> Excerpts

Chapter 1: Zone of Magic

Hmm. Not Quite. Perhaps if I play the melody with a little more verve and abandon, with more suppleness, it will come alive. But not too much abandon! Otherwise, John will have trouble following me. We two violins have to be perfectly together, like twins in matching outfits. And don't forget Michael. His viola part, with the underlying rhythmic pulse, is a running commentary on the violins' conversation, and if we dawdle, we'll be out of synch with him. Try it again. No, no. Out of tune. That wouldn't sound pretty over Dave's sustained cello line.

The row of naked dressing-room lightbulbs casts a clinical glare on my music. Why isn't this getting any easier? We have played this piece, the Smetana String Quartet "From My Life," literally hundreds of times, and before each performance I grapple with the same melody, a love song, really, trying to capture its youthful ardor. Am I simply treading water as a musician or are my expectations growing with each year that we--the guys, as I call us, or, more formally, the Guarneri String Quartet--have been together? One might expect that after this long, Smetana's emotive music would have settled comfortably into the muscles, tendons, even the synapses of the brain, and play itself.

I continue my pre-concert ablutions--warm-up exercises and a final check of the first violin's most vexing passages in the music for this evening. The three string quartets on tonight's program--Haydn Opus 74, no. 3, in G minor, Janacek no. 2, and Smetana's "From My Life"--are all powerful works that place large demands on the wit, hands, and hearts of their four performers.

As concert time approaches, the nerve endings in my body begin to feel large and oversensitized. It is the same odd sensation I experienced as a six-year-old performing for the very first time at a student concert. The glass of water I was trying to drink beforehand slipped from my little hand and broke. These days, I seem to handle my water better, but the feeling persists, a hint of a performance about to begin. The ingredients in this pre-concert recipe remain constant--anticipation, excitement, and a bit of anxiety. But the proportions change depending on the music, how I feel, and, for want of a better description, on how the planets have lined up at that particular hour. Do the others have these sensations? You'd think I would know by now.

My reverie is broken by the stage manager's ten-minute call. Why is he speaking with an accent? Oh yes, this is Buenos Aires. Hard to keep track when you play in a different city almost every night. Time for a final inventory: violin (tuned), bow (rosined), music (don't forget the encore we decided on--that little Mozart fugue), brush stray hairs off the shoulders, make sure bow tie is straight. Ready.

I hear crosscurrents of cello, viola, and violin sounds in termingling and drifting through my half-open door, a delicious cacophony, as David, Michael, and John warm up in adjacent dressing rooms. Their individual styles are profoundly familiar to me. After all these years, I would recognize their playing anywhere, instantly. The rising and falling of a phrase, the little quirks of their vibrato, the very favorite way each man has of soaring from one note to another almost vocally--these are the unmistakable individual and personal expressions of musicians who have thought long and hard about what they do.

Eight minutes before concert time Michael is practicing a lyrical viola solo in the Janacek, emphasizing its climax by intensifying his vibrato. David works on a brilliant cello passage in the Haydn first movement, playing ever so slowly before letting the phrase go at full gallop. And John has either mastered tonight's program or given up on it entirely. He is playing a fugue from one of the solo Bach violin sonatas, the chords ringing out cleanly and incisively. No, keep the doors closed. Their musical identity is as recognizable as their faces.

Buenos Aires is the last concert of the season before our self-imposed summer vacation begins, and frankly, I feel a schoolboy elation at the thought of being finally let out of Guarneri U. Nine months of pressure-cooker activity in which all four of us are rehearsing, playing, traveling, attending business meetings and parties, and teaching is enough togetherness for one year. Enough of "us." It is time for "me."

Something else, too, has slowly and cumulatively begun to creep into the equation. As one year blends into the next, there is a sense of astonishment at the improbability of the same four men still being together in one performing unit. Given the unpredictable and often short life of a string quartet, it is remarkable that the four of us have not only stuck it out but actually loved the ride. And what a long ride! With this particular concert, at the end of a South American tour, the Guarneri String Quartet finishes its thirty-second year together and plans for the thirty-third next fall. The firm and measured cadence of our life as a quartet seems to mimic the inevitability of the seasons' coming and going. These days, I have taken to wondering before each concert, which one is this? Could Buenos Aires be number 2,983? The statistic is impressive.

