802 Bookshelf: “How to Succeed in an Ensemble: Reflections on a Life in Chamber Music”

by Abram Loft, Amadeus Press, $24.95, hardcover

Volume CIII, No. 7/8July, 2003

Abram Loft was the second violinist with the Fine Arts Quartet, one of America’s foremost concert ensembles, from 1954 to 1979. Then he chaired the string department at the Eastman School of Music for eight years, and now holds the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus there.

This book is a combination memoir and how-to handbook for putting together musical ensembles. The history of Loft’s own experiences in what he terms his “winding road to an ensemble career,” and during 25 years with a major string quartet, is entertaining and enlightening, presented with realism and good humor. The later chapters concentrate on specific advice to musicians who are preparing to enter the world of chamber music. Loft does not claim to know it all, but draws on his own experience for examples of what may lie ahead for such musicians, and gives valuable guidance.

The third son of immigrant parents, Loft started on violin at the age of five, taught by his oldest brother. All three brothers then studied at New York’s Greenwich House Music School, and when the family moved to Brooklyn, at the Brooklyn Music School. He developed “a convulsive and perspiring playing style,” and when, at thirteen, he got to play for conductor Leon Barzin, he was told, “You’ll have to start over again.” That had to wait until he was admitted to Columbia College, when he resumed violin study at the Neighborhood Music School on East 104th Street, which later became the Manhattan School of Music. He then joined the Columbia University orchestra. As his playing improved, he moved from the last chair in the violin section to concertmaster.

A summer at Yale’s Norfolk School of Music introduced him to the viola, the instrument that helped him pay for his studies for a doctorate in musicology in the radio and recording field. He tells some amusing stories about his encounters in the studios. He became a member of the music faculty at Columbia, and considered that to be the direction his life was taking. But the occasional concerts he prepared and performed on both viola and violin drew him toward the chamber music world, and when the Chicago-based Fine Arts Quartet invited him to replace a violinist who had resigned, Loft took the plunge, resigned from Columbia, and joined the Fine Arts.

Loft’s history of his years with that ensemble is both charming and informative. The heavy performance schedule and repertoire of the group that he describes seems man-killing, but the musicians evidently thrived on it. He is tactful throughout, but discusses frankly the relationships among the quartet members during this long musical marriage.

His chapters on Forming or Joining an Ensemble, Rehearsal, Repertoire, Gigs, Teaching, and the Business Side of Ensemble Life are thorough and thoughtful. He admits that he didn’t follow his own advice in many instances, but hopes that his hindsight will save others from some of his mistakes.

Loft is an engaging writer, and his book should be enjoyed by musicians and music lovers alike.

–Bill Crow