Full Circle: Marcy Rosen on Chamber Music

Marcy Rosen has established herself as one of the most important and respected artists of our day. Los Angeles Times music critic Herbert Glass has called her “one of the intimate art’s abiding treasures.” She made her concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of eighteen and has since appeared with such noted orchestras as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, the Jupiter Symphony and Concordia Chamber Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall, and the Tokyo Symphony at the famed Orchard Hall in Tokyo. In recital she has appeared in New York at such acclaimed venues as Carnegie Hall, the 92nd Street “Y” and Merkin Concert Hall; in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center, Dumbarton Oaks, the Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery, where she for many years she hosted a series entitled “Marcy Rosen and Friends.” 

Marcy is a founding member of the world renowned Mendelssohn String Quartet and with this group she was Artist-in-Residence at the North Carolina School of the Arts and for nine years served as Blodgett-Artist-in Residence at Harvard University. The Quartet, which disbanded in 2010, toured annually throughout the United States, Canada and Europe for 31 years. Since 1986 she has been the co-artistic director of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival in Maryland and as a long time participant at the Marlboro Music Festival she has taken part in eighteen of their “Musicians from Marlboro” tours and performed in concerts celebrating the 40th and 50th Anniversaries of the Festival. 

The recipient of many awards and prizes, Marcy Rosen won the 1986 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and was further honored with the Walker Fund Prize and the Mortimer Levitt Career Development Award. She is the winner of the Washington International Competition for Strings and was the first recipient of the Mischa Schneider Memorial Award from the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation. Marcy Rosen was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and she is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. Ms. Rosen is currently Associate Professor of Cello at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and on the Faculty at the Mannes College of Music in New York City. She has also served on the faculties of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Eastman School of Music, the New England Conservatory and the University of Delaware. Her performances can be heard on recordings from the BIS, Bridge. Deutsche Grammophon, Sony Classical, CBS Masterworks, Musical Heritage Society, Phillips, Nonesuch, Pro Arte, and Koch labels among others. You can read her full biography on her website, marcyrosen.com


Marcy Rosen is an acclaimed cellist: soloist, chamber musician, teacher, and mentor (see the bio to the left). Somehow, in the midst of this stunningly rich career, Marcy and four of her equally gifted and in-demand friends (among them, our Artistic Director Peggy Pearson) made the time to form the La Fenice Quintet, the featured ensemble on this month's Chamber Series concert

Marcy was a gracious, warm, and thoughtful interview subject. She spoke on the role of chamber music in her life and career, the power and benefits of mentorship for both the mentor and protege, and why making music with friends is her preferred coping method in times of great trauma and grief.   

Photo Credits: Allen Cohen and Peter Checchia

How did you and Peggy meet?
Hard to remember, we’ve known each other for so long. We met, I believe, on an Orpheus tour to England in the early ‘80s, and we became friends then, and have been friends ever since. I remember we went to Bath together.

It seems like chamber music has been really central to your career: I see that you were a member of the Mendelssohn Quartet for over thirty years, you teach at the Marlboro Music Festival and are a long-time touring member of the “Musicians from Marlboro” group, and you have been the artistic director of the Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival since 1986. What is it about chamber music that draws you to these particular teaching and performance opportunities?
It’s been the whole course of my career. It’s always been just central to my music-making; playing with other people. As a teenager, I first went to the Marlboro festival and it was there that the direction of my life was really decided, or the focus of it became chamber music. It’s just been what I’ve done, and I was in my very early twenties when my quartet [the Mendelssohn Quartet] started, and that lasted for a very long time. That’s a very serious endeavor and a full-time job, being in a string quartet, and so that’s what I’ve done for my whole life. It’s been a great joy and a great privilege to play with so many different wonderful musicians and to make music with other people. One of the most special things that has happened was that we formed this group “La Fenice” in 2001 after the tragedy at the World Trade Center. We were supposed to play a concert together on Peggy’s series up in Boston, and at that time we decided to make our relationship more closely bonded with each other. So we formed our group, La Fenice, which refers to the symbol of the Phoenix coming out of the ashes, this wonderful strength. That’s been one of the most special relationships: all five of us in the group, the opportunity to play with each other, we love each other, and it’s just always an extraordinary experience when we’re together. 

