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Guarneri Quartet Takes a Final Bow

The quartet is hanging up its bows, but the legacy carries on

 

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In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian group Fatah effectively declared war on Israel with its first armed attack. In 1964, Barry Goldwater declared and lost his bid for the presidency. Carol Channing opened Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, and Fiddler on the Roof followed a few months later. The Beatles made their first appearance at the top of the Billboard pop chart (with "I Want to Hold Your Hand") and played on the Ed Sullivan Show. Andy Warhol produced his Brillo-box art, and the first Ford Mustang rolled off the assembly line. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Robert Moog unveiled his analog synthesizer, and Terry Riley composed the seminal minimalist work In C. Keanu Reeves and Gilligan's Island were born.

So, more auspiciously, was the Guarneri String Quartet. In the summer of 1964, violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree, and cellist David Soyer came together at the Marlboro Music Festival, after having already played together in various combinations, and founded what would soon become one of America's most honored and beloved chamber ensembles.

Now it's 2009, and at the end of this spring season, the Guarneri Quartet will disband after 45 years of distinctive music-making.

The Guarneri maintained its original personnel roster until 2001, when Soyer, the oldest member of the group, retired and was replaced by his one-time student Peter Wiley, a former member of the Beaux Arts Trio. All along, it was a remarkably cohesive foursome, despite the fact that the members famously kept their distance from one other when they weren't rehearsing or performing. It wasn't that they disliked each other; it was simply a matter of maintaining some personal space, psychic sanity, and a productive businesslike atmosphere.

 

As Steinhardt wrote in his 1998 book Indivisible by Four, "We were, from the beginning, blunt with each other, quickly becoming like four brothers who have spent a lifetime together—affectionate, fun-loving, occasionally cantankerous, and certainly long past the need for etiquette. I began to notice that no compliments were passed around, a distinct departure from the behavior of other groups in which I had played.... The Guarneri Quartet was a compliment-free zone: if there was nothing to complain about, we moved on to the next order of business."

Full-time professional quartets were rare in America in 1964; not so anymore, so how great a loss will this be to the classical music community? "Don't we miss Piatigorsky?" asks violinist Lucy Chapman Stoltzman, who studied with all the original Guarneri members at Curtis and was a fellow student of Wiley's there. "Don't we miss Casals? Oistrakh? Heifetz? There are a lot of great violinists and cellists out there, but we still miss those people. Of course the Guarneri Quartet will be missed."

The members of the group are hard-pressed to explain why they decided that now is the time to disband; the decision is unrelated to the recent announcement that the quartet will be sidelined temporarily while Dalley is treated for prostate cancer—it isn't as if the 45th anniversary had ever been the target retirement date. But their explanations come down to two main issues: playing chamber music at a high level is still hard after all these years, and touring is even harder.


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