If anyone were to ask me what the single most significant musical influence of my life was, the answer would be unequivocal: The Marlboro Music School. In the many summers I spent there as a young adult I was able to study, perform, and listen to the great chamber music repertoire shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s most distinguished musicians. I was able work on the Schumann Piano Quintet with pianist Rudolf Serkin, the Debussy Flute, Harp, and Viola Trio with flutist Marcel Moyse (who had given the first performance of the work under the tutelage of Debussy himself), Bartók’s Second String Quartet with violinist Alexander (Sasha) Schneider, a master class with the cellist Pablo Casals, and on and on.
Chamber music offered me a wealth of musical inspiration. After all, what could be more enlivening, more substantive, more moving than a Schumann Piano Trio, a Mozart Two Viola Quintet, or Dvořák’s Serenade for woodwinds, cello, and double bass. But as someone old enough to have already learned his instrument well but young enough to be unsure of what music was and who I wanted to be as a musician, chamber music became my greatest teacher.
Felix Kuhner, second violinist of the Kolisch String Quartet that performed by memory, was once asked how he managed to play his part flawlessly without the benefit of notes. “I play the part I don’t hear” was his answer. With or without notes, that is the essence of chamber music. Know the entire work, its structure, it’s meaning, its details, in effect all its parts. And that was, loud and clear, Marlboro’s message, its challenge for me: become a complete musician.
Those giants of music at Marlboro who served as my mentors were invaluable, but so were the young, immensely gifted musicians of my own generation with whom I made music in countless groups and formations. They were the ones who challenged my ideas and who made me consider their own. With them, I slowly learned to accept criticism, to hand it out with respect, to retain my individual personality while joining in what was clearly a team effort.
But almost without my realizing it at first, four of us at Marlboro—violinist John Dalley and violist Michael Tree, fellow students years earlier at the Curtis Institute of Music, cellist David Soyer and I—began to slowly gravitate towards one another musically. Amongst other works, I played with David in a Brahms trio, with Michael in a work by Adolf Busch, and with John in the Schumann Piano Quintet. Finally, playing led to talk: wouldn’t it be a dream fulfilled to play string quartets together. And, in 1964, we formed the Guarneri String Quartet at Marlboro. To celebrate, Rudolf Serkin brought a bottle of champagne, and Sasha Schneider handed out lots of advice based on his own experience in the Budapest String Quartet. We had no concerts, no manager, and at that point not even a name, but it was the beginning of a career in which we performed on the world’s concert stages for the next 45 years. This couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened without Marlboro, the great training ground for young musicians, and, as an unintended consequence, the great matchmaker that brought ours and many other groups that followed together.
Not long after the Guarneri Quartet formed, Marlboro decided to showcase its music and musicians for the rest of the world to enjoy with Musicians from Marlboro. In 1965-66, its first season, one of the first touring groups featured another type of quartet consisting of Benita Valente, soprano; Harold (Buddy) Wright, clarinet; Peter Serkin, piano; and me, violin and viola. Our programs included the Mozart Clarinet Trio and songs, Schubert’s Shepherd On The Rock and A Minor Violin Sonata, and the Bartók Contrasts.
They say that the quickest way to end a friendship is to go on a long trip together. That didn’t happen to our quartet as we made our way from Boston to New York, to Philadelphia, to Washington, DC, and with stops in between. Yes, accommodations had to be made. Buddy willingly gave up his beloved cigars when we traveled by car together, and we tried to get Peter, still a teenager, more involved in the after-concert parties by conducting quizzes the next day en route to that evening’s concert: What was the presenter’s wife’s name? How many children did they have? Describe the painting that hung behind the living room piano, etc.
But the music was the thing, and in this respect we behaved as if we were back in Marlboro rehearsing, discussing, and experimenting in an effort to dig ever deeper into the programs’ exalted music even as we went from city to city.
One small musical detail stays with me after all these years concerning Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, K498, for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola. It is unquestionably an inspired work but certainly not a flashy one, and especially not its ending, which seems to be fading away only to suddenly rise at the very last moment with three brusque chords that finish the Trio. Peter, Buddy, and I walked off the stage after the first performance shaking our heads. The modest ritard we had agreed on for the ending had turned out to be oh-so-bland. “Let’s make a big, gorgeous ritard tomorrow night,” one of us suggested. We nodded enthusiastically. This was going to be the ultimate solution to the ending problem. But the next night, we walked off the stage shaking our heads once again. The big, fat ritard had been just that: a big, fat ritard—over the top, obvious, and certainly unsuccessful. And, just as suddenly as the first idea came another: to finish the work absolutely in tempo—streamlined, no nonsense, direct, simple. This would be the perfect ending, at least so we thought. But it wasn’t. This time, the ending felt unfinished and anticlimactic.
Night after night Peter, Buddy, and I tried different ideas for the ending of that Mozart Trio. It was challenging, amusing, maddening, sometimes even gratifying. I cannot recall if we were ever truly satisfied, but I suspect I remember this detail among so many from that tour for what it exemplified. Each of us was trying to play the part we didn’t hear, to search for the music’s very essence. In fact, that was and continues to be the very essence of Marlboro itself.