La Fenice:  Maria Lambros, Cathy Cho, Diane Walsh, Peggy Pearson, Marcy Rosen

La Fenice: Maria Lambros, Cathy Cho, Diane Walsh, Peggy Pearson, Marcy Rosen

What was it about the events of September 11 that prompted you to formalize the relationship? As you said, many of you had known each other for a long time. Why was this particular event the catalyst?
It was very devastating, whether you were in New York, living in New York, or away; for those of us who lived in the city, it was terrifying. It was terrifying for a long time because of the incredible police presence that was around, and the frailty of our safety was unnerving. I think we wanted to have something that would be more solid, and we just wanted to be together. We talked about it and all agreed to do it. 

I think that speaks very powerfully to the impact of the relationships formed in chamber music, that your response was to seek safety and security in forming a closer relationship with your fellow musicians. 
Yes. It really was. And to this day, we still have that bond, even if we don’t see each other regularly. We do something together every year, and it’s always such an incredible joy for all of us. 

What was it about your experience at Marlboro as a teenager that put you on that course towards chamber music? 
Well, just exploring the repertoire was the first thing. The people that I was working with there were incredible mentors and inspirations to me. I had a very close relationship with Felix Galimir, who was an amazing Austrian violinist who worked with Berg and Schoenberg. To hear from him how to play music like that was pretty incredible. Also, I was inspired very much by an Italian violinist named Pina Carmirelli, who was part of I Musici back then. It’s a great small chamber orchestra that has some incredible recordings that go back to the sixties and seventies. The different approaches to music-making I found so inspiring, and I was able to have great relationships with these people and click with them, and to have the opportunity to work with, live with, eat with, and get to know and be inspired by great musicians is remarkable, and that’s the kind of thing that Marlboro offers. And it wasn’t just those two people —Rudolf Serkin who was an iconic pianist and unbelievable inspiration who guided Marlbor from its inception. I played frequently with the legendary Mieczyslaw Horszowski who was there. I played with Philipp Naegle, who was a dear friend, mentor and glorious violinist and violist, I met Sándor Végh and worked with him in Marlboro and then also in Europe. Doors and doors kept opening to me in that field, because of my relationships with these people and the people I had the privilege of working with at Malrboro. That was the course that my life went, and it’s been a pretty great life, I’m pleased to say. 

Playing with Peggy at Chesapeake Chamber Music, where she is Co-Artistic Director. Photo credit:  Chesapeake Chamber Music

Playing with Peggy at Chesapeake Chamber Music, where she is Co-Artistic Director. Photo credit: Chesapeake Chamber Music

As you’ve attested in our conversation today, a great deal of the joy of playing chamber music comes from being in such a close relationship with your fellow musicians. The audience isn’t able to directly participate in that relationship in the way the musicians do, so why do you think chamber music still feels so intimate and enjoyable to the audience? 
The idea is that more and more people will continue to enjoy chamber music, we do have that issue of audiences becoming smaller in these days. I think the great thing about chamber music is that it’s intimate, and when performed in the right kind of space — which these churches that Peggy puts her series in are exactly the right kind of space — the audience is close enough to feel the interaction with the artists, to see it, and to have a tangible reaction to what’s happening on the stage. 

As a teacher, how do you approach teaching both in a chamber music context (as a coach, or a participating coach as you are at Marlboro, and Peggy is in our mentoring program)? How does your work as a chamber musician influence your teaching philosophy as a whole, while working with soloists or orchestral musicians?
It’s a different situation at Marlboro than at my teaching studio at my college. In the situation at Marlboro, you’re working with the most unbelievably gifted players in the world. These are people whom — most of whom — have had some chamber music experience, but shockingly, when you sit down to play a piece that none of the other people in the group has ever played before, then you find yourself starting at a higher level than almost everywhere else, but still without the knowledge and background of what the piece might mean. What’s great about working there is that you’re not working on teaching them how to play the cello or the violin or the viola, we’re just talking about music. The idea of exploring musical ideas and expression and the composers wishes and what’s written on the page… we have time to do that in great depth, so that’s what’s fantastic about being at Marlboro. In my teaching studio, and I think rightly so, a good portion of every lesson is spent working on the instrument, and then also talking about the exploration of music. It’s a different approach, because I may have four or five years to work with the student, but the beginning of those years are going to be spent working on the instrumental part of it, and then the later part of the years will probably be working on the musical side. At Marlboro, we can skip a few of those instrumental steps. 

Musicians from Marlboro. Photo credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Musicians from Marlboro. Photo credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Peggy has told you about our new mentoring program — Which I think is fantastic, that’s such a great thing. — I’m curious: with the students at Marlboro, which is a similar context to our mentoring program, how do you, as the guiding mentor, open these conversations or guide these conversations?
By encouraging the participants to take part in the discussion, and not to just sit there and let me tell them what to do. I want an interaction, I don’t want to be the boss. If I think something’s going off the wrong way, then I can pull it back. It’s hard for me to believe that — although I know it’s true — that some of the participants at Marlboro look up to me the way I looked up to the other people who guided me in my early years. They see me in that same light, and that’s humbling. To be in a position where you’re influencing other people, one just wants to make sure you’re doing the best you can do, and not influencing them in an incorrect or silly way, but really to try to be truthful and honest and whole in what you’re conveying. 

