Interview with Michael Tree
Hans Jørgen Jensen interviewed the violist Michael Tree at the Young Artist Program in Ottawa, Canada on June 17, 2011. The world lost a great man and musician when Michael Tree passed away in 2018.
Michael Tree was born in Newark, New Jersey, and received his first violin instruction from his father. He later studied at the Curtis Institute of Music with Efram Zimbalist, Lee Luboshutz and Veda Reynolds. In 1954, the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “A 20-year old American violinist, Michael Tree, stepped our upon Carnegie Hall stage last night and made probably the most brilliant young debut in the recent past…the violinist evidenced not one lapse from the highest possible musical and technical standards”. Subsequent to his debut, Mr. Tree has appeared as violin and viola soloist with the Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New Jersey and other major orchestras. He has also participated in leading festivals, including Marlboro, Casals, Spoleto, Israel, Taos, Aspen and Santa Fe. As a founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet, Mr. Tree played in major cities throughout the world. In 1983, Major Ed Koch presented the Quartet with the New York City Seal of Recognition, an honor awarded for the first time. One of the most widely recorded musicians in America, Mr. Tree recorded over 95 chamber music works, including 10 piano quartets and quintets with Artur Rubinstein, and 2 complete Beethoven Quartet bibles. These works appear on the Columbia, RCA, Sony, Philips, nonesuch, Arabesque and Vanguard labels. His television credits include repeated appearances on the Today Show and the first telecast of Chamber Music Live from Lincoln Center. Mr. Tree served on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music and the University of Maryland. Michael Tree died on March 30, 2018 of Parkinson's Disease.
Hans Jensen: Going back to your childhood, do you have any memories from when you first started out playing? How much was your father Samuel Applebaum involved in your early training?
Michael Tree: Well, yes, very vividly. My father was a wonderful violinist in his time and took a number of lessons with Kneisel — Franz Kneisel, of course, who had a quartet of his own and was also a concertmaster for the Boston Symphony for a number of years, German-born, and who founded that very fine festival in Maine known as Kneisel Hall in Blue Hill. My father had a piano trio of his own in New Jersey, and they played professionally for a while. And then he began teaching at home, so I was kind of surrounded by the sounds of violin playing almost throughout the day. We lived in Newark, New Jersey, and he taught basically at home, and so whenever he had 5 or 10 minutes off, he’d call me into his room and would just listen to me play. I never had a formal lesson with him. Only in-between lessons or if somebody canceled.
Hans Jensen: But did you have a different teacher when you first started out?
Michael Tree: No only my father until the age of 12. From 5 to 12. Seven years of being taught by one’s father can become a little bit testy.
Hans Jensen: I can imagine that. I myself grew up with musical parents.
Michael Tree: It can very well become unhealthy. And luckily for me, a sometimes visitor to my home was none other than William Primrose. And Mr. Primrose, well, my father finally induced him to hear me play a few notes on the violin. I was around 11 at the time. And he was sufficiently impressed that he suggested that I try out for Curtis.
Hans Jensen: So you went to Curtis to audition when you were 12 years old?
Michael Tree: Yes it was difficult to get into Curtis because the entire student body at that time was about 125 people, and that encompassed the entire range of instruments, even organ and conducting, for example. So you can imagine how few of us were allowed in, but I passed the initial audition, and went on to study with Lea Luboshutz, who was another Russian. Very, very colorful lady and a wonderful violinist. It was an older style of playing, and whether I was indirectly responsible or not, I don’t know, but she left the following year. She retired.
Hans Jensen: Do you seriously think you were partly responsible?
Michael Tree: I don’t know. I hate to think that because I was so unaccustomed to being put in a room to play for someone, because as I said, with my father it was never regular lessons… I was often playing ball in the streets, because we lived on a very quiet residential street and I had some cronies with whom I played stickball.
Hans Jensen: But you didn’t bring the bat to the lessons, I’m sure.
Michael Tree: No! But I also forgot that there was certain etiquette involved. Curtis at that time was very, very proper, and there was tea served.
