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Balancing Act

Remembering Robert Mann

By Sasha Margolis

The visionary violinist passed away earlier this year, having left an indelible mark on the world of chamber music.

On January 1st of this year, Robert Mann died, and the world of chamber music lost one of its great performers, teachers, and inspiring forces. For over fifty years, until his retirement in 1997, Mann traveled the world as first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, playing works of Beethoven, Bartók, and an ever-lengthening list of American composers, while mentoring a growing flock of young quartets. He was young himself, only twenty-six, when in 1946 he founded his own quartet at the request of Juilliard School president William Schuman.

Born in 1920, Mann spent his boyhood in Oregon fishing and hiking, dreaming of one day becoming a forest ranger. He began the violin at age 9, and by 13 his natural aptitude for the instrument brought him to the studio of Portland Symphony concertmaster Edouard Hurliman, who pushed Mann—then a reluctant student—to take his studies seriously. As he later admitted in the 2013 documentary “Speak the Music”: “I would come not having practiced more than fifteen minutes a day. He’d listen for about five minutes, and say, ‘Okay Bobby, go home, and when you’ve practiced enough call me.’”

Mann entered Juilliard at eighteen, and two years later—just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—won the Naumburg prize. The rest of his life was devoted to chamber music, but he never lost his early love for sleeping outdoors and climbing mountains, a passion deeply intertwined with his energy and adventurousness as a musician. Mann sometimes told the story of a boyhood hike down Oregon’s slippery seaside cliffs to watch the surf: “I noticed a rhythm, a growth of waves, and then it would subside again, from quiet tranquility to enormous intensity. I think it taught me what the slow growth of musical intensity meant.”

This dichotomy between tranquility and intensity was one of several that characterized Mann’s music-making. The Juilliard was famous for its sometimes rough, vigorous playing, and Joel Krosnick, the quartet’s cellist from 1974-2016, notes that “Bobby was bursting with energy and not necessarily going to be elegant, not necessarily going to be subtle. Yet,” he says, “sometimes he would sing in such a way as to drive you to tears.” Samuel Rhodes, violist from 1969-2013, elaborates: “When he played a melody like the Cavatina from Op.130, or Op.135, the depth that Beethoven imagined when he wrote that, he could get that. And on the other side of it, at the end of Op.59, no. 3, when it comes hurtling down like a ski jump, he’d go as fast as possible, almost out of control and falling over—but not quite.”

The Juilliard with Mann were rigorous rehearsers, and constant performers. Mann, explains Krosnick, “was interested in the vividness and vigor of thought that would come from careful study, trying to get inside a composer’s thoughts and wishes, and then in letting one’s passion ride and see where it went. So the audience was getting the care that Robert Mann brought to the thought process, and the wonderful irrational spontaneity that he wanted at the same time, that transcended the thought.”

This is not to imply that rehearsals were lacking in passion, either. “He was interested,” says Krosnick, “in where the provocation of disagreement or of intense discussion would lead. In the Juilliard quartet, the musical polarities and emotional polarities were used to enrich the fabric.” Even brand-new quartet members were encouraged to be vocal. “He’d say, ‘Come on, run the rehearsal.’ He wanted to know, what did you think? And then he’d fight with you.”

If Mann relished disagreement, he was also open-minded. Krosnick tells of rehearsing Schoenberg’s String Trio with Mann and Rhodes: “We started out miles apart, Sam and I playing much faster than Bobby was. He said, ‘No, how can you play it that fast?’ We had these incredible arguments. And there was this wonderful moment, in a hotel room, where Bobby turned to us and said, ‘What am I doing on this side of the argument? Let’s play it your way.’ And we all burst out laughing.”

Roscoe Mitchell and Craig Taiborn at MCA Chicago

The Julliard String Quartet in 1952.

Mann didn’t just enjoy a healthy argument with his colleagues; he was in constant dialogue with himself. “He was always, in his own playing, looking for different ways of doing things,” says Rhodes. “He would never be satisfied or sit still with it.” Joel Smirnoff, the Juilliard’s second violinist from 1986-97, and Mann’s successor as first, amplifies the point: “He never could sit. Wasted time to him was a crime. What he understood deeply about life was that time is the most precious thing we’re given, and we better use it well.”

But as the Brentano Quartet’s Mark Steinberg learned firsthand, Mann’s constant searching wasn’t directed toward any ultimate answers. Steinberg, who spent three years under Mann’s wing studying both violin and quartet, describes how one lesson on a Beethoven sonata left him feeling uncertain and discouraged—and with a recital looming. “I called him up and said, ‘I’m going to take that off the program.’ He was so upset. He said, ‘That is completely the wrong decision. It has nothing to do with doing it right, or trying to find how it’s supposed to be. When you get up to play a concert, you’re presenting what is your relationship with the piece right now—what you’re struggling with, what you’re trying to make sense of. And that’s all it ever is. The idea of waiting until you get it—that there’s something to be gotten as a final product—is completely misguided.’”

Mann’s searching attitude extended to repertoire. During his years in the Juilliard, the quartet premiered works by Carter, Wolpe, Sessions, and a seemingly endless list of others. And Mann was a passionate advocate: Krosnick relates that, after a performance of Sessions’ Second Quartet, “some crank came backstage and said ‘I suppose you know that everybody hates that piece you played.’ Bobby was putting his violin away, and he said, ‘No, we don’t know that—and now, get out!’”

Robert Mann’s passion and energy, his identity as a man of action in a stereotypically sedentary profession, had a profound impact on the chamber music world. Smirnoff believes that Mann’s example “meant a lot to a lot of people. He set an example that was so compelling, and that made playing chamber music into such an adventure, instead of something quaint, something pretty, something harmonious. Chamber music, which had been played by older people and amateurs—and everyone thought it was very nice—all of a sudden it became a very dramatic enterprise, on which a lot depended.” Steinberg agrees: “What the string quartet is right now—as an institution, and as a potential for finding something beautiful and truthful in the world—has a lot to do with him. We’re all better for it.”

Sasha Margolis is a violinist and co-leader of the crossover chamber ensemble Big Galut(e). He has published a novel, The Tsimbalist, and written for Strings and Opera America magazines.

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