The Violin Channel recently caught up with violist Mark Holloway, longtime student of former Guarneri String Quartet member, Mr Michael Tree – who passed away earlier this week, aged 83.
In a VC-exclusive blog, Mark pays tribute to his late-teacher and mentor:
“I’m heartbroken over the loss of my dear teacher and friend Michael Tree. He was a ravishingly beautiful violist and natural musician who inspired me from the first time I heard that gorgeous and vivid sound of his. He was also the very definition of a mensch – kind, good, generous, supportive, and caring – and sincerely devoted to teaching and passing on what he knew. He completely changed my life.
I marveled at his uniquely personal sound that transcended whichever particular viola he happened to be playing, whether it was that enormous and glorious Busan that he played for most of his career, or the terrific instruments of Hiroshi Iizuka that he played more recently. His insatiable curiosity led him to quite frequently swap out one instrument for another, or try one that Iizuka had recently finished, or take home one that he tried somewhere and liked. One day in between lessons at the Curtis Institute of Music, where I studied with him, we tried a bunch of violas, including several of his own, because a few of his students happened to be looking for new instruments to play. I remember him playing through a lineup of instruments for us (violas whose prices spanned many hundreds of thousands dollars) and in the end, all we could hear was Michael, singing on the viola like a great cantor. It was a great lesson: that you yourself are responsible for crafting your unique sound. Should you be blessed to play a wonderful instrument, all the better.
In our lessons, he spoke so much about character, emotion, and phrasing. And yes, as is widely known, he loved to tinker with fingerings, all in search of a natural phrase and just the right color. He absolutely adored expressive sliding on the viola, but cautioned against what he called “transportation” slides – ones that were audible not for musical reasons, but only because you needed to get to a certain position. He was also quite gifted at showing you why a certain fingering of yours was going to produce some musically-unwanted scoop or inelegant string crossing! He had a remarkably facile left hand, in fact, the fingerboard seemed to be one big position for him. He could famously crawl up and down the viola for three-octave arpeggios without shifting at all, really, but just reaching and extending. Some of his creative (and very difficult) fingerings for the first page of the Walton concerto still make my head spin! He had a special fondness for British music, and those electric eyes of his would light up if I brought in a piece by Bax or Bridge.
He was full of little tips and helpful advice on music, viola-playing, and life, and doled it out with the kindness of a beloved grandfather. When my pegs were sticking and making noise, he gifted me the 1980’s lime-green Crayola crayon in his case that he had reserved for just that purpose. (I still have it, of course.) He espoused fine tuners on all strings, because during a concert, in the heat of the moment – literally and figuratively – strings can go out of tune and a little tweak of the fine tuner could put things right quickly, and silently. He didn’t like to see or hear tension while playing, and told me how his teacher Efrem Zimbalist advised him to lower his left arm during rests in sonatas and concertos to keep the blood flowing and ease tension while playing. He also used to talk about how the left hand position should be such that you could rest an inverted teacup over the fingers, because the fingers would be gently curving and none would be jutting out or sticking out of place. He would often talk about the benefits of flat bow hair, using all the hair, at the tip. There was a lovely metaphor of each string having a ‘north’ and ‘south’ side to its neighboring string, and that you could adjust your bow arm accordingly so that you wouldn’t have to use excess motion and put unwanted accents in a legato phrase. And speaking of legato, his was legendary, and vocal. While he loved portato as an expressive tool, it was to be used when you intended it, and not just because you got lazy and didn’t hear that you weren’t actually playing legato! He also spoke about the importance of physically turning your body out towards the audience during big viola moments, so the sound would be directed at them. He cited a time when Isaac Stern was listening to him play a dress rehearsal of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante in Carnegie Hall and gave him this exact advice, which made a huge difference in the balance and projection. He told me a similar story about playing chamber music with Boris Kroyt, the violist for the Budapest Quartet, who swung around towards the audience during the concert when he had an important second viola line and almost knocked Michael off his chair! Michael had a generous and expressive vibrato, and his sound on the C string especially – whether he was far away or playing right under your ear – was instantly recognizable and comforting, like putting on an old pair of slippers. He had a custom T-shirt printed that said something like, “I vibrate and make slides in Baroque music” and wore it with utter glee at barbecues at the Marlboro Music Festival!
Michael was a great raconteur, like one of his chamber music colleagues, Artur Rubinstein. I loved when he told stories – like the time he was playing a live radio broadcast in London and was paralyzed with fear when he realized he didn’t have a spare A string should his break (“A word to the wise…” – one of his favorite phrases – he cautioned me). Or when, at the recording session for the Schumann Piano Quintet with Rubinstein, the balance wasn’t quite right for the big C string viola solo in the march movement, so the engineer had him stand up while he played it, to be closer to the microphone. Once we worked on the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in a lesson, he gave me some bowings and fingerings, and a few days later a Strad magazine arrived in the mail with a special feature on the Arpeggione Sonata, with fingerings and bowings by Michael Tree – *completely* different than the ones he had just suggested to me! I loved his competitive spirt on the tennis court and at the ping pong table, and his love of great stories, jokes, and card tricks. Once at the music festival in Taos, long before he had a cell phone, Michael took a beeping plastic toy phone from his pocket and pretended to answer it, while excusing himself from dinner and talking into the “phone” about stock options in the silver trade, or something like that, all while disappearing into the next room. A table of students and colleagues looked on in disbelief as Michael took this joke right to the end! I was deeply inspired by the way he adored his beautiful wife Jani – you could see the love and devotion to her in those transfixing eyes of his. They seemed to be madly in love with each other and would often host dinners and events with their friends and students. A storybook couple, as it seemed to us from the outside.
The picture of us is from his birthday last year, and the other is from when he was still a violinist! I found it on eBay and brought it to a lesson one day for him to autograph. He hadn’t seen it in 50 years and was quite moved, dedicating it to me, “I was your age once upon a time. Warm greetings, Michael Tree.” I’m grateful for his soulful playing, his beauty, and the many kindnesses he showed me, as well as for the dozens of superb recordings that will keep his sound alive forever. I shed tears of sadness at our loss, but also of incredible gratitude. We were all so lucky to have him in our lives.