Do you find that it’s a leap for some of the participants to enter those conversations? In other words, I think sometimes the educational conversation in classical music can be fairly one-sided. In an orchestral setting, you’re receiving instruction from a conductor or concertmaster, as a student soloist, there is a history of taking teacher’s word as scripture, for lack of a better metaphor. Was the conversational mode of chamber music a leap for you as a student, and do you see your students making that leap? How do you guide them through that?
That’s a hard question. I do see the change, when people become involved and confident enough, and smart enough, really, to start speaking their mind in the group. I think that mostly that comes from experience, just like anything else. I’m often asked for my advice about what to do: “Should I join a quartet? Should I form my own quartet? How do I do that? Where should I go? How do I find people?” It’s hard to answer some of those questions. Many of the people at Marlboro are now in successful quartets, and part of that, they’ve told me, is from experiences they had at Marlboro playing string quartets with me. That’s a great thing, I feel really honored that I’ve had that influence on people, and that they chose that path because of what they learned during the summer. I don’t know if that really answers your question, because it’s hard to say how somebody comes into their own, which is what you’re describing, when someone starts to move away from being shy and inexperienced to someone who is confident and wanting to reveal their feelings. Then you have a partner to work with and not a student anymore. I think that’s the transition that happens there. From somebody’s first year to their third year, the transition is usually very palpable, very noticeable, and the maturity level changes tremendously. 

Members of the Mendelssohn Quartet in 2007. Photo credit:  Henry Fair

Members of the Mendelssohn Quartet in 2007. Photo credit: Henry Fair

You said before that what it takes to achieve that transition is experience, and I wonder if maybe the key ingredient that Marlboro provides, and that hopefully our program will be providing, to these young people is simply the safe space to gain that experience, that they know that’s a place they’re going to gain experience that would otherwise be hard to come by. 
I think that's absolutely true. I don’t know a lot of the kids in your mentoring program, but I do know Tony Rymer, and he transformed from an inexperienced youngster to an incredibly confident, totally capable chamber music player, not to mention that he’s also a very fine soloist, but he just really, really grew through Peggy’s mentoring and he came to Marlboro last summer and he did incredibly well, so I know good things are being done. 

How were you first introduced to chamber music, even before Marlboro? Had you heard recordings or seen performances? What got you to Marlboro?
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and there was a chamber music society called the Phoenix Chamber Music Society, it still exists - my mother was interested in music and she was a member. I started playing piano when I was six, and my piano teacher would offer housing to the visiting artists. I started playing the cello when I was nine; and I was pretty serious as a young child in music. Around the age of ten or so, became the page-turner for the Phoenix Chamber Music Society.  I remember turning pages for Menahem Pressler and the Beaux Arts Trio (and he remembers me doing it, too!) and when I was about eleven or twelve I was lucky enough to get cello lessons with some of the visiting artists. Of course I now understand now how much of an imposition that was! That my mother would ask them to give her twelve-year-old kid a lesson and they would agree! Anyway - I heard all of these fantastic chamber music groups and soloists. I turned pages for the great Zara Nelsova and her husband Grant Johannesen playing a recital… I had contact with these great people as a little kid and that’s how I was exposed to chamber music. I was immersed in it through no fault of my own, but because of my parents. I heard the Budapest Quartet, the Hungarian Quartet, the Amadeus Quartet, the Juilliard Quartet, the Beaux Arts Trio, among many others.  I heard all kinds of really great groups. The concerts were held in a beautiful old studio with a balcony and chairs on the main floor. It was a very intimate, very lovely space, and it was fantastic. 

Are there any highlights in the Fauré or the Haydn that you’re particularly looking forward to?
I’m looking forward most to playing with my people in La Fenice. We can play anything at all and we’re just thrilled to be playing together and I think that our love for each other comes out in our performances. The Haydn is a fantastic piece, and it’s a Peggy arrangement of a Haydn string quartet, and those are always really wonderful to do, because it’s a different sound, but a really great way to be playing the music of Haydn. I always love doing those with her. The Fauré is one of the really great Piano Quartets, the C Minor Piano Quartet, which is very dramatic and very soulful and very beautiful, and a perfect piece for us, we just love it.