Yesterday evening, a string quartet composed of members of the North Carolina Symphony came to the retirement community in which I live to give a free concert to us old folks. For the first time in 15 months, Susie and I entered the auditorium, suitably masked and appropriately distanced, and enjoyed an hour of first-rate live classical music. The principal offering was the last of Beethoven’s middle quartets, Opus 95. I could not recall whether I had played that quartet back in the day when I was the violist of an amateur quartet that met weekly in Amherst, Massachusetts. But when the ensemble played the dramatic opening phrase I recalled it quite well. As they continued on through the quartet, I began to have doubts whether I could ever actually have played the viola part in so demanding a work, so when I got back to our apartment I pulled out the music from my shelves and took a look. Sure enough, the viola part was covered with a blizzard of pencil markings that I had put in to guide me through the music. Needless to say, we did not play it as they did nor quite up to speed, but we did play it.
It is always nice to recall that chamber music was originally designed to be played in a chamber – a private gathering room or salon – not in a concert hall. The cellist in our little amateur quartet was a woman who played with a rich full tone. She sat to my right in the traditional quartet arrangement and one of my greatest pleasures, as I worked my way through my part, was hearing her in my right ear. It has always been a source of sadness to me that when I moved down to Chapel Hill I was unable to find a quartet to play with.