Hans Jensen: Oh really?
Michael Tree: Oh, yes, every Wednesday afternoon. And you had to come to school with tie and jacket, and it was almost a dress code, although it was unofficial. But we were expected to behave a certain way. And I would come in with my shirt out and what have you. I may not even have washed my face that morning.
Hans Jensen: Are you sure?
Michael Tree: Oh, it was terrible. And once Miss Luboshutz ordered me out of the room to go down and wash up. She said to me, “Don’t you dare come in here like that.”
Hans Jensen: Is this really true?
Michael Tree: Yes! Nobody told me anything about that sort of thing. Today, I mean, the kids come in to lessons in blue jeans and torn undershirts. I believe they tear them deliberately, just so that they can show off their tattoos. It’s a different world.
Hans Jensen: That’s true. It is a different world.
Michael Tree: Well, at the Curtis, we had to learn the rules, and it didn’t take long. I finally understood that there was a certain ritual involved when you would play for your teacher. It’s a great honor, and you have to be on top of the situation at the moment, and you have to look a certain way. So that’s just the way.
Hans Jensen: What are some of you other memories from your days at Curtis? How many years were you there?
Michael Tree: Because of the earliness of my entry into Curtis, I stayed for ten years.
Hans Jensen: That is very interesting.
Michael Tree: I went directly from Madame Luboshutz to Mr. Zimbalist, and so nine of those ten years were spent with him. And that was quite an experience because he experimented one or two years with the idea of having every one of us, and he had something like eight or ten students come together on a Sunday afternoon, let’s say from 2-6, and he would teach us all in the presence of each other.
Hans Jensen: A great way to learn and to be inspired.
Michael Tree: So, I got to hear great fiddle playing. People like Aaron Rosand, Norman Carol, Joseph Silverstein, and many others. It was a lesson just being in their presence. Joey was just two years older than I. He was all of 14, and I was almost 12 when I first arrived.
Hans Jensen: Did you study with other violinists in addition to Efrem Zimbalist and Madame Luboshutz?
Michael Tree: Yes Efrem Zimbalist, sent me to Meadowmount to have at least one summer of exposure to Mr. Galamian, and it was a wonderful experience. Not only did I hear great playing around me, but Galamian had it all nailed down. Zimbalist admired him greatly. He once said to me, “Galamian could teach that table how to play the violin.”
Hans Jensen: Do you remember your first experience playing the viola?
Michael Tree: Sascha Schneider, a bigger-than-life figure and a great spokesperson for chamber music donated a certain sum of money to the Curtis Institute with the understanding that every violinist be required to study the viola for a year with one of the viola teachers. We had a fine violist on the faculty, Max Aronoff who was the original violist of the Curtis Quartet, which in its day sounded damn good. They made some wonderful music.
Hans Jensen: What did you learn from Max?
Michael Tree: He was wonderful. We talked a lot, and he told many, many jokes, and many stories. But the fact is that he was a wonderful trained violist himself and was able to impart very, very important, almost little secrets that violists know about that I had never even considered.
Hans Jensen: Like what kind of secrets?
Michael Tree: Well, practical matters.
Hans Jensen: Such as?
Michael Tree: For one thing, we have to have much more of the hair on the bow on the string. We can’t afford to do what many violinists do, and that is sort of play with one-quarter of the hair all the time as if the bow were curved. We have to play with flat hair especially beyond the middle of the bow.
Hans Jensen: That sounds great!
Michael Tree: Because it’s just a question of pulling the sound, of getting into the string — very, very different than violin playing. I always thought that playing the viola meant a big difference in fingerings, and of course, they have to have strings almost further apart. What I learned quickly was that the biggest departure from violin playing is in the right hand, in producing sound. So, to this day, I consciously watch over my right arm to see that I don’t just play at the very tip, even in pianissimo.
Hans Jensen: Why don’t you talk some more about your concepts of sound production on the viola?
