He helped to inspire Kronos Quartet and fostered a chamber-music revolution
In 1973, chamber music was the most genteel form of Western classical music, I wrote a couple of years ago in a tribute to the Kronos Quartet’s then-40th anniversary. But the world, shaken by the Vietnam War, changed that year. And those reverberations shook the relative serenity of the chamber-music world in ways that no one could predict.

That year, the then–22-year-old violinist David Harrington, a Portland native who grew up in Seattle, heard the Concord String Quartet’s recording of George Crumb’s bleak work Black Angels on the radio—coincidentally, a founding member of the Naumberg Award–winning Concords, first violinist Mark Sokol had been a chamber partner of Harrington’s at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. After hearing the Concord broadcast, Harrington started a quartet and that ensemble sparked a revolution in chamber music.

On November 28, Sokol passed away, dying at his home in the quiet Northern California burg of Sebastopol, surrounded by his family. He was 68.

The longtime chair of the chamber-music department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a member of the chamber-music faculty, he was the son of noted conductor, professor, and violist Vilem Sokol, hailed by The Seattle Times as “the beloved godfather of the city’s classical music.”

Sokol was born into a musical household. All of his nine brothers and sisters studied piano or stringed instruments, or both. Early lessons with his father led to the Juilliard School, where he studied violin with uber-teacher Dorothy DeLay and chamber music with Robert Mann.

In 1971, Sokol cofounded the Concord String Quartet, which established a reputation for championing new music as well as presenting complete cycles of quartets, especially those of Beethoven and Bartok. In a career spanning more than 1,000 concerts, the Concords premiered more than 50 new works and made over 40 recordings of new and traditional repertoire. In the process, the influential ensemble won a Naumburg Chamber Music Award, an Emmy Award, and two Grammy nominations. The quartet remained in residence at Dartmouth College from 1974 until it disbanded in 1987.

In 1989, Sokol joined the San Francisco Conservatory of Music faculty, teaching chamber music for 25 years and serving for 17 years as chair of the department. During that time, Sokol solidified the reputation of the school’s chamber-music program—the first of its kind in the United States—“as a premier center for the advanced study of string and piano chamber music,” according to David H. Stull, president of the conservatory.

Sokol also spent summers teaching at the Tanglewood Music Center and Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School. His students include members and former members of the Afiara, Amphion, Arditti, and Del Sol quartets, among others. Graeme Jennings, a former student of Sokol’s, former second violinist in the Arditti String Quartet, and now a professor at Queensland Conservatory in Brisbane, Australia, said of his late teacher, “Once you’ve experienced obsessive-compulsive and detailed music making on that level, you can never accept any ‘namby-pamby chicken-shit playing’ from yourself or others.” Other colleagues also sang his praises. “Sokol’s passing is a highly significant moment for the entire San Francisco Conservatory of Music community, past and present,” noted Paul Hersh, the James D. Robertson professor of piano and concurrent member of the conservatory’s viola, chamber music, and music history faculties. “Mark had a deep and passionate relationship with music and musicians, whether colleagues or students. For those of us who had the privilege of working with him, the depth of his insights and the intensity of his musical commitments will remain a series of lifelong and unforgettable gifts to us. Mark was protean in his interests. A brief summary includes cuisine, architecture, bird watching, and all manner of athletic events! His energy and enthusiasm for life were always at a peak level and infused themselves into everyone around him. He is utterly irreplaceable and will be greatly missed.”

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