News & Features » Miscellany

The Guarneri, the world's longest-running string quartet, readies for some big changes.

The End of an Era

The Guarneri String Quartet
VCU Performing Arts Center
Oct. 2
8 p.m.

The Guarneri is the oldest extant string quartet with all of its original members, the longest continuing artistic collaboration of any quartet in the world.

The fact that the Guarneri has survived 36 years without one personnel change lends the group a venerability that elevates or even deifies the group among musicians — they are the Rolling Stones of the chamber music universe. However, Oct. 2 will be the final opportunity for Richmonders to see this quartet at home with all of its original members as they open VCU's Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concert series. After the 1999-2000 season, cellist David Soyer will no longer travel with his colleagues outside the Northeast, although he will presumably still record with the group.

Soyer is far from a household name, but, having studied with both Pablo Casals and Emanuel Feuerman, he is one of the most important cellists of our era. Bespectacled, broad-shouldered, and bearlike, Soyer hunches over his cello protectively. He is one of the few men who make a cello look small.

A scene in Allan Miller's 1989 documentary "High Fidelity" shows Soyer perched atop a tractor tending to his large garden, exploding the notion that classical musicians lead rarefied lives, forever stuffed into tuxedos.

He served in the Navy, played in the CBS house band for both "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Jackie Gleason Show," and did session work on albums for Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. He has had a long career, and the Guarneri's grueling travel schedule had to take its toll eventually.

According to Seth Malasky, the group's manager, this season is not a farewell tour. Audiences from Boston to Washington will probably not even take note of the shift in the quartet's composition. But if Richmond is lucky enough to land the Guarneri in future years, we will be confronted with the personnel change. Cellist Peter Wiley will take Soyer's place on the road beginning in the 2000-2001 season. Wiley was a member of the Beaux Art Trio for 11 years, and won the appointment of principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony at the age of 20. Most fittingly, he studied with Soyer at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and has been a frequent collaborator with the Guarneri.

It seems like an unusual arrangement for a string quartet to have, essentially, two cellists. But perhaps this accommodation should not be unexpected for a group with such longevity, outlasting all of its competition with a philosophy that compromise is necessary and that personal circumstances shouldn't get in the way of the music-making.

The quartet's famously curmudgeonly personalities are illuminated in the "High Fidelity" documentary, which threw open the doors to their rehearsals and exposed the foursome as contentious and opinionated, but charmingly so.

The film demonstrates the intense closeness necessitated by their work arrangement — as one member notes, "We probably spend more hours per year with each other than with our families," — and in fact, the members bicker and squabble like an old married couple that would never, ever consider divorce.

During the Oct. 2 Richmond concert, the Guarneri will be performing quartets by Kodaly, Schumann, and one of the six quartets Mozart dedicated to Haydn. A contemporary of Mozart called these pieces "a mine of precious thoughts [and]...models of composition. ... Everything ... has been carefully thought out and perfected."

The same could be said about a performance by the

Add a comment