Michael Tree: Well, it’s just that we don’t want to sound ever like a big violin. The viola plays a unique role in quartet life, and I feel that I am more akin, more drawn toward the cello sound and that lower sound quality. We can’t afford to just play glassy smooth all the time we need putting real power into the string. Because the last thing any string quartet needs is to have a viola that sounds more like a violin, and because many quartets I’ve heard, even fine quartets, even some professional quartets, suffer from a top heaviness. There are just too much high tones. The violist, to my way of thinking, should always play louder than his colleagues want him to.
Hans Jensen: Really? I like that!
Michael Tree: Well, the reasoning behind that is that, of course, you’re playing way into the ears of your colleagues. What they hear has nothing to do with what the listener hears. For 45 years, I’ve played like that. Now when I play at various festivals or even individual concerts with other quartets or whatever, I ask to sit in the middle of the quartet so that the F holes face out in the hall.
Hans Jensen: Oh, that’s nice.
Michael Tree: And I’m told, even from listeners, what a huge difference that makes. I remember once as a very young quartet player when we were less than a year or two old, from way back into the ‘60s, that Boris Kroyt of the Budapest Quartet, who was a very, very staunch friend and to whom we owed a great deal of thanks and gratitude, played a Brahms viola quintet with us in New York.
All the rehearsals were fine and every thing normal. But suddenly in the concert, I sat opposite the first violin in the normal so-called position, normal to most American quartets that is, and Boris playing the second viola sat to my right. Suddenly, when he had two notes to play that were meaningful enough to be heard he turned to me and had the scroll of his instrument right in my face!
Hans Jensen: That’s like having somebody push you when shooting a free throw!
Michael Tree: Yes and I almost fell off my chair because I was unprepared for that.
Hans Jensen: You were shocked.
Michael Tree: Yes I was shocked. I almost dropped the viola.
Hans Jensen: That’s funny. He was used to sitting on the outside, so perhaps he forgot that you were there.
Michael Tree: Right but he could’ve given me a little warning. But he didn’t, and maybe he was also a wonderful jokester, but…
Hans Jensen: So are you’re saying he did this as a joke?
Michael Tree: It could be. But it taught me a lesson in a hurry that I never forgot, and that is that even if you do sit in the traditional position, facing the first violin, the chair and the stand should be a little, not parallel but rather diagonally, placed so that at least part of the time you’re better heard, and at moments that are crucial, you can easily turn out towards the hall. These are just realities that we come to appreciate after many years of performing.
Hans Jensen: This all sounds absolutely fascinating. Do you remember any funny incidents that happened to you while touring with the Guarneri Quartet? There is often a situation when a member of a chamber ensemble forgets their music or something like that.
Michael Tree: Oh, my God! Yeah. That happened to me in London. I think somebody actually swiped my music because I left it on the stand and nobody at the hall was able to turn it up. And in those days, replacing music wasn’t as easy as today.
Hans Jensen: Yes, please tell us about that?
Michael Tree: But that’s not such a funny experience…but anyhow I remember it was desperate, I had to call New York, our manager from New York called Washington, and from the Library of Congress they were able to Xerox the parts and I had the parts within a day or two.
Well, I actually do have some wonderful stories about David Sawyer, because he was very outspoken.
Hans Jensen: Yes we would love to hear about that.
Michael Tree: Once, I do remember somewhere in the Midwest, we had to play an encore after a concert, and normally we would have the presence of mind to decide before a concert began, if we needed an encore and what it would be. So we carried a Mendelssohn quartet with us, the middle two movements. Both served as beautiful, short encore pieces. They were the perfect length. One of them was a beautiful andante with a lovely theme, and the other was a brilliant but treacherously difficult scherzo movement. A million notes, as Mendelssohn loved to do. So, this one time, we had forgotten to decide, we were in the middle of a tour, and we were probably all a little tired.
I personally didn’t want to play the fast movement because I realized that once the concert was over, we tended to sound a little bit under par, you might say. Because we were simply tired, and psychologically somehow, the encores took on less importance.
