Journal of the American Viola Society, April 1998
Michael Tree, a founding member of and violist with the Guarneri Quartet, is one of the most widely recorded musicians in America. He has more than 80 chamber music recordings to his name and has recorded with Artur Rubinstein, Emmanuel Ax, Isaac Stern, Jaime Laredo, Pinchas Zukerman, and Rudolf Serkin. In August 1997, Les Jacobson, secretary of the Chicago Viola Society, interviewed him at his summer home in Marlboro, Vermont.
Jacobson: Your first teacher was your father, Samuel Applebaum. Tell me about his background.
Tree: My father was a violinist who spent most of his years teaching in New York City. He studied there briefly with Leopold Auer and Franz Kneisel, a well-known German violinist. I believe he was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony at one time.
Jacobson: How did you come to change your name from Applebaum to Tree?
Tree: Ironically, my ancestry is Russian, not German. Applebaum is derived from the name Apfelbaum, which in German means “apple tree.” Later, when I took a professional name, I just shortened and Anglicized it.
Jacobson: Parent-teachers can be difficult, especially when they’re well known and have fairly strict ideas. What was it like to study with your father?
Tree: It wasn’t nearly as formal or as structured as you might think. My father would just pop in and listen to me practice for a few minutes. He taught a great deal at home, so he was constantly able to monitor what I was doing. The lessons took place any time of the day or night when he happened to be free and I was around: sometimes in his studio, sometimes in the kitchen or my bedroom. In other words, it was a very familial situation. I didn’t really have a formal violin lesson until I was 12 years old, and by that time, I had studied at home for seven years.
Jacobson: Which of the great string players did you meet during your father’s interviews?
Tree: My father wrote two series of books, With the Artists and The Way They Play, based on interviews with many great string players. I was lucky enough to have tagged along as a little kid and met the likes of Kreisler, Elman, Zimbalist, Heifetz, and many others. The books profiled just about all of them. I was there for interviews with Heifetz, Piatagorsky, Primrose, Stern, Francescatti, Milstein, and many others.
Jacobson: What was it like to meet Heifetz?
Tree: Absolutely stunning. I remember the moment we knocked on the door of his hotel room in New York City. When Heifetz opened the door, I almost fainted. Even at the age of eight or nine I was aware that meeting him was something extraordinary. I knew all of his recordings and had even heard him perform. My father used to turn pages for all the great players who performed in Newark, where we lived, and I would sit backstage. That’s where we heard Heifetz, as well as Kreisler, Huberman, and Szegeti. I remember taking pictures on my little Brownie camera of my father with Heifetz—he was very gracious. Many of the pictures I took appeared in my father’s books.
Jacobson: Tell me about the great violists you have known.
Tree: I was lucky enough to have known Primrose personally. He taught at Curtis when I was there, so I worked with him in chamber music, although as a violinist, not as a violist. He was a tremendous player, although there weren’t many opportunities to hear him in public because there were few viola recitals then. He was an outstanding spokesman for the viola.
Jacobson: Who has influenced you or impressed you since Primrose?
Tree: Too many to name. There are so many wonderful violists, many of whom are personal friends, I’d have to mention 20 names.
Jacobson: There is the impression that fundamental string training used to be a good deal more rigorous and regimented than it is today. Is that true in your experience?
Tree: My lessons at home were informal; the training was nevertheless rigorous. My father wrote a methods book from which I studied—a good steady diet of basic exercises. I went through a steady diet of all the important methods: Kreutzer, Dont, Sevcik, Rode, and many others, working up to Wieniawski and Paganini. Plus, I had my daily dose of scales. In a sense, it was like military training. I think many of today’s players have returned to that regimen. The old methods books are all transcribed for viola, and I hope students will use them.
Jacobson: When did your formal training begin and what was that like?
Tree: When I was 12, my parents enrolled me in violin lessons at the Curtis Institute. For the very first time in my life, I was expected to play for someone with all the discipline and trimmings of a real violin lesson. The lessons lasted an hour, which was totally new to me.
Jacobson: That must have been a difficult transition for you.
