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David Soyer, Cellist and Guarneri String Quartet Founder, Dies

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David Soyer, the founding cellist of the Guarneri String Quartet and a Juilliard faculty member since 2003, died on February 25 at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.    

David Soyer at a rehearsal in about 2003 at the Marlboro Music Festival, with which he was involved for nearly 50 years.

(Photo by Pete Checchia)

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David Soyer, the founding cellist of the Guarneri String Quartet and a Juilliard faculty member since 2003, died on February 25 at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.    

One of the most sought-after cellists and teachers of his time, Soyer was an active and central figure at the Marlboro Music Festival for nearly 50 years, and was also on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music. 

Born on February 24, 1923, in Philadelphia, Soyer began playing cello at age 11. He first studied with Philadelphia Orchestra member Emmet Sargent and then briefly with Joseph Emonts of the New York Philharmonic. His primary teacher was Diran Alexanian and he also studied with the legendary cellists Pablo Casals and Emanuel Feuermann. Soyer, whose parents had no musical background, made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1942 in a concert conducted by Eugene Ormandy.   

Before forming the Guarneri String Quartet, Soyer played with the United States Army Band during World War II and then with the NBC Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. But it was his work with the quartet that was most central to his career. Soyer founded the Guarneri with violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, and violist Michael Tree at the Marlboro Music Festival in 1964. The ensemble performed together for the next 37 years—an unusually long run for a string quartet, where personalities and other conflicts can dissolve groups quickly—and gained recognition for its ability to play with elegance, warmth, vibrancy, and cohesion, without losing a sense of each musician’s personality. 

In a 1993 review in The Los Angeles Times, music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote that the Guarneri “played with exquisite ensemble values, shading the line with unanimous subtlety and applying rubato with daring generosity.” The group toured the world and gave some 100 performances a year, winning the attention of audiences, writers, filmmakers, and critics. A 1989 film, High Fidelity: The Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet, documented the workings of the group, and the ensemble is also the subject of several books.                           

Soyer was known for his assertive demeanor and powerful, romantic sound, as well his ability to connect and collaborate with younger musicians. In a May 2009 Faculty Portrait, Soyer told The Juilliard Journal that “true technique is the ability to play sincerely and honestly and with human warmth. I was taught very sternly, and when I began to teach, I thought that was the way it’s done.” He added, “My students cried a lot, but didn’t learn; they just cried. So I lightened up and we were all happier.”       

When he retired from the Guarneri in 2001, Soyer passed his chair on to his student Peter Wiley in a concert at Carnegie Hall. Soyer made one last appearance with the quartet in 2009, playing a Schubert quintet in the ensemble’s final concert in New York City, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The group retired as a whole that same year.  

Soyer gave lessons until two weeks before his death. He is survived by his wife, Janet, a retired harpist; sons Daniel and Jeffrey; two granddaughters; and a sister.

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