I mean, I hate to admit to such a thing, but it’s just true that after almost two hours of playing, you feel sometimes not like playing beyond. And certainly nothing where precision is required.
Hans Jensen: I can understand that, but somehow I never imagined you would feel anything like that.
Michael Tree: Yes and actual technical assurance also played a major role. But there we sat down to play and we didn’t know which of the two pieces to play, so we whispered, “No, no, andante. No, no…” Dave wanted to play the Scherzo because he wanted to get the hell out of there and it was short.
Hans Jensen: That’s very funny.
Michael Tree: So, what we didn’t realize is that our voices began to rise as we became more and more emphatic, and more and more argumentative. And what we didn’t realize was that the audiences were listening to our conversation.
Hans Jensen: This is such a great story!
Michael Tree: And suddenly from the audience, a voice yelled, “Andante!” And Dave turned around towards the person speaking and said very loud, “You stay out of this!” He went right at this guy.
Hans Jensen: “You stay out of this!?”
Michael Tree: Yes and so you can imagine the hall turning into laughter 500 to 600 or 700 or 800 people all laughing at this incident. And we were all laughing while we played. That’s got to be one of the funniest memories I’ve ever experienced.
Hans Jensen: You were first exposed to the viola as a student at Curtis after having already studied the violin thoroughly. How did you decide to become a violist full time?
Michael Tree: Well, one fine day in Marlboro, three or four of us were standing around just chatting on a beautiful sunlit day after lunch and feeling a little lazy, and suddenly someone, and I don’t even remember who it was, said, “Why don’t we form a quartet?” I said, “No harm in trying.” And that’s how the Guarneri was born… just momentarily, almost an accident… because we had run out of things to talk about.
Hans Jensen: Are you kidding me?
Michael Tree: No! We decided to form a quartet, and that’s when we had to determine who played what. Of course, the cellist knew damn well what he would be doing, but the three violinists didn’t. And I thought to myself, “Wait a minute.” I had played a little viola at Curtis. I had played for Mr. Primrose, for example, as a member of a student quartet, and I had found it very, very enjoyable. What I didn’t realize was that I was in love with that darker, that sound, that Brahms so often described…
Hans Jensen: Exactly what do you mean?
Michael Tree: Brahms made the statement once that the viola was his favorite string instrument. Sorry to say in your presence. But he championed the viola as Mozart did.
Hans Jensen: Yes we cellists would have loved to have a concerto from Mozart’s hand.
Michael Tree: It kind of liberated the instrument. So, I thought this is potentially a good idea if we can really make it work because none of us had any idea of how complicated forming a permanent relationship can be. But I said, “I’m on board. but I must play viola.” Because I didn’t know, I had no idea how long this would last. And as a matter of fact, when word got around, the festival and then even outside of Vermont, the bet was that we wouldn’t last more than a month.
Hans Jensen: You should have taken that bet!
Michael Tree: Well, we were all rather opinionated types. We were all wedded to our own ideas of everything, just about everything. And as you know, quartets have a high casualty rate.
Hans Jensen: Yes I know. How long did you stay together?
Michael Tree: Well, 45 years with one exception, and that is because David Sawyer in his early 80s decided, too many airports nowadays, and too much lugging of instruments…running for airplanes and playing. When we’d go to Europe, for example, we played as many as six or seven concerts in a week in different cities in different countries. Because that’s the only way to make it, first of all, profitable, and the only way also to ensure that we would visit our families from time to time.
Hans Jensen: Yes a successful musical life such as yours is the dream of every young musician, but young people don’t always know how hard such a life is and how much sacrifice it takes.
Michael Tree: Yes we would come home totally exhausted, but that was the reality of quartet life, and none of us had imagined that that’s what it was going to be like. We were naive and we were green, you might say, in that we spoke out of no experience except for David Sawyer, who had been a member of several very fine quartets, one called the New Music Quartet.