Tree: It was. I had always thought a violin lesson was something that happened between meals or whenever there was a free moment.
Jacobson: And you commuted from Newark to Philadelphia?
Tree: My mother took me. It was right after World War II, and a lot of the students were much older than I was because they were returning from Europe to resume their studies. My first year I studied with Lea Luboshutz. She was a well-known Russian violinist who retired a year later—maybe I had something to do with that.
Jacobson: That seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
Tree: Who knows? I was a pretty unruly kid, never having had the discipline to actually play for a stranger for an hour at a time.
Jacobson: So the transition was difficult for both of you?
Tree: Well, it was for me. She was very outspoken—and she gave me hell. She insisted I practice a great deal and come fully prepared. Also, I had to look presentable because Curtis was, and still is, a very proper, almost nineteenth-century styled conservatory. After a year Efrem Zimbalist became my teacher.
Jacobson: Were you ready for Zimbalist after only a year there?
Tree: He took me under his wing. I guess I represented some sort of challenge and he decided to see what he could do with me. I was very, very lucky because he took a liking to me. He taught me for 10 years.
Jacobson: What was it like working with him?
Tree: Absolutely wonderful. He had studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when Rimsky-Korsakov was director, he had played the Glazunov concerto under Glazunov’s stick, and he knew so many of the great Russian players. Zimbalist was a great player and had a unique ability as a teacher to explore each individual’s needs and personal style of playing. When it came to fingerings and bowings, for example, he was anything but dogmatic. If something didn’t go well, he would try to figure out why; he would come up with a whole new set of ideas and new fingerings. Even with passages that he played a certain way all his life, he was perfectly willing to experiment with new ideas. He taught me a great deal about using extensions and contractions, which I found doubly effective on viola.
Jacobson: Like half position and fourth-finger extensions?
Tree: All fingers. Even today on the viola I like to demonstrate a four-octave arpeggio without a single shift. You might not dream of doing it in a fast passage because it gets very complicated. But it’s a way of demonstrating how supple and rubbery the hand can be and how it can stretch way beyond what we are often taught, thereby avoiding a lot of unnecessary shifting. And that’s particularly applicable to viola playing. These were ideas that were quite revolutionary to me. You almost never find such fingerings in printed editions of the great works, because they reflect the way people played almost a hundred years ago. It was just the norm to slide and shift all over the place without giving much thought to what a glissando should represent within a phrase.
Jacobson: What else did Zimbalist reveal to you during the 10 years you studied with him?
Tree: He was a beautiful musician; he really did put the music first—in his own playing and his own mind. He was very devoted to what he considered the truth—the message of the music. He would become very offended if he thought any of us was just doing cute things: making beautiful effects for the sake of exhibiting our own style, but that didn’t really work.
Jacobson: It was while you were studying with Zimbalist that you first performed at Carnegie Hall. Tell me about that—the reviews were extraordinary.
Tree: I was only 20 years old, so it would have been 1954. Mr. Zimbalist sponsored the concert, even loaned me a beautiful del Gesu fiddle, and arranged the whole thing. Two years later, I again performed a recital at Carnegie Hall, also through his auspices.
Jacobson: At what point did you make the transition to viola, or were you always playing the viola?
Tree: I dabbled with viola playing. There was a policy at Curtis—and I think it was a very good one—that every violinist had to play the viola. For one year we studied the viola as our principal secondary instrument. At that time Max Aronoff, the violist with the original Curtis String Quartet, taught viola. He was a wonderful player and teacher. So I received a smattering of viola technique and repertoire from him.
Jacobson: You weren’t taking it seriously at that point?
Tree: I loved it, but I didn’t really appreciate it. Some years later I was asked by Rudolf Serkin to play a recital with him in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum. One of the three works of the program happened to be the Mozart trio for clarinet, viola, and piano. The two other works were the Brahms horn trio and the Beethoven piano trio, both of which had sizable violin parts. The Mozart trio came in the middle of these three works, and I didn’t even own a viola! Mrs. Serkin kindly loaned me the viola, a beautiful J.B. Guadagnini that had belonged to her father, Adolf Busch. I found myself playing this very beautiful, demanding work with soloistic parts for all three players. I had to play the opening Beethoven trio, the opus 1, no. 1, then grab the viola backstage between bows, then walk out with the viola without even having played a note on it. In other words, I was taught in a hurry not to make too much fuss about transitions from one instrument to the other.
