By George Struble | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
November 2016. I had agreed to gather a string quartet to provide a concert in Stayton, Oregon’s Charles and Martha Brown House, a historic home that was being restored. And so I gathered friends Chris Noel, Terry Hsu, and Mark Babson—all better musicians than I. Our rehearsals were a joy! Chris was our musical leader; after we played a piece, he would say, “OK, but let’s try this.” And it was better. Then he would suggest something else, and it was better still. That continued during every rehearsal; I got more excited each time. It was almost a shame to stop our rehearsals to actually play the concert. Those rehearsals and concert were the best musical experience of my life. The audience thought we were wonderful (but I’m glad they don’t have a CD to listen to)!
I am so grateful that my mother got me started on the cello at age eight, a year after I started piano lessons. My teacher was Clark Carmean, a decades-long friend of my parents and music professor at Lebanon Valley College. I should have started with a smaller cello than the cheap, full-size instrument they dredged up. I didn’t make a lot of progress, but I didn’t quit either.
Once I hit college, mathematics professor Arnold Dresden hosted a chamber-music evening every Monday at his home. I went my first week as a freshman, but never returned; I needed to hide in an orchestra. What an opportunity missed!
But in graduate school, I found some other graduate students, and we played string quartets several times. And when I took a teaching job at the University of Oregon in 1961, I wasted no time finding a string quartet. I have been playing weekly quartets ever since. Well, some years anyway. Depending on who was available, we were also sometimes a piano trio or quintet. It was all good! A Friday evening string-quartet session was the perfect way to end an exhausting week. And our kids felt secure going to sleep to the sounds of Haydn and Beethoven!
In 1983 I discovered chamber-music workshops. First was Bozeman, Montana, for 21 years. I was a regular for years at workshops in Ashland, Oregon, and Humboldt, California, and attended several others once or twice each. Every time, I am excited and energized all week; I am in my element. I look forward to Humboldt again this summer, though at age 89, it might have to be my last.
My technique progressed very little for very many years, and it has held me back, but there have been some spurts. I took lessons for about four years early in our time in Eugene, Oregon, from Bob Hladky and Howard Jones. That was one of the spurts. And another two or three years from Bruce McIntosh when I moved to Salem. But my teaching career and growing family took priority.
I saw another opportunity in 2007 when Noah Seitz, a young cellist, joined our church; I have been taking lessons from him for 13 years now, and I am thrilled that I am still—if only slightly—improving. I even had the audacity to give a full concert in 2013, with four pianist friends in different pieces, including the Franck Sonata—giving new meaning to “senior recital”! We finished the concert with the scrumptious Popper Requiem; Noah and Bruce played the other cello parts. We had that concert at our church, and about a hundred of my “closest friends” came. They were very kind. The CD not so much!
Ah, the virus! At my and my wife’s age, I must be very careful indeed; my lessons and chamber-music sessions stopped in March. Now what? In April, I took my cello out to our front yard and played some Bach. Hmmm. Our quiet street is on a dog- and kid-walking route, so people pass by, and they liked my Bach. A few days later I invited Mark Babson to bring his violin for a “yard concert.” Through the summer until early October, 11 other musicians joined me in over 20 of these “concerts,” in ensembles of up to four people. Sometimes we were a cello quartet. We had no opportunity to rehearse, so except for someone’s solo now and then, it was all sight-reading. Sometimes more successfully than others.
I also resumed my lessons, masked, on Noah’s back patio. I needed that! Winter has halted those until late spring. Sigh.
When we moved to Salem in 1982, I discovered Camerata Musica, Salem’s chamber-music organization. It published a directory of musicians and presented chamber-music concerts. Aha! I pounced on that directory and quickly assembled a new string quartet in Salem. A few years later, I took over mailing the Cameratanewsletter. In 2001, when the founders’ health deteriorated, I became president (still am). We present free concerts, but receive enough contributions to give modest honoraria to our musicians. I had been performing in their concerts every one or two years, but after I became president, there were fewer amateur groups ready to perform, so we presented more professional musicians, and our standards rose. So I am no longer good enough to play in those concerts. My Camerata Musica involvement is one way of paying back—and forward—the rich rewards I have received from music.
What happens after all these years of soul-satisfying music? Consider the last two movements of Beethoven’s “Archduke” piano trio. As the slow movement draws to a sublimely peaceful close, it says to me that the world should end, right there! But Beethoven knew better; without pause, a modulation launches the last movement, bubbling with life and joy. After that, how can I return to a world of disharmony or anger? Well, here I am, but I live in it differently. After so many spiritual experiences through music, my brain is rewired. I am more at peace with the world. It’s good to be alive, and an exquisite privilege to get inside such music!