Hans Jensen: I first heard your quartet in a live concert at your tenth anniversary concert in New York. It was a great concert. Right before the first work after the intermission (I think it was the Franck piano quintet with Philippe Entemont) a birthday cake was broad in, Arnold Steinhard blew out the candles, and the audience sang happy birthday. That was an exciting event to attend. Before that of course I had listened to many of your wonderful recordings. One set of recordings that has always fascinated me was your collaboration with Arthur Rubinstein. You covered a number of the big piano quintets and quartets. Would you mind telling us about that experience?
Michael Tree: Yeah, it was our friend, Max Wilcox, who was the producer of many of Rubinstein’s recordings. Rubinstein took a liking to Max and at that time wanted him exclusively as A and R men, meaning artist and repertory producer or whatever. And about two years into our career, we were already recording for RCA Victor. Mr. Rubinstein had made countless recordings, and one day he came in to the building on 6th Avenue in New York City that was also being set up as the new headquarters to listen to playbacks of some of his recent recordings.
And Max did something that very few people know about. Rubinstein walked in and sat in his favorite chair and took out his favorite cigar. He was ready to listen to some recent Chopin recordings of his. And Max said to him, “Mr. Rubinstein, it’ll only take a moment or two, but we have to look for the tapes, but make yourself comfortable.” In those days everything was done the old-fashioned way.
And he left the room and he put on a recording of a Mozart string quartet that we had just finished making. He didn’t say a word about it, and he came back 5 minutes or 10 minutes later. And the result was that Mr. Rubinstein said to Max, he used to go, [doing a deep voice] “Max. Max.” Max,” he said. “Who plays?”
Hans Jensen: That is really very interesting!
Michael Tree: “Oh,” Max pretended to be almost disinterested. He said, “This is a young quartet that we’ve just signed up, and they formed a year or 2 ago.”
So, the more Max tried to toss it off, the more interested Mr. Rubinstein became, until he asked, “Do you think they might be interested because I,” he said, and this is literally true, “I haven’t played the big chamber music works. He had played with Piatigorsky and Heifetz of course.
But he hadn’t played the standard piano chamber works, the great ones, in 40 years. Except possibly house music, so called, where he would be in various, beautiful palatial homes in Europe or here and making music in a very relaxed manner usually accompanied by wonderful food, the best of wines, and beautiful women.
Hans Jensen: Yes that image of Rubinstein will always be part of his charm.
Michael Tree: And that was his initial introduction to chamber music. You might say it sounded rather cavalier, but the idea of performing these works, he never thought of it. But he grew a little bit nostalgic, Max told us later. And so Max said, “Well, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be interested. Let me ask them if they…” So, about a week later, we found ourselves playing with Mr. Rubinstein in his apartment in New York. And I must say it was a very meaningful connection, and we went on to record 10 works with him.
Hans Jensen: Can you tell us some more specific details about the process of recording these works with Rubinstein?
Michael Tree: Yes, the interesting thing is we almost never rehearsed. The rehearsals, so called, were done in this fashion. We would all be ready to sit down and play at 10 a.m., and the mics were on from 10 to maybe 6 or 7 in the evening with a break for lunch, of course, and we just played and played and played and played, and very little talking.
And I have to say that the initial playbacks were absolutely unusual because Rubinstein was very busy concertizing, and he was also apologetic because he had almost no time to learn the notes. And so there were many, many notes other than what was on the page, but little by little, it improved. We had played the whole of this stuff many, many times, and so we had an unfair advantage. But imagine playing a Brahms piano quintet for the first time in 30 years or so, 40 years, unless it’s in someone’s home.
Hans Jensen: Yes recording a work that has to stand up to the test of time is quite different than just playing at a party for fun.
Michael Tree: So it probably wasn’t until after lunch that anything became useful. And so that’s how we evolved from almost no possibility of being used to something that perhaps was.
Hans Jensen: Come on. I mean those are fantastic recordings.
