and against your desires and against your whole concept. It wouldn’t be possible.

Michael - We know that there's nothing in the world more bulky and time-wasting than a democracy, and in a quartet it makes for endless discussion and disagreement and sometimes dissension - but that's a democracy. 

*

REHEARSAL

Michael - No, Arnold, you're doing something - you're making a glissando that isn't very nice.

Arnold - Why do we make that accent?

David - What accent?

Arnold - 1-2-3-4- in the change. (plays).

David - Written. It's written - (plays).

Arnold - That's the one I don’t think should have an accent.

David - That's the one that should have it - definitely should have it - should be a big production on that note.

Arnold - That is the softest...

David - No, but it's the only change that occurs – (plays).

John - Yeah, but not there, Arnold.

Michael - David's right - a big change from minor to major. We've been playing - (plays).

Arnold - I feel like...

David - It's gotta be there.

Arnold - We should do it not with the bow, but with vibrato.

Michael - I agree. It shouldn’t be a “pow!” but there's something special happening on that note.

John - No, the accents are gone. (all play).

Michael - Well, let me tell you what I have before the end.

John - No, but let me tell you what I have, which is not an accent.

Michael - OK, but you don’t have also have anything of interest, John.

John - Sure I do - (plays).

Michael - Yeah, but before that G-sharp of yours, I have- (plays). I think that's four times.

John - Why would you make an accent on a note...

Michael – Obvious, if you're playing the viola part (plays).

Arnold - Can't you do it less?

Michael - Oh, one could, but he makes an accent on it. If that's the original marking, he obviously wanted that minor-to-major highlighted.

(They Play.)

David - That solves it because there is a huge diminuendo and that won’t make a big accent and it works out.

*

FORMATION

John - Our paths crossed at the Marlboro Music Festival in, I think, '62.

David - I met Arnold and Michael and John there. I hadn't known them before. It's a pool of musicians who get together in various chamber works and play in various combinations, and we got to know each other musically and personally as well. 

Arnold - Well, we'd get together at Marlboro Music Festival (run by pianist Rudolf Serkin) and say, “Wouldn't it be nice to play string quartets for a living?”

Michael - The string quartet literature is so— sublime. It's fabulous. It has inspired the greatest composers to write their greatest music.

Arnold - And so, I think we found ourselves as a quartet through some kind of lucky series of events.

John - To the best of my recollection, I do remember walking down the path in front of one of the buildings at Marlboro with Arnold. He mentioned to me that the idea of forming a quartet had been put to him by Alexander Schneider.

Arnold - And Schneider at Marlboro was not just another fine musician, but a great mover of people: a person with ideas, a doer, a person of great energy, a great force in music. 

Schneider - I thought that all four of them would make up a good string quartet, because they had good education, and the one thing they had to learn is to respect each other and accept each together. Bless them, they have been twenty-two years together (at the time of making the film). There must be something which holds them together - no doubt.

Arnold - Well, then came the moment when we decided, “Yes, we could play together,” and we were going to try and make a go of it. And we sat down and we played the d-minor Mozart.

John - We must have sounded like four wild horses or four broncos. But there was a certain excitement about the first time and I think we realized that we didn't feel there were any major drawbacks or any reasons we shouldn't form a quartet.

Arnold - It was an unforgettable moment for me, something so right - as if you'd come home. Maybe you didn't know what home was before, but now you've found it.

*

Arnold - I think there were a lot more arguments in the early years than there are now - on all fronts.

Arnold - I know we used to spend a lot more time arguing about music. We'd just tear our hair out over a note...If I'm pressed I'd have to say, there are certain things that don't get said, and nobody hangs around to talk about those things, so the opportunity simply doesn't exist. We run to our private lives.

*

Michael - Imagine if you were suddenly a member of a string quartet and the livelihood of three other families relied on you as much as you depended on them. It is a commitment that is all-embracing. Our commitment to each other carries over into everyday life in my house.

*

David - Well, I think perhaps to be a performer you have to be somewhat neurotic. The drive for improvement, perfection - the time, the hours - the drudgery, never being quite satisfied - if we were it would go downhill. You can't very well sit in your studio and play to yourself. You've got to go out on a platform and play for public approval. I think if one was perfectly healthy you wouldn't be a professional cellist or violinist. It's the only life I can imagine for myself - I must be very neurotic.

*

BACKSTAGE BEFORE A CONCERT

David - You get feedback from an audience and there's no getting around that, and that affects a performance.

Arnold - You can talk till you're blue in the face about doing a phrase a certain way, and then you walk out on the stage and it all has changed. I don't know why that should be. But with bodies breathing and listening in the audience, everything is different.

REHEARSAL MONTAGE, ENDING IN CONCERT PERFORMANCE

Michael - Today, there's been an explosion of chamber music - a willingness to acknowledge that quartets are popular - that they are enjoyed by young people, older people, and there's nothing so precious - it's not just for the rich and Viennese to enjoy.

David - That was something we never dreamed of - making a comfortable living playing string quartets. That in itself is fantastically amazing.

John - It's the music - it's absolutely the music: hundreds and hundreds of great masterworks. They have a great impact on you. They stay with you. It's a never-ending study. They never grow stale.

John - It's the feeling that you're playing great music and you will continue to play great music and try to find something in it the day after tomorrow that you didn't sense today. That's what really sustains me.

Arnold - But in addition to that, I think there is a social aspect that's not only different but ever fascinating, in the give and take of the quartet itself.

