Your Cart UMS

Heroes on Speed-Dial

Editor’s note: Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet perform on October 5, 2017. In this post for UMS, Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet, interviews the Emerson Quartet’s Lawrence Dutton and the Calidore Quartet’s Ryan Meehan on the essential tradition of mentorship.

“Who was your teacher?” It’s one of those inescapable questions every professional musician is asked regularly, in addition to, “How much did your instrument cost?,” “How old were you when you started playing?,” and “Are you sure that’s going to fit in the overhead compartment?”

The more revealing query is, “Who is/was your mentor?”

A mentor is more than a pedagogue who spends an hour a week admonishing you for johnny-come-lately intonation or taser-style vibrato. He/she is that favorited contact you keep on speed dial and don’t think twice before ringing at 11 pm to post-mortem a particularly messy break-up. Figuratively, or maybe-this-actually-happened-in-real-life-to-definitely-positively-not-me.

Mentors are proxy-parents, they are sometimes cautionary tales, they are facilitators that materialize opportunities that a young musician may never have had access to, regardless of talent. This business is not a meritocracy, and while diligence and perseverance are necessities, not all worthy talents make the cut without the shepherding and generosity of a mentor.

During my undergrad years, I was stagnating with a teacher with whom, as a first-generation musician, I didn’t have the knowledge or worldview to know to leave. As luck would have it, another university snatched him up and violist luminary Donald McInnes was flown in every other week from the University of Southern California to cover the transition. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that without his persistent and sometimes merciless provocations during lessons, the doors he opened, or the empathetic and collegial martinis at his home — just talking about life — I would not be the musician I am today.

Mentorship is essential, and as it turns out, not the easiest concept to define. I made calls to violist Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson Quartet and violinist Ryan Meehan of the Calidore Quartet, to try and tease out what makes this relationship so vital in this crazy show-business of the string quartet.

LAWRENCE DUTTON (Emerson String Quartet)

Emerson String Quartet. Photo by Lisa Mazzucco.

DA: What drew me to your concert was one word from the UMS concert blurb: “mentor.” It’s a word that has always resonated for me. What is the difference between a teacher and a mentor?

LD: I think you have to look at the context of our role in the history of string quartets. Mentoring has been a part of that process for a very long time. You could look at the Guarneri Quartet, and their mentors were, of course, the Budapest Quartet. For us, our mentors were the Juilliard Quartet, mainly. It happens because it needs to happen. It’s like luthiers — they need mentors.

A mentor can be a teacher too. It’s a combination of the two. There’s no question about that.

Probably one of the most important mentors to the Emerson Quartet was Oscar Shumsky, who Gene and Phil studied with. I did everything I could to be in his presence, like playing in a small chamber orchestra that he was conducting, or going to his recitals. This is the early 1970s, so I’m really dating myself. Shumsky was a mentor to all of us. He’s one of the primary reasons the Emerson Quartet exists! We looked up to him. We wanted to play like that.

Teaching is by definition something on a weekly basis. You can be a teacher and not a mentor. I think you can only mentor when you have people that want something very much and have the talent to try and follow in your footsteps.

DA: When I think of my mentor, I think of someone for whom the distance that exists in a teaching relationship narrows — something that becomes personal. Also, someone who created opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to because I showed my own motivation.

LD: I would say that’s true. We’ve worked with the Calidore Quartet for several years now and they’ve had unbelievable success. That’s their doing, not ours, but we’ve done our best to help them, for instance by inviting them to play with us, as we’re doing at UMS.

DA: Is it the kind of thing where mentee texts you out of the blue to ask about something other than how to play a high ‘F’ in a Beethoven quartet?

LD: Without question. We’re happy to give our perspective and experience, because that’s what we have.

DA: In terms of taking on that more hands-on approach, is that something you feel internally compelled to do?

LD: It’s the natural order of things. These groups are showing immense promise and desire, and we want to do everything we can to push them and support their career. This is not a large pool we’re talking about — you have to have something special to be out there performing. It’s never been exactly easy (laughs). There have been plenty of people that have tried, and I know we’ve been very fortunate, but nobody really knows how you make it. If it was simple, everyone would be doing it.

DA: These opportunities don’t just materialize. You’ve gotten that person’s attention because you’re doing the work.

LD: Right. Peter Mennin [then President of Juilliard], Alice Tully, Bobby Mann [Juilliard Quartet], David Soyer [Guarneri Quartet], Felix Galimir, Walter Trampler — they were all big friends and fans, and we had that kind of relationship.

DA: When did you realize that Calidore was the kind of group we’re talking about — one you wanted to mentor?

LD: When we first heard them, we were like, “Wow, they have real personality and something to say about the music!” They were already distinguishing themselves.

DA: When it comes down to musical mentorship, how do you make room for your mentee’s own vision for a piece of music?