What witch's brew did the Guarneri Quartet concoct to stay together for so long, while most other chamber-music groups have weathered turnovers or self-destructed entirely? It is a question asked by everyone--listeners out of mild curiosity, interviewers on assignment, and musicians shaking their heads in wonder. Any more than for a team climbing Mount Everest or a manned space mission, not everyone is temperamentally suited for this line of work. Many musicians cannot take the strain of going mano a mano with the same three people year after year. When a quartet player leaves a group, the reason is rarely made public, but on the musical grapevine one hears whispers: he was always too loud, she picked on me incessantly, I should have been playing first violin, they made life on tour too difficult. Walking offstage at the close of a concert several years ago, a violinist in a well-known quartet lunged at the cellist. "I'm going to cut your heart out for playing so loud," he snarled. The fellow had to be restrained, and although no blood was spilled, needless to say the cellist soon left the quartet, perhaps under a variation of the witness-protection program. Some of our best-known quartets have had enough turnovers to be properly called octets or nonettes. The Budapest Quartet, named by its four Hungarian founding members, ended with four Russians; and with the retirement in 1997 of the Juilliard String Quartet's first violinist, Robert Mann, who had been the only remaining founding member, the new second violinist, Ronald Copes, became its tenth member.

Not unlike any other group with serious ambitions, the Guarneri Quartet was founded on a bedrock of love for the string-quartet literature, and on a belief that the four of us had enough in common to allow an enterprise to take root. But in every quartet's evolution, either a player will develop an allergic reaction to his colleagues and the profession's demands or the sharp edges of personal difference will soften into a good working atmosphere. The Guarneri Quartet might have gone either way. David Soyer is blunt and highly opinionated, John Dalley is sparing in his comments and often reserved, Michael Tree is an efficient problem-solver with an ebullient manner, and (please don't tell the others) I am a voice of reason and accommodation. "I never thought you four would make it as a quartet," our good friend the violinist and instrument dealer Charles Avsharian confessed to me years ago. "You're all too different." But, contrary to the dire prophecies, we have come to enjoy our differences more than they make us uncomfortable, and--call this the luck of good chemistry--these interlocking disparities in temperament, style, and artistic impulse have even served us well. Instead of generating the explosions some people, expected from our mismatched personalities, we have created a kind of hodgepodge of checks and balances. When, for example, I burst the classical mold with a phrase of excessive romanticism in the middle of a Mozart quartet, my colleagues are always on hand to save me from myself.

But it is the string-quartet least itself, easily two hundred works strong, that has nourished us year after year, and this minimizes all the personal difficulties. There is simply nothing better than playing string quartets and performing them in public. Almost all the giants of music are there: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Bartok. And every year brings new adventures. There are still pockets of the standard repertoire that we have missed, forgotten or ignored treasures of the past to ferret out and reintroduce to the public, and new music to learn. Hans Werner Henze recently wrote a piano quintet for us and Peter Serkin; and in the near future Richard Danielpour will write a string-quartet concerto for us and the National Symphony Orchestra. Adding to the endless conjecture about what the composers of the past really wanted for their music, we work with live, breathing ones who have very specific instructions. Composers are eager for performers' advice on both instrumental and musical matters, and that gives us the excitement of having a small hand in the creative process. What must it have been like to be a member of the Schuppanzigh Quartet working with Beethoven or the Kolisch Quartet with Bartok!

The stage manager's five-minute call interrupts my thoughts. We gather in the backstage half-light for a final tuning and for our last-minute warm-up rituals. I play a dozen notes up and down my violin for reassurance that my fingers are still attached to my body and are actually in working order. David tunes his cello brusquely, confidently, without further warm-up. Is he saying, "Que sera, sera"? John is more dispassionate. He not only tunes his violin but checks his strings for true intervals at the fifth, sometimes shaking his head when a perfectly new string doesn't behave as he expected. And Michael is an opera singer who makes sure he has those gorgeous viola notes ready for the public, by trying out a few on himself. Even these insignificant roulades are deeply familiar. These men are very well known to me, I can say quite smugly--their tastes, their quirks, their turns of mind. I can even tell you silly things about them that no one may have the slightest interest in hearing. Dave loves Twinkies, Michael dislikes olives, John prefers heavy cream in his coffee. They in turn know, I assume, that I don't care for anchovies. And I know other things--about the beauty of their playing and the power of their communication in the concert hall. These are the qualities that elicit the mutual respect at the heart of a successful string quartet.

