The 112th season of Peoples' Symphony Concerts in Manhattan opened tonight with a concert by the Guarneri String Quartet. Well, that was a surprise to me when I showed up. The Guarneri announced their retirement from the concert stage in 2009, and I don't recall seeing any reviews of concerts by them in New York City since then. The publicity for this concert said it was going to feature violinist Pamela Frank "and others". The printed flyer distributed at the concert oddly listed all the musicians with Ms. Frank listed first and did not identify the concert as being by the Guarneri Quartet, although the artist bios indicated that Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree and Peter Wiley had all played with that ensemble, and at the bottom of the flyer, at the head of the list of this season's concerts, tonight's was identified as "Pamela Frank and members of the Guarneri Quartet."
Ms. Frank did not play in the first piece, a Mozart duo for violin and viola (K. 424), performed by Mr. Dalley and Mr. Tree. In the other two pieces, string quintets by Mozart (K.406) and Brahms (Op. 111), Ms. Frank sat in the second violin chair. So, what's going on here?
Frank Salomon, manager of PSC (and also of the Marlboro Festival) announced at the beginning of the concert that this is an important anniversary year for Marlboro – the 60th anniversary – and to commemorate that all of this year's concerts on all three PSC series will be performed by musicians who have participated in the Marlboro Festival at some point in their careers. The Guarneri Quartet was formed at Marlboro in the 1960s. So evidently Salomon enticed them out of "retirement" to mark this occasion.
Was it worth it? I think so, although having retired, they probably haven't been rehearsing together intensively the way they undoubtedly did when they were touring as an ensemble, and so the performances were a bit loose-knit at times, and, truth to tell, I thought intonation was a bit suspect as well, with some near dissonances that did not emanate from the pens of Mozart or Brahms. But the decades of accumulated wisdom and of playing together (there was only one change of membership in the entire 45-year run of the quartet, when the founding cellist passed away ten years ago) informed performances that were full of expressivity and love for the music. The Brahms, in particular, was quite moving in the middle movements and thrilling in the finale.
So, a very special season of PSC is launched, and there are many treats in store. Subscriptions and single tickets are still available for the remaining concerts, and this is one of the great bargains of NYC. And although it was sweltering today in the Washington Irving High School auditorium, things improve as the outside temperature gets cooler, so don't hesitate….