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Remembering David Soyer: A Beloved Friend and Colleague

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The Juilliard community and the whole music world were greatly saddened to learn of the tragic passing of David Soyer on February 25, 2010, one day after his 87th birthday. David, my dear friend and colleague for many, many years, was a beloved member of our cello faculty since 2003. His long and distinguished career involved just about every kind of experience that a performing artist could have.

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He was respected as a soloist, had a variety of orchestral experience, was one of the most sought after cello teachers, and foremost of all, was one of the elite chamber music artists of our time. He was a founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet and gave it, as he is quoted as saying, its “base and bass” for 37 years. No one who heard the group perform during that period of time could ever possibly forget the compelling quality of his music making as he provided the strong underpinning that anchored the quartet. No less memorable was the beautifully animated quality of his sound as he spun out a high melodic line.

David’s complete commitment to the Marlboro Music Festival was certainly a very important part of his life. He was invited by Rudolf Serkin to take part in the festival in the summer of 1961 as a senior member. This invitation put him into a very special category, which included Mr. Serkin, Pablo Casals, Marcel Moyse, Felix Galimir, Madeline Foley, and three of the four members of the Budapest String Quartet: Alexander Schneider, Mischa Schneider, and Boris Kroyt. Artists of that caliber, along with a stellar group of young musicians, unquestionably made the ’60s the “Golden Age” of Marlboro.

I was a young student who had the supreme honor of being invited the year before David, and it was at Marlboro that I met him for the first time. In those years, Pablo Casals would conduct master classes at which many of the cellists would play. I remember vividly when David played the complete Bach Sixth Suite at one of these classes. I was tremendously impressed by hearing someone who played with such beauty, commitment, and complete technical command. I wondered what Maestro Casals would be able to say and truly there was not very much he could suggest to him.

David was a major participant in Marlboro from then onward, taking part in the festival from 1961 to 1964. The Guarneri Quartet was conceived there during this time as David joined with three remarkable young artists, Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, and Michael Tree. The early successes of the quartet took him away from the festival for a number of summers. When he returned in 1979, he gave his time and devotion to the service of Marlboro from then on until this past summer. He and his lovely wife, Janet, had bought a house nearby and spent as much time there as they could. They were a great couple, devoted to each other for more than 52 years. I had the honor of performing with David many times, both inside and outside of Marlboro. 

Integrity was the watchword of David’s musical life. For him, both the teaching and the rehearsal processes were concrete, not abstract. One dealt with real technical or ensemble issues, refining accents and making dynamics more precise. Emotion was certainly important and could be discussed, but if you got embroiled in philosophical debates or poetic reveries you would be silenced fast. If he suspected that you were guilty of employing string-playing clichés such as sliding around to draw attention to yourself, you would be out on your ear very quickly. If you came to a lesson not well prepared and tried to fake your way through—watch out—you would not be long in David’s world! If, however, you were willing to accept the vast amount he had to offer, you would benefit from the deep humanity that underlined every suggestion that he made.

David was a welcome addition to the Juilliard faculty in 2003. I cherish the times during lunch breaks when I would meet him in the faculty lounge and he would tell stories drawn from his extensive musical background. It was the ideal way to relax after a hard rehearsal. His students and colleagues here at Juilliard will sorely miss his presence. This summer at Marlboro there will be a huge, painful, gaping hole as we struggle in vain to fill the void where his footsteps still resound.

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