Michael Tree: Well, thank you. They were, and we also owe a lot to our friend Max because through the magic of tape, and there were sometimes splices that we had to make. But as I say, that didn’t happen until late afternoon. And then, we would have a little council of war, Rubinstein would ask us, “Are you free tomorrow?” And if luckily we were free tomorrow, we immediately agreed. And, “What would you like to play?” “Well, what do you want to record tomorrow?” “Maybe, why don’t we try something new, the Faure G minor piano quintet or one of the Mozart piano quartets. And that was decided upon instantly, so we come in and the same process would begin again.
So you hardly had time to practice and prepare….
Yes we had no say in the matter. If he was available and we were available, we had to record the next day. Or if not, a following week later, and that was the setup.
What I’ll never forget is we would have a very spacious lunch. There used to be a very famous little restaurant with a German chef right in the neighborhood, and we’d go there and Rubinstein would tell countless stories. He was in the process of writing a book of his life, an autobiography, with the help of a young lady, an English lady who was living in Spain at the time and had a great affection for Madrid and spoke perfect Spanish, of course. The point is that he would test some of these stories on us. He was a great raconteur.
Hans Jensen: He had that much energy left after having recorded all morning?
Michael Tree: Yes amazing. Then instead of beginning work right away, because he was still perhaps in the middle of a cigar, he would play for us just little pieces that were almost totally unknown to us — Moskovsky, Chopin, other obscure works, not any of the big potboilers that we’ve heard all our lives. And that playing was when he was absolutely as relaxed and expansive as we ever heard. There was no pressure on him then to do anything but to entertain us royally. We were the recipients of his generosity in playing for us because he wanted to, and it sometimes took almost an hour.
Hans Jensen: Really?
Michael Tree: Maybe not quite that long, but we never wanted it to end. The sound that that man produced on the piano still resonates in our ears because he was the perfect pianist for the string players he worked with because he had a fantastic, singing legato. He even tried to explain to us how and why he was able to play loudly but never in a percussive, clanging or ugly way. And so it was for musicians, for string players, it really was a rare thing really. And so it was the happiest of events, and that has to be one of the highlights for me certainly.
Hans Jensen: How many works did you record together?
Michael Tree: Ten works in all. And still, there were a number of other works we wish we had recorded… that we never got to.
Michael Tree: While touring we would have very little time available. Eleven minutes here, maybe eight minutes there, maybe backstage 14 minutes, for so-called practice. So we had to really, really zero in on everything.
Hans Jensen: How could you make yourself focus like that?
Michael Tree: I would convince myself that this was the last time I’ll ever be able to practice this particular work… before performing it. The very last time. And that would scare the hell out of me, and it would force me to really zero in and become consciously aware of every single motion. It’s impossible to duplicate that if you have loads and loads of time.
This way of thinking, I think, psychologically played a big role in the way I practice also to this day. Even though I am now in semi-retirement, I find I’m traveling a great deal and luckily playing with other quartets, which I love doing, or as the fourth member of a piano trio, and it’s as busy as I want it to be. But I still feel that I don’t have enough time to practice as I should. And so there’s an extra bit of concentration that comes if you really can convince yourself that this is the last time.
Hans Jensen: Yes there is nothing like being close to the battlefield and feeling, “This is it.”
Michael Tree: Yes, “This is it.” That’s right. It’s like the bullets are going to be flying within minutes, and so you practice in a totally different way.
Hans Jensen: Do you practice slowly or quickly? Can you be more specific?
Michael Tree: No, I think slow practicing. I’ve always had the belief that if you can play it slowly, you can always play it fast, but the reverse is not necessarily true because a lot of very fast passages become a little sloppy at times if you don’t break it down once again into its roots, its beginnings.
Hans Jensen: What about fingerings?
Michael Tree: I love experimenting with fingerings. I always preach to my students, “Please don’t be a slave to the printed fingerings you see. Be always skeptical. Because the printed fingerings you see are probably indicative of a style of playing that went out of fashion maybe 50 years ago, maybe a hundred years ago.”
It may be of interest to know what Joachim might have done in a particular spot or what have you. Great players like Francescatti, Heifetz, they’ve all made editions of various materials, and it suits their playing perfectly. But they have nothing to do with us or we with them. And the best fingerings are the ones that utilize extensions and contractions. In other words, fingerings that we don’t dare print.
