By Marc Shulgold
Robert Mann wanted to be a forest ranger. When that didn’t pan out, he settled on another passion – music. Which worked out pretty well.
Known as “Bobby” to music lovers everywhere, Mann served as first violinist and founding member of the celebrated Juilliard String Quartet for a mind-blowing 51 years. Following a long, productive life as a performer, teacher, and as a beloved, enthusiastic source of inspiration for aspiring musicians, he passed away in 2018 at the age of 97.
In a conversation about the Colorado Music Festival’s new Robert Mann Chamber Music Series, Nicholas Mann mentioned his father’s dream of working in the woods, as he pointed to a love of the outdoors. “He always had a connection to the mountains. We would take hikes everywhere we could – in Aspen, in the Tetons, in Glacier National Park. So, it’s appropriate that the [Boulder-based Colorado Music Festival] has named this series for him.”
The Mann family’s link with the Colorado Music Festival also flows through music director Peter Oundjian, going back to those early days at the Juilliard School. “I played in a student quartet with Peter,” Nicholas remembers. “We were coached by my father.”
The Mann Chamber Music series will make its Festival debut with five Tuesday evening concerts in Chautauqua Auditorium. Those programs offer an intriguing range of intimate music-making, from String Quintets played by members of the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra to performances of new and old music by such noted visiting ensembles as the St. Lawrence Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the Emerson String Quartet.
It should come as no surprise that the younger Mann has followed a career in music similar to his father’s. Not that he was instructed to march along in Dad’s footsteps.
“Unlike so many parents who pressure their kids (toward a specific career), my parents didn’t do that,” Nicholas recounts. “Yes, I was swept into his world, and he was my mentor. Early on, I thought I’d try music for a year, and see how it goes.”
It went well. Nicholas was second violinist in the Mendelssohn String Quartet for 31 years, while teaching at numerous schools. He currently serves as president of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, which offers support to gifted musicians through sponsorships and competitions (Robert Mann was a competition winner in 1941). Nicholas heads the string department at the Manhattan School of Music and is also a longtime Juilliard faculty member.
In counseling young string players at those two prestigious New York conservatories, Mann the younger leaned heavily on his years observing his father’s quartet, and, naturally, on his own concert experiences. “I knew the life of a quartet,” Nicholas says. “I understood that every group has its own dynamic.”
The dynamic of the fabled Juilliard Quartet revolved around Bobby Mann for all of his half-century in the first violinist’s chair. The Chicago Tribune called him the group’s “resident spark plug,” while Donal Henehan of the New York Times got more specific in 1980: “Robert Mann has been largely responsible for the ensemble’s continuity of style and the maintenance of its stature in international chamber music circles.”
In 1946, the Quartet was formed by Mann, then a member of the Juilliard School’s faculty. Encouraged by the conservatory’s president William Schuman, Mann enlisted a couple of Army buddies – violinist Robert Koff and cellist Arthur Winograd – and Boston Symphony violist Raphael Hillyer. The foursome debuted in 1947, determined to upgrade the image of chamber music from dusty museum pieces to something that was immediate and alive – as Mann later said in a radio interview, to perform “classical music as if it had been just composed (and) contemporary music as if it were classical.”
Through Mann’s energetic support of 20th-century composers, the String Quartets of Bartók were elevated to an exalted place with the masterpieces of Beethoven. The group introduced American audiences to the Hungarian’s six Quartets through concert premieres and sets of brisk-selling recordings on Columbia. Similarly, Elliott Carter’s Quartets entered the standard repertory, boosted by the passion and commitment of Mann and company. The violinist famously noted that the Juilliard used two full rehearsals to get comfortable with the opening measure of Carter’s Third Quartet, a work dedicated to the ensemble.
Here are some facts that speak volumes about the Juilliard’s contribution to music in general, and chamber music in particular:
- New works premiered: over 60
- Commercial recordings: over 100
- Ensembles tutored by the Juilliard: Emerson, Concord, Tokyo Quartets, etc.
- Grammy Awards: five, including one for Lifetime Achievement
There’s little doubt that having Robert Mann as an in-house performance model was crucial to Nicholas and his life in music – in fact, the two violinists occasionally appeared as a duo. That special bond between father and son may also have been forged during those long hikes in the mountains. “It’s fair to say that I knew him well,” he says of his mentor.
Witnessing the Juilliard Quartet’s remarkable successes taught him numerous lessons. “There were many changes with their personnel,” Nicholas says. “And yet they kept things alive. You have to be open to things. In the early days, they had lots of fights and differences of opinion.” Through the years, Mann held his first chair, while violinists, violists, and cellists arrived and later exited. In all, 17 musicians have served as members of the Juilliard.
Sharing a home with one of the world’s most famous chamber musicians proved a decisive influence. “He was so deeply embedded in that world,” Nicholas observes. “It’s hard not to feel his magic.”
The Robert Mann Chamber Music Series consists of five concerts – all given on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. in Chautauqua Auditorium. The schedule: String Quintets by Mozart and Brahms with members of the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra on July 6; the Emerson String Quartet plays works by Walker, Shostakovich, and Beethoven on July 13 [replacing the previously announced Juilliard String Quartet]; the St. Lawrence String Quartet offers music by Debussy, Haydn, and John Adams on July 20; a Quintet and Septet by Beethoven are scheduled by Festival Orchestra members on July 27; Brooklyn Rider, specialist in contemporary music, closes the series on August 3, replacing the Danish String Quartet.