Jacobson: I thought Pinchas Zuckerman had made that point moot because he switches so frequently, even within a single program. But maybe before him it was considered more of a challenge.
Tree: Well, of course Pinky is a superb violist. But Kreisler played the viola. He and Zimbalist often played the Sinfonia Concertante in public. Menuhin recorded the Walton Viola Concerto at the same time he recorded the fiddle concerto. The list goes on—so it’s not as unusual as we think.
Jacobson: When and how did you make a permanent switch to viola?
Tree: After that experience I rarely played the viola until the Guarneri Quartet was formed. It happened one fine day in 1965 when we all sort of came together at Marlboro. We had known each other as players, but we were basically three violinists (Tree, Arnold Steinhardt, and John Dalley) and a cellist (David Soyer). Obviously, one of us had to make the switch. I practically insisted on being given the chance to play the viola because it was a challenge: another voice, something I had never done. I have to admit that nobody in their right mind would have given us the odds for staying together more than a year or two because that’s the way most quartets seem to operate. I guess we were all known to be pretty opinionated and headstrong as players; I think people were actually taking bets on how long it would last. Well, thirty-three years later we’re still the same four guys, and when people ask us how that happened, we can’t quite understand it ourselves.
Jacobson: Personal chemistry, perhaps?
Tree: That, and the fact that we all came from more or less the same background. We had all studied at Curtis together (the three violinists), we had been friends, and we had played together in many other configurations. The cellist was older than we were, but he and I had formed a piano trio some years before—the Marlboro Trio—and had toured together. By the time the four of us decided to form a quartet, we had a lot of encouragement from people like Sasha and Mischa Schneider from the Budapest Quartet, Casals, Serkin, Felix Galimar, and a host of other players—all of whom took a friendly, almost paternal interest in us.
Jacobson: So you had to learn the whole chamber music repertoire on the viola?
Tree: Absolutely. And at the time I didn’t even own a viola. For two or three years I just borrowed instruments from anyone who would be good enough to loan me one. A number of people came forward, including Boris Kroyt of the Budapest Quartet, who loaned me a very lovely 18th-century Venetian viola by Deconet, which he played.
Jacobson: When did you find a permanent instrument?
Tree: Two or three years later I happened to be visiting the Française shop in New York City, and the instrument of my dreams was there. It’s been my instrument ever since. It’s a Dominicus Busan, also Venetian from the 18th century. It’s 17 and 1/8 inches and very broad across the shoulders.
Jacobson: You’re not very tall. How do you manage a 17-inch viola?
Tree: The stock answer would be “with great difficulty.” But going back to the idea of extension fingerings, for example, I had to rearrange my thinking and apply some of the principles I learned early in my career about contractions and extensions, only much more so. Primrose used to talk about being in many positions at once, with the hand moving back and forth.
Jacobson: The mind has to be pliable, too. I think a lot of people grow up with shifting as a fixed motion or mechanism and it’s hard for them to adjust.
Tree: Absolutely. At first, many of my students complain that they miss the sense of knowing where they are, of being in one position at a time, even if it means moving the hand up and back a number of times. They say intonation can suffer as a result. Well, they may be right, but it’s still a much more efficient and scientific way of playing, and best of all, it cleans up the brain in such a way as to enable a glissando, in its rightful place, to be much more effective. It’s not cluttered, or surrounded by a lot of unnecessary shifts and slides.
Jacobson: You never had physical problems with a viola that big?
Jacobson: Tell me about the quartet’s early years. At what point did it begin to feel like a permanent fixture?
Tree: Actually, we never gave one thought to the future. To this day we’ve never discussed objectives or long-range plans. The best thing that happened to us was that right away we were simply too busy to worry or agonize over what to do in the future.
Jacobson: Were you receiving many bookings?