David - Chamber music playing is a reactive art. You have to relate to three other people - very complicated relationships. 

Arnold - No matter how well people know one another as friends or colleagues, there's a certain distance that is naturally a part of life - in any kind of relationship, whether it's a friendship or a marriage, or business. But the very process of bringing your music together artistically with your colleagues brings you incredibly close. For those moments you have a kind of magic intimacy. You are transformed, almost like alchemy, into not just a single unit, but some kind of artistic whole. And I find that a miracle when it happens, and something to really cherish.

CLOSING PERFORMANCE - BEETHOVEN, OPUS 59 #3, LAST MOVEMENT

Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned?

In a June 11 article in the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Mitchell asked the question, “Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned?” In the excerpts quoted below she explained:

“Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied. But can perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, be learned?” 

“Until recently, no evidence of an adult acquiring perfect pitch had been documented. But a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience showed adults could gain the trait with the help of valproic acid, a drug used to treat seizures and migraines.”

“Even with years of training, not everyone can learn to identify an A4 note from a G4, says Dr. Joseph P. Bradley, an otolaryngologist, ‘but almost anyone can learn to hear if a note is in or out of tune.’ Whether learning a tonal language as an adult can lead to acquiring absolute pitch has yet to be proven. ‘It’s a fascinating idea,’ he says, ‘but even if you don’t have perfect pitch, you can still enjoy music.’”

*

The definition of perfect pitch is tricky. 440 Hertz - beats per second - which we assign as universally accepted frequency of the note A is not so standard as we may think. Here is Fred T. Abdella writing in the New York Times of Aug 13, 1989:

The A used by most symphony and opera orchestras today for uniform tuning ranges between 440 hertz, or cycles per second, to 444 hertz. By comparison, in 1740, Handel favored an A pitched at 422 hertz. Mozart, in 1780, tuned to an A at 421.6 hertz. The French standardized their A at 435 hertz in 1858. A little more than 20 years later, Verdi succeeded in getting a bill passed by the Italian Parliament to tune at A 432 hertz. 

In 1938, an international standard for A was set at 440 hertz, but the pitch continued to rise. The New York Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta, tunes to an A at 442 hertz, as does the Chicago under Georg Solti and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. In Berlin, orchestras tune to an A around 448 hertz. In Moscow, the symphony’s pitch is even higher, near 450 hertz.

So when we say someone has perfect pitch today we’re not sure what we mean.

Relative pitch is much more important that perfect pitch; it refers to hearing intervals accurately. A conductor must be able to tell if someone in the orchestra is flat or sharp in relation to other instruments, and chamber groups devote great attention to staying in tune with each other by adjusting intonation. 

*

The ability to name notes and tonalities does not bring us closer to the music. We can admire the music more, and being able to follow the keys the composer takes us through does give pleasure: we observe a display of harmonic skill, and enter into the structure of the music as it moves along. But this is purely an intellectual process and distracts from absorbed listening. We will have admired more and listened less. Perfect pitch permits analysis, but analysis kills enjoyment. Admiration interrupts involvement.

Fortunately, the emotional content of the music, the arc of the composer’s expressive statement in sound, can be experienced without the need for external information. We need not have studied color theory to be moved by a Van Gogh landscape or a Rembrandt face. Music speaks to all who listen attentively.

*

When I was 7 years old, growing up in a Long Island suburb of New York City, I used to bang out children’s songs on the piano with one finger, as well as melodies from show-tunes I heard on our 33 rpm recordings.

After a while I learned the names of the notes and as a game for my friends would ask them to play a note on the piano and I would identify it correctly. They thought this was magic.

Eventually I could name up to three notes played at a time—mashed together or spread out over the keyboard. I was successful only when piano notes were played. I could not identify sung pitches or notes played on any other instrument.

Nor could I produce a note if you asked me to sing it. Mine was a kind of passive gift: correctly identifying a note on the piano.

When I was twenty, I was accepted as a conducting student by Hermann Scherchen for two years in Switzerland. Scherchen made us memorize the music we were studying, and then sing it to him. Each of us—there were three at the time—had a tuning fork that sounded the A, to insure that we sang in the right key of the piece—mine was the first Brandenburg Concerto of Bach. I remember another had the Stravinsky “Pulcinella Suite.” We also used the tuning fork as a check after singing a few pages or a whole movement of a work to test whether we had stayed on key.

We all carried those tuning forks wherever we went, challenging each other out on the streets: sounding them against wooden fences, door posts, or our own heads, to prove that what we were singing was accurate.

I banged the fork and held it up to my ears so many times during the weeks and months, that eventually I could simply bang my second and third fingers on a table without the tuning fork, hold them up to my ear, and imagine the A. I no longer needed the tuning fork, except to confirm from time to time what I heard in my inner ear and to win bets with the others.

I had taught myself complete perfect pitch. I could also produce a pitch when asked, and was now able to identify sounds on other instruments, including symphony orchestras.

This joyful ability did not last forever. At the age of fifty, I discovered I was beginning to hear music a half-step higher. I don’t know where this disturbing change came from, but others—pianist and writer Charles Rosen, and composer Virgil Thomson, for example—reported similar shifts, eventually rising in old age to as much as a whole step or more.

However, it is not too bad an impediment. Well-schooled musicians that we are, when the Eroica symphony of Beethoven sounds like it is being played in E-Major instead of E-flat, we just transpose what we’re hearing down a half-step, and there is the Beethoven we love.

 

for Heidi Mitchell’s Wall Street Journal complete article go to
Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned? - WSJ