LD: On the level of Calidore, I find myself thinking, “I wouldn’t do it that way myself, but that is really working.” There’s no end to interpretation, otherwise there would only be one string quartet out there!

DA: Does mentorship need to be nimble, given how different the business is now from when Emerson was coming up?

LD: It’s challenging for us to even comprehend how it’s changed. I think that young quartets today have to reinvent themselves to accommodate the needs of what’s out there. Think about the fact that it wasn’t until the Guarneri Quartet in 1965 that a string quartet could make a living without a residency. Emerson came on the scene at the start of the digital age, and we got on the CD bandwagon. It’s a very short history, and we lose that perspective. There were guys in the Cleveland Orchestra that were driving cabs in the 1950s.

DA: Calidore has really rocketed into a prominent place in the chamber music world. As a mentor, is there any cautionary advice that you find yourself offering them?

LD: Well, yeah. Our career was not a skyrocket — it took a while. We only got to Europe in 1983. It was another four years before we signed with Deutsche Grammophon. It was a process, and there is no way to escape that. You’re in it for the long term.

RYAN MEEHAN (Calidore Quartet)

Calidore String Quartet. Photo by Sophie Zhai.

DA: For you, what is the delineation between a teacher and a mentor?

RM: I guess they can go hand-in-hand, and I think a teacher is almost always a mentor…at least all the music teachers I’ve had. Mentorship is about the bigger picture — goals, advice, and wisdom. They’re someone you can turn to for extra-musical help, whether that be business or personal. Teaching is the exchange of musical ideas. The Emersons have certainly been both to us. They really treat us like they do each other. There’s never the feeling that we’re the students and they’re the teachers, which is really inspiring for us. We’ve had many meals with them on the road, which have been some of my favorite memories of my life, actually. I mean, here are these people that I worshipped on recordings and on stage for so many years…and now I’m riding home with them in the car. That’s mentorship.

DA: Do you ever find yourself sending a late-night text to one of them, like, “Oh crap this thing just happened, what do I do?”

RM: We’re all very comfortable reaching out to any of them. For instance, we know we’ll always get an extremely thoughtful and thorough response from Gene to the most seemingly mundane question we might ask. Larry and Paul — actually all of them — have this insanely humorous side. Phil really considers teaching as important as performing, and he will be the one that will help us focus in on what we need to consider next in a piece.

DA: What’s an example of something non-musical that you’ve asked these guys about?

RM: Everything from the business, like, “Should we have a publicist?” Even these concerts that we’re playing with them — that was their idea and we were like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you would do that for us!”

DA: So paint the picture for me, how did this all get started?

RM: We were at the Colburn School [in Los Angeles] and we said, we’re leaving here next year and we’re not sure what we’re doing. Five days later we got a call from the head of Stony Brook University, saying [former Emerson cellist] David Finckel had recommended us for a position studying with the Emersons and teaching the undergrads. We were dumbfounded! To be mentored by the Emersons? We had to say yes. We hadn’t met them as a group yet, but I remember that summer I went to Aspen [Music Festival] to visit, and I went backstage after their concert and said, “Hi, I’m Ryan.” They said, “Nice to meet you.” Then I said, “I’m in the Calidore Quartet and we’re looking forward to meeting you in the fall,” and then all of them immediately gave me a big hug, and it felt like we’d known each other a long time.

DA: One of the things that fascinates me about mentorship is that there is, by necessity, a generation gap. The game is different now than it was for the Emerson Quartet. How do you see them navigating those differences when they offer advice?

RM: Some things are the same. Certain etiquette, like that you should be the last people to leave the post-concert reception.

DA: Also, don’t be a jerk.

RM: Yeah. People don’t want to work with jerks. All these insider tips that are relevant to a performing ensemble today are ones they can impart to us, regardless of their generation.

DA: What does that rehearsal process look like, with the octet? There are decisions to be made and you’re rehearsing with people that have been around the block for four decades.

RM: I think what has kept them going for 40 years is that they are always thinking about the repertoire, even if rehearsal time is limited. They will find some small way to reinvent it.

DA: And you feel like you, Ryan, can die on a hill for your preferred tempo in the fourth movement of the Mendelssohn Octet, without bringing the wrath of God down upon yourself?

RM: I’m pretty vocal in our own rehearsals, but with the Emerson — I don’t know — they listen on another level. Their wealth of experience rehearsing with each other and other collaborators allows you to not have to speak too much. You just show your intent and they get it…without words.

DA: Let’s finish with something grand. What is that golden nugget piece of advice you envision handing down to a group you mentor in the future?

RM: Two things. From a musical point of view, I think you need to know how to give quick, efficient criticism and analysis. That goes hand-in-hand with the most important thing, which is that, whatever your opinion, it is secondary to getting along and treating your colleagues with respect — which the Emersons personify.

This post is written by Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago MagazineChicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See the Emerson String Quartet and Calidore String Quartet on October 5, 2017.