Hans Jensen: How did the Guarneri Quartet decide on bowings?
Michael Tree: One thing we always adhered to is that bowings are only important if the overall sounds are correct. In other words, it’s not what we do that’s so important. It’s what the listener hears.
Hans Jensen: That’s fascinating!
Michael Tree: Exactly. While playing, you’re changing the bow always at the same moment. With certain types of music, I think that’s actually a negative, and I can promise you I’m not exaggerating when I say that. For 45 years, we’ve played literally thousands of concerts never using the same bowings.
Hans Jensen: Really?
Michael Tree: Never knowing what bowings we’re going to use or what our colleagues are going to use in a given time? Absolutely true. Now, of course, the so-called bowings to my mind have nothing to do with the bowing but everything to do with phrasing.
Hans Jensen: Yes, that’s true.
Michael Tree: It’s the closest any composer could come toward suggesting how many notes belong to a certain family. And certainly, we do change the bow unexpectedly at times onstage because of simply being out of bow. I mean, what would a singer do if he or she were out of breath? They would have to take another breath, of course! But this business of trying to squeeze so many notes in one bow, if it works is fine. If it doesn’t, change the bow but with the idea in mind not to advertise it. That’s it. Because we nevertheless have to adhere to the wishes of the composer. At all times we are beholden to that. That’s the pact that we sign.
String Vision: That technique is also used in orchestral playing.
Michael Tree: Yes I remember hearing stories in Philadelphia as a student about the old Stokowski days when he conducted the orchestra. Now, of course there were times when it was probably impossible not to play the same bowings in certain delicate passages.
For example, the Mozart, or early Beethoven, or Haydn, or what have you in the Classical literature. But in the Romantic literature, I would say from the 1800’s on, Stokowski wanted every string player to play according to what made them happy and comfortable. In other words, to play within their comfort level.
Hans Jensen: You mean free bowings?
Michael Tree: Yes assuming that there are no false accents, and the players are skillful enough to make the sound blend together. That kind of playing produced a wonderful rich sound. It was a liberating experience for so many string players. And I think, may I even dare say, that I don’t think that an orchestra ever sounded any better.
The lusciousness and sheer beauty of sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra attained, and I must say Mr. Ormandy’s ability to continue that tradition, it was a sound that ruined my ears in that it was very difficult to listen to other orchestras. They sounded somewhat different.
Hans Jensen: Yes Leopold Stokowski was a visionary in popularizing the concept of free bowings. The world we live in today is quite different.
Do you have any advice for young musicians starting their careers today?
Michael Tree: Well, these are tough times, naturally, and we keep hearing over and over again how many chamber music societies have closed their doors. But stick with it. It can’t go on forever. The great works will live on and deserve to be well played for hundreds of years to come. I wouldn’t know what else to say.
Hans Jensen: Yes I totally agree.
Michael Tree: It’s discouraging, and we grieve for these young players, because I’m convinced that the standards have never been higher overall. I mean, there will always be standouts, naturally, but the overall standards are extremely high. And I just finished three days, just this week, of listening to players entering into the chamber music society of Lincoln Center Number 2. I’ve never been more impressed in my life with the overall quality of playing.
Hans Jensen: Yes the current level of playing is very high.
Michael Tree: The same thing goes for Marlboro and for the Curtis Institute. And I’m privileged to also teach at Juilliard as well in Manhattan. Here right now at the Young Artist program in Ottawa the chamber music playing is wonderful. And I think that it would be a pity if any of these players were discouraged enough to quit.
Hans Jensen: Yes it will take conviction, imagination, hard work, and belief in oneself to keep the musical world as we know it alive for future generations. I actually think that people need it now more than ever. Everything moves so fast these days that taking the time needed to open up to the magic of our wonderful musical world is more essential than ever.
Michael Tree: Yes, now is the time actually to be more loyal, more appreciative of the great works than ever.