Tree: Right away. And we were lucky: sight unseen, or unheard as it were, we were given a position at the State University of New York in Binghamton.
Jacobson: As the resident string quartet?
Tree: In a way. That first year we played 15 different programs, for a total of about 45 quartet pieces. And each visit was accompanied by a master class or open rehearsals—in other words, a weekend of activity. I don’t mind telling you the total salary for the quartet that year was $10,000: $2,500 a man. And we broke our backs learning all that material! Imagine playing 45 quartets in your first season. Traditionally, string quartets are supposed to mature over a long period of study and research. But our backs were against the wall from the first day we began rehearsing. We didn’t even have a name, and we had to get publicity out right away. Actually, it was Boris Kroyt who asked us to consider the name, because he had played in a quartet called the Guarneri in Germany between the wars. It was apparently a good quartet.
Jacobson: It sounds like a blessing in disguise that you had to learn all this material right away because it gave you a tremendous foundation.
Tree: I’ll tell you one thing: it taught us how to get things done. We used to talk too much and theorize and argue and discuss. We found out the best way to circumvent all the unnecessary chatter was simply to play. And you know rehearsal technique is damned important—it’s hard to teach. The tendency and the temptation during rehearsal is to just sound off, to spout beautiful theories and ideas. We simply did not have that luxury, and it may have been the best thing that happened to us.
Jacobson: What about democracy within a quartet? Are you, in effect, four equals? If so, how do you resolve your differences?
Tree: There is a lot of discussion within the quartet. But there is no single dominant personality. I’ve never understood the attitude of quartets who seem to gravitate toward one single player. I’ve always taken the position that any quartet with a leader will play that way. We have four leaders that can share leadership as the music dictates, because it’s all in the music. An early Haydn quartet will have more of the melodic material played by the first violin, but once you go beyond that and play Mozart and Beethoven, then Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and certainly into the 20th century, the idea of a leader is anathema to good playing.
Jacobson: What is the quartet’s current status? Are you busy as ever, or are you planning to cut back?
Tree: We’re still quite busy, and we have a very full season ahead. This year we’ll travel to the Orient, South America, Europe, and within the U.S. We’ll play 60 or 70 concerts. And because we take the summer off, we’re squeezing all that, plus teaching, recording, and rehearsing, into nine months. In addition, we just recorded two Schubert quartets: Death and the Maiden and his quartet in A minor. We also recorded Mendelssohn’s octet with the Orion Quartet and his quartet in D major. In the winter, we’re going to record the Verdi Quartet and the Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky.
Jacobson: You’ve recorded more than 80 chamber works, inside and outside the quartet. What are some of your favorite recordings?
Tree: You’ve got me there. I have a terrible time with recordings. Frankly, I don’t listen to them. When we record a piece, I take the view that it represents a single day’s work. And it might not even be the way we would play that same work a week later. In other words, there’s nothing definitive about a recording. I’m not even sure I’d enjoy listening to any of mine. When I have the time, I’d much rather listen to symphonies, operas, folk music, jazz, or a particular passion of mine at the moment, tangos. But not string quartets. Sometimes it can be a little embarrassing because I’ll turn the radio on in the car and hear one of our quartets and be fooled.
Jacobson: You don’t recognize your own playing?
Tree: No. Many of these recordings were made 20, even 30 years ago, and we just don’t play that way any more.
Jacobson: How has your playing changed?
Tree: It’s really unsafe to generalize. In some cases we play a little slower, but then again we might play a little faster. And these decisions might not even be deliberate. But you know, we’re not the same people we were 30 years ago, and certainly our playing has changed. It’s hard to verbalize. Perhaps, we’re a little freer and we’re not quite as obsessed as we were in the early years—when we had something to prove—with sounding “good” as a quartet. On the other hand, that’s a dangerous statement to make because it may imply that our ensemble is a little looser now, and I don’t mean that at all. Somehow when you play a great work many times, you are certainly more comfortable with it, or should be.
Jacobson: What are your favorite quartet pieces to play?
Tree: That’s tough. I’d like to think whatever we’re playing at the moment is our favorite, because we play only works we enjoy.
