David Soyer, 87

David Soyer, Guarneri Quartet cellist and founder, dies

Cellist Peter Wiley, left, violist Michael Tree and cellist David Soyer of the Guarneri Quartet play in 2001. The classical music group began in 1964, and Soyer retired in 2002.
Cellist Peter Wiley, left, violist Michael Tree and cellist David Soyer of the Guarneri Quartet play in 2001. The classical music group began in 1964, and Soyer retired in 2002. (Shawn Baldwin/associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

David Soyer, the cellist who was a founding member and anchor of the acclaimed Guarneri Quartet and a fixture at the prestigious Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont, died Feb. 25 at his home in New York, the day after his 87th birthday. He had congestive heart failure.

Although best remembered for his work with the Guarneri, Mr. Soyer, the quartet's eldest member, put in his time in the freelance trenches of New York before the group formed in 1964.

He supplemented his solo appearances with stints ranging from playing in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini to performing in the studio band on the first-ever "Ed Sullivan Show." He played with pianist-singer Nat "King" Cole, backed jazz singer Billie Holliday on her final major album and soloed on folk singer Joan Baez's 1964 recording of Heitor Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 -- Aria."

And he made plenty of recordings of commercial jingles and other banalities. In the Guarneri Quartet's first years, when its members found themselves in airport terminals surrounded by a stream of canned music, Mr. Soyer's colleagues loved to tease him by asking whether he had participated in whatever cheesy recording they were being subjected to. Not infrequently, he had.

Mr. Soyer's powerful cello was for 37 years the firm foundation of the sound of the Guarneri, which retained its original personnel for longer than any other major string quartet. After Mr. Soyer's retirement in 2002, he was replaced by Peter Wiley, one of his students. In its day, the Guarneri was regarded as the finest classical quartet in the world, a union of four expressive individuals who each had something distinctive to say.

Mr. Soyer's influence was also transmitted through teaching at Marlboro, the Curtis Institute in his native Philadelphia, and the Juilliard and Manhattan schools of music. The Guarneri also had a long-standing residency at the University of Maryland in College Park. He was teaching, with the help of oxygen tanks, until a few weeks before his death.

The early years

David Seth Soyer was born Feb. 24, 1923, to a non-musical family. He was a cousin of the late Raphael Soyer's, best known for his painting in the American social realist style.

After starting piano lessons at 9, David Soyer came to the cello at the relatively late age of 11. His family moved to New York, where he worked with Diran Alexanian, a colleague of the celebrated cellist Pablo Casals's, and then with the great Emanuel Feuermann.

"He had some cute little tricks such as hitting a student on the head with his bow and then laughing," Mr. Soyer said of Feuermann in the book "The Art of Quartet Playing." "On more than one occasion, I was rapped smartly on the skull. But in the main I got along with him."

During World War II, Mr. Soyer played the euphonium with the Navy Band in Washington before returning to New York. In 1946, he married pianist Marcia Fromkin, and they had two sons before divorcing. He is survived by his wife, harpist Janet Putnam, whom he married in 1957; his sons, Daniel Soyer of Needham, Mass., and Jeffrey Soyer of Fairlee, Vt.; a sister; and two granddaughters.

'Awesome foursome'

Mr. Soyer came to Marlboro in 1961 at the behest of pianist Rudolf Serkin, one of the school's co-founders, and violinist Felix Galimir. There, he met Casals, who became another friend and mentor. After Casals died in 1973, Mr. Soyer played Casals's cello for a couple of years.

In 1964, violinist Alexander Schneider urged Mr. Soyer and three other musicians -- violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley and violist Michael Tree -- to take the plunge and form an official quartet.

Upon hearing the group in 1964, New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg called it "awesome foursome" and wrote that "a very important string quartet is on its way."

The Guarneri quickly established itself as one of the leading American quartets in a European-dominated field and reigned virtually unchallenged for decades. The quartet signed a record deal, started a regular series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and recorded with pianist Artur Rubinstein.

The Guarneri came to be noted for its unusual stability and longevity. It was the subject of three books and a documentary film by Allan Miller, "High Fidelity," which came out in 1989. Such portraits didn't always reveal total harmony: On tour, the members of the quartet traveled independently and booked hotel rooms on separate floors.

"To be a performer, you have to be somewhat neurotic," Mr. Soyer said in the film, although he appeared to be one of the group's most phlegmatic members.

Mr. Soyer continued to maintain an active teaching schedule and to return to Marlboro every summer.

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