Color photo: © Peter Schaaf/www.peterschaaf.com
It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of the great cellist David Soyer today, one day after his 87th birthday. He was the founding cellist of the legendary Guarneri Quartet, with which he played from 1964 to 2001. His former student Peter Wiley took over after Soyer’s retirement, the sole personnel change in the history of the ensemble.
Mr. Soyer was a gruff and imposing presence. I had the great privilege of working with the members of the Guarneri Quartet as part of a graduate fellowship program at the University of Maryland. We would have a few days of coachings and lessons each month when the quartet came to DC, usually with one open rehearsal and a performance, either at the university or nearby. Coachings with Mr. Soyer were literally lessons in the “no-spin zone”. If what you played sucked, he’d tell you, and in no uncertain terms! Usually, if it was good, nothing was said. The cellist in our quartet, Beth, had Mr. Soyer wrapped around her little finger. She came across as all sweetness and light, but was steely tough, and it seemed that Mr. Soyer respected that. Plus she could charm the socks off of him. I remember very vividly coaching the Beethoven Op. 130 quartet with him and with the other members of the Guarneri Quartet, and think about what I learned in those precious hours whenever I return to the piece.
If you listen to any of their dozens of recordings (most reissued in both a boxed set and individual digital downloads), you’ll often hear the low grunting of Mr. Soyer as he lays into the vigorous downbeats of the Smetana Quartet “From My Life”, or the solo from Wolf’s Italian Serenade, or Beethoven’s Grosse Fuga.