Notes 60.1 (2003) 182-183
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How to Succeed in an Ensemble: Reflections on a Life in Chamber Music. By Abram Loft. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 2002. [299 p. ISBN 1-57467-078-6. $24.95.] Music examples, illustrations, repertoire list, discography, index.
Tolstoy undoubtedly makes a universally true point at the start of Anna Karenina about all unhappy families being unhappy after their own fashion, claiming as well that all happy families are the same. String quartets are an odd collective, with nearly familial, as well as artistic, collegial, and business relationships, and one assumes that any successful quartet lasting more than a few years must be happy, to some degree at least. With a four-way mix of personalities, a day-to-day life which includes every mundane annoyance alongside the most profound artistic exchanges and discussions, the dynamic of each such group will vary enough to make generalizations exceedingly difficult and perhaps gratuitous. As a quartet player of ten years myself, I thus approached Abram Loft's How to Succeed in an Ensemble: Reflections on a Life in Chamber Music with some suspicion. Although some of my doubts still linger after reading the book, I found that many of Loft's tales, drawn from his twenty-five years in the Fine Arts Quartet, were delightfully entertaining, indeed at times edifying.
The book's title may be somewhat misleading, suggesting a self-help book for developing a career in chamber music. In fact, this is two books in one: a memoir followed by a series of chapters with advice on varying aspects of quartet playing and life. Of the two, the memoir section (taking up the bulk of the book) is by far the more engaging. Imagine sitting and listening to a quirky, amiable older gentleman recount story after story of mishaps galore, interpersonal dramas, and exotic encounters from his long days as a traveling musician and you will have a good feeling for the first part of this book. This is the sort of storytelling one easily imagines must have made Abram Loft beloved at numerous postconcert receptions where audience members are eager to drink in tales of life as part of this strange little traveling band, the string quartet. For one who is intimately involved in such a life as well it makes for a good [End Page 182] read. String quartet life has certainly changed a lot since the 1950s and 1960s, so that today a boat trip leading up to a three-and-a-half-month European tour strikes one as quaint and the length of the tour itself as simply astonishing. Just the thought of driving around Europe playing in city after city in a group of seventeen, as each quartet member was accompanied by family, is enough to induce lightheadedness. Any group leading such a life will invariably have a stash of stories which amaze and amuse, and I am glad that Abram Loft has taken the time and the energy to record and share some of his. Although there are moments in the text when one wonders about the point of some of the recollections —a detailed account of ordering herring following the dessert in an Amsterdam restaurant, for example—I still found much in these anecdotes to share with my colleagues. Loft comes across as a sensitive, witty, warm soul, and good company for the reader.
Rather a lot is made in these pages of interpersonal problems and pragmatic difficulties that unquestionably can be exhausting and enervating. These experiences cannot be unknown to any quartet player. While it is generally clear as well that twenty-five years in the Fine Arts Quartet brought Loft no small measure of joy and satisfaction, a detailed accounting of the profoundly meaningful experiences that playing in a quartet can offer, both artistically and personally, is lacking. It would have made for a more balanced portrayal of the possibilities of chamber music life to have included more thoughts on the ineffable, almost magical, qualities of the quartet relationship that attract and compel...