The sheer body of knowledge both significant and trilling that we have about one another, these quasi-CIA files, embarrasses me slightly. Meeting by chance in a hotel lobby or at an airport gate, we exchange greetings that can hardly begin to express the sum total of our thousands of hours of experience together. With that "hello" there is sometimes a lowering of the eyes, a slight awkwardness, a mock formality, as if to cover over a not quite natural act. After all, should we be spending more time with each other than with our wives and children? Yet often we must.

Those of us who choose to live and work in this little chamber-music capsule have a stronger need than most to guard our personal lives and keep them private. We draw the curtain somewhat on our families' goings-on, our joys, our sorrows. If I sit with David in an airplane that is carrying us at 35,000 feet to the next concert, we do talk about quartet playing, about the President, about the poor, and about last night's linguini with white clam sauce (overcooked, not enough garlic); but about things of a truly private nature we speak only very guardedly if at all. There is really no need for David to know that my wife and I had a spat the other day over who should take out the garbage.

We continue warming up. The concert is almost upon us.

It is at this moment that I often feel a reflexive regret: if only I had another day, another hour, or even another minute to practice tonight's three masterpieces. Then you would hear something! But time has run out, and a nagging question hangs over the performance about to take place: how well will it go? We have worked hard, individually and collectively, to fashion a cogent and convincing interpretation, but will we be inspired? If one of us decides spontaneously to fly with a new idea during the next two hours--a different coloration, an exotic phrasing detail--will the rest of us be quick enough to understand, respond, and take wing with him? In this pre-concert moment, the fragile connections among four very different people seem palpable. How truly dependent and vulnerable we are! It is not so different from the way rock climbers must feel, roped together, relying on each other to an equally high degree. I exaggerate. Nobody dies in chamber music (as opposed to opera). Nevertheless, as we are about to be joined together in making music, I sense that our relationship, however hard to define, goes far beyond the professional realm. David, John, Michael, and I are not types who look soulfully into one another's eyes and say how much we mean to each other, but we have shared too much experience in the almost three thousand concerts we have played together to be mere business partners or colleagues. Our early struggles for a quartet identity give us a certain war-buddy status. As chamber-music veterans, we occasionally reminisce about those early days, the memories of the hardships now wrapped comfortably in the knowledge of our ongoing survival and success.

But it is on the concert stage where the moments of true intimacy occur. When a performance is in progress, all four of us together enter a zone of magic somewhere between our music stands and become conduit, messenger, and missionary. In playing, say, the cavatina of Opus 130, we join hands to enter Beethoven's world, vividly aware of each other and our objective performance responsibilities, and yet, almost like sleepwalkers, we allow ourselves to slip into the music's spiritual realm. It is an experience too personal to talk about and yet it colors every aspect of our relationship, every good-natured musical confrontation, all the professional gossip, the latest viola joke.

From my position in the wings, I can see a portion of the lit stage. To label the stage a zone of magic sounds poetic, hut it is also our work area. In the next two hours we will expend a significant amount of energy slaving over our instruments. And as people do in every workplace, we have our inside jokes and our private communications, a subtext to the story we spin out onstage. In the heat of performance, we send Morse code out in four directions--ensemble signals, significant glances, even smiles or lifted eyebrows as something goes especially well or perhaps not well at all. Michael rolls his eyes at me because David has not done the planned bowing, John and Michael lock glances as they play an inner-voice passage, second violin and viola in unison, or I look over my music stand at David, intent on following him as he deals with a difficult cello solo, his chin jutting forward with the effort. These visual exchanges are, like spices in a fine dish, necessary and energizing ingredients in our performances.

At the end of the concert, drained and exhausted from the heart-to-heart talk we have just had with an audience of strangers, we gratefully accept their return applause as a thank you. It is considered bad form for musicians to boast about their success or revel in the accolades--The audience went wild when I finished! They adored my playing! Why, I had to give three encores! and so forth. But when at the conclusion of the dazzling fugue that ends Beethoven's Opus 59, no. 3, the audience roars with approval, it is a very good feeling, and it never wears thin. We count our exits and entrances off and on stage as the applause continues. One, two, and, on a good night, three returns to the stage.

[chapter one continues]