Jacobson: Yes, but pursuing the proverbial desert island question: Which Beethoven quartet would you pick if you could listen to only one?
Tree: At this very moment the “Harp” quartet. But in 10 minutes I might change my mind.
Jacobson: How about Shostakovich? Have you played all the 15 quartets?
Tree: Oh no. I have to admit we have a little bit of discussion within the quartet on that topic—I was about to say disagreement. We like some Shostakovich quartets better than others. We’ve played the Seventh and the Eighth, and of course the Piano Quintet, and even some wonderful pieces for string octet that are rarely performed.
Jacobson: Does that suggest there are certain Shostakovich pieces you wouldn’t play?
Tree: I’m afraid so. We’ve had some problems programming some of the other Shostakovich quartets, and we may never play them.
Jacobson: How about the Bartok six?
Tree: All six are masterful. We love them and we play them all. I guess the Sixth is a monumental summing up, like Beethoven’s opus 131.
Jacobson: You were raised in a teaching household, went to a great conservatory, and you studied under great teachers. Now that you’ve been teaching all these years, what can you tell me about your teaching career as a complement to your playing career?
Tree: Obviously, I enjoy it very much. I teach at the Curtis Institute, where we have a small and very select student body of about 150. I’m very grateful for everything Curtis has done for me, so I’m very much in love with the school. The entire atmosphere there is conducive to learning and very family-like. I also teach at the Manhattan School in New York City, Rutgers University and the University of Maryland.
Jacobson: What advice do you give violists in a student string quartet?
Tree: I find that many young violists, even in fine quartets, have to learn to project more. They have more responsibility to cut through and be heard through the layers of sound on either side—it’s something that isn’t always very strategic. I find that many violists in quartets use fingerings that don’t cut through, often because they go into the higher positions thinking they might sound warmer, more expressive, or louder, and that’s not the case. The lower positions and open strings can often project better. When players go into the third, fourth, and fifth positions in singing passages, they’re actually going into the softer register of the instrument.
Jacobson: How do you compare today’s students with those of 20 or 30 years ago?
Tree: They’ve certainly changed in appearance! After just listening to several weeks of concerts here at the Marlboro Festival, I have to say some of the students are just incredible; the level of playing has never been higher. There will always be standouts, but in addition, the overall level of playing is as high or higher than it’s ever been.
Jacobson: It’s fashionable to criticize today’s young players as sounding alike and somewhat mechanical, so that they don’t stand out from one another the way the older virtuosi did. Is that accurate?
Tree: I can understand the point of view because competitions have created a need to conform and to remain uncontroversial. It’s something I’m not very happy about. I don’t prohibit or discourage my students from entering competitions, but I don’t ask them to. The reality is that competitions do help some players gain prominence.
Jacobson: Has your approach to teaching changed over the years?
Tree: Someone said teaching is the art of assisting discovery—I truly believe that. We have to help young players discover their own potential and styles of playing rather than imposing on them what we would do. Every player is different—every anatomy is different. I would never ask a player simply to copy down the fingerings or bowings I use, even though that is an accepted method of teaching elsewhere. And whenever I do suggest something, I always encourage students to challenge me.
Jacobson: What about the status of the viola today, versus a generation ago?
Tree: The instrument was essentially ignored for years because the opportunities were so limited. You had to make a career playing Harold, Telemann, the Brahms sonatas, or the Bach suites, and that’s just not enough—as great as that music is, it’s not going to keep young players interested very long. But today there are many great works: the Walton and Bartok Concertos, the Shostakovich Sonata, Hindemith, and others. Many of the wonderful composers are writing big viola pieces. And a whole army of wonderful young violists is coming up, many of whom started on the viola, which is an interesting departure: it shows how far the viola has come in popularity.
Jacobson: Why is that?
Tree: It’s something that had to happen. The quality of the sound is so agreeable to people. It’s the closest sound to the human voice of any string instrument. And I think we’ve heard enough of the pyrotechnics of the great violin concertos, which have been played and recorded so many times. Today people are interested in sounds that were, until a few years ago, rather unfamiliar.