Monday, April 6, 2009

The Guarneri Quartet, Indivisible

Sunday afternoon’s performance at Market Square Church by the Guarneri Quartet, one of their final performances on their grand farewell tour and the conclusion of Market Square Concerts' current season, proved the difference between a live concert experience and listening to a recording, perhaps even hearing a recording made at this concert. The unexpected can also add to this experience.

Market Square Church had been packed for its Palm Sunday service and the church was again packed a few hours later to hear the Guarneri Quartet play Haydn, Kodaly and Ravel (not a connection, necessarily: I’m just saying). Looking down from the choir loft, I counted room for maybe 12 more people just before the concert was to begin at 4:00.

A moment later, Ellen Hughes, the current director of Market Square Concerts, walked up to the raised platform where the stands and chairs were set up for the quartet to apologize that there would be a slight delay: many people were still trying to get their tickets and that they’d run out of programs, if anyone would care to donate theirs to the cause.

This was also the last concert planned by the founding director of Market Square Concerts, Lucy Miller Murray, “retiring” (if that is conceivable) after 27 years of being the Patron Saint of Chamber Music in the Harrisburg Area. And so it was appropriate to begin by having James Cowden, President of the Board, read the proclamation from the Mayor’s Office that April 5th, 2009, was “Lucy Miller Murray Day” in honor of her dedication to the arts in our community and especially to her 27 years with Market Square Concerts. And so the concert began with a standing ovation and the sense that, in many ways, this too was an Event.

Ellen then announced that there would be a further delay because, as it happened, the quartet’s second violinist, John Dalley, was delayed in traffic due to a tie-up around an accident on the highway and had not yet arrived! 3/4's of the quartet then came out for an impromptu Q&A, a.k.a. soft shoe and tap-dance to wile away the time.

There were jokes made that Dalley had just called them and he was fine, “just leaving Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.” Someone in the audience asked how many players in a string quartet.

Arnold Steinhardt told the touring musician’s nightmare. The quartet had decided early in their career not to travel as a Group of Four. Teaching in Maryland, they frequently flew from Baltimore to Boston and Washington. Rather than buying a ticket in advance, Steinhardt said he would get on Eastern Airlines’ shuttle plane, write a check for the stewardess and all would be well. He handed her the check but she said “This is the wrong amount.” He countered, “No, it’s the right amount for the shuttle to Boston.” She responded, “Yes, it IS the right amount for the shuttle to Boston but this is the shuttle to Washington, D.C.”

And of course, Steinhardt had to be in Boston to join his colleagues for an 8:30 concert.

So the stewardess made some calls and they quickly whisked Steinhardt, hurrying under the belly of the plane and under the bellies of various other planes to reach the Boston shuttle which was now being held for him. He made it, they took off and he arrived in Boston with a half-hour to spare.

And so, in the midst of this conversation with Michael Tree and Peter Wiley joining in, John Dalley appears from the side door at 4:22 to announce the concert has been canceled, we can all go home. (No stuffy group of classical musicians, this!) His colleagues joined him to go “backstage” to get their instruments. And at 4:30, the concert began.

It could not have been planned to open with a Haydn quartet nicknamed “The Rider.” And I’m thinking “how do you get off the road and start playing ten minutes later without warming up?” You would never have known.

Since the church does not have lights you can just flash to announce the end of intermission, the quartet's return to the stage-area led to a scramble for seats. On the downbeat of the Ravel, the church’s chimes rang out the half-hour. It had been assumed the concert would be over by now, if all had gone according to plan. But not much had, so far, and so the quartet immediately stopped, waited for the chimes amidst the laughter, and then began again.

But it occurred to me the chimes would continue to ring at 5:45 and 6:00 and the Ravel was about 30-35 minutes long. So I asked Newman Stare who was sitting with me in the choir-loft – he’s the church’s volunteer sound guy – if there was a way to turn off the chimes. He said he’d go check and disappeared down the steps. Fortunately, he managed to find the head custodian, Jim Quigley, who went into the basement room where he could disable the chimes.

And a good thing, too: looking at my watch, the Ravel ended right at 6:00:12 which meant the final beat of the quartet might also have coincided with the chimes, a fine performance ruined and instead of cheering, everybody would have laughed.

There was a standing ovation – a real one, not just the standard one – cameras flashed (including mine) and there was an encore. It didn’t sound familiar to me, though I recognized a couple of motives that sounded like Late-Beethoven (particularly the C-sharp Minor Quartet) but I knew it wasn’t an excerpt. Mendelssohn had composed his Op. 13 quartet when he was 18, inspired by the Late-Beethoven Quartets (then new), so I assumed it was the slow movement – gorgeously played – from that.

But no. Michael Tree told me backstage it was Mozart – Mozart!?! – from his Quartet in F Major, K.168, written when he was 17, some 50 years before Beethoven's quartet...

Autographs were signed – someone brought Steinhardt's “Indivisible by Four” to have the author sign it – and I met some students from Susquehanna University (my old alma mater), string players who had come down from Selinsgrove to hear the concert and take part in this Event.

The first time I heard the quartet live was in the early-70s (they had been together maybe 8 or 9 years then). The first time one of these students had heard them was 2 years ago and now they heard them after they’d been playing together for 45 years (Peter Wiley, the New Guy, had joined them in 2001, replacing his teacher, David Soyer, the original cellist, and the only personnel change in that long history).

The magic – all the extraneous experiences aside – was still in the playing. As often as they may have played these pieces (the Kodaly was on their latest recording), everything still sounded as fresh and exciting as if they had come to it just recently and wanted to give us their sense of enthusiasm for this music. But there is an intangible quality to quartet playing that you cannot learn or teach. Rather than sounding like four fine musicians who get together to play great music, they sound like a single organism and, for us, well worth the wait for 1/4 of it to arrive.

- Dr. Dick
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Photos: Top - Guarneri Quartet publicity photo w/John Dalley, Michael Tree, Arnold Steinhardt and Peter Wiley.
2nd - Martin & Lucy Miller Murray with the official Proclamation from the Office of Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed (photograph by David McCorkle)
3rd - 3/4's of the Guarneri Quartet - Arnold Steinhardt, Michael Tree & Peter Wiley - with Ellen Hughes (photograph by David McCorkle)
4th - Ellen Hughes backstage after the concert with the complete quartet: in score order, Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree and Peter Wiley (photograph by Dick Strawser)
5th - the Guarneri Quartet taking a bow after the Ravel (photograph by Dick Strawser)
6th - Michael Tree & Arnold Steinhardt signing autographs with members of the audience and Martin Murray (Steinhardt is holding a copy of his book Indivisible by Four) (photograph by Dick Strawser)
7th - Four from Susquehanna University (photograph by Dick Strawser)
8th - a publicity photo from Arnold Steinhardt's website with Michael Tree, original cellist David Soyer, John Dalley and Arnold Steinhardt
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The Guarneri Quartet's appearance with Market Square Concerts was sponsored by Pennsylvania Retina Specialists
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please note: this was not intended to be a review and the opinions expressed are those of the writer.

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