Photograph by Brian Hatton
A founding member of the American String Quartet, Laurie Carney comes from a prodigious musical family. Her father was a trumpeter and educator, her mother a pianist, and her three siblings all violinists. She began her studies at home, and at the age of eight was admitted to the Preparatory Division of the Juilliard School. At 15 she was the youngest to be accepted into Juilliard’s College Division. Ms. Carney studied with Dorothy DeLay and received both BM and MM degrees from Juilliard. She has shared the stage with many of the world’s leading artists, including Isaac Stern, Yefim Bronfman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Frederica von Stade. She teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. Her nonprofessional interests include animal rights and environmental concerns.
Laurie Carney has inspired generations of violinists internationally. After Persimmon Tree Music Editor Gena Raps heard the Manhattan School of Music’s resident ensemble, the American String Quartet, give their spring recital, she engaged founding member Laurie Carney in the following conversation.
Gena Raps: In the string quartets before your generation, such as the Juilliard, the Guarneri, the Budapest—there were no women.
Laurie Carney: In the next generation there were a few women. Anahid Ajemian was in the Composers Quartet. She and my mom knew each other at Juilliard. Anahid was a wonderful violinist. There had been a woman second violinist in the Tokyo, but not for long. Martha Katz was the violist in the Cleveland Quartet; she left about two years after she had a child.
But there’d certainly been no women in any quartet that’s played quartets as long as I have.
I remember asking my brother years ago, “How long do I have to do this?” And he said, “Well, you’ve got to get to 50.” Two years will be 50.
GR: That’s a record! Were you a founding member of the American String Quartet?
LC: I’m the only original player in the group now. We won the Naumberg in 1974, almost exactly to the day 48 years ago.
GR: You’ve been on the stage since you were…?
LC: 17, 18.
GR: How many concerts did you play a year?
LC: Back then we might have been playing 30 or 40 while I was in school full-time. I was the only one of the ASQ who was in school full-time.
GR: When one of us was on tour Juilliard made exceptions for academics and classroom attendance.
LC: It worked out well. Dan Avshalomov, our violist, joined the quartet in January of 1976. He and I have played together now for 46 years. Pete Winograd joined 32 years ago as our first violinist. And Wolfram Koessel is the baby in the quartet; he joined 17 years ago.
GR: Did you audition for the part or did they hand-pick you?
LC: We put ourselves together.
GR: At Juilliard?
LC: Martin Foster, the original first violin, asked me if I would like to play with him. David Geber, who teaches here at Manhattan School of Music, was our original cellist. David and I played together for 28 years. He left the quartet right after 9/11. His kids were little and traveling became very difficult at that point.
GR: You had at least 30 concerts a year since the time you were 17?
LC: Before COVID, we were playing 75, 80. We had a couple of really tough years. For our 25th anniversary, our management decided we should play in all 50 states. And we did. We played in all 50 states and we did two European tours that year, and I think that might have been more like 125 concerts. We all said we’re not doing that again.
GR: Were you teaching at that time also?
LC: We’ve always had teaching jobs. We had our first teaching job at Mannes in 1976, just before I turned 20. And then we did a 10-year residency at Peabody. We’ve taught at University of Michigan. We’ve taught at Rice. And I was joking with my husband the other day, “You know, I’ve never actually applied for a job ever in my life.” The quartet was often given quartet residencies.
GR: Did you feel you missed a peer group social life because you were touring and busy at such a young age?
LC: Everybody I knew were musicians and had all been like me. We all started at an early age and music was our love and our passion.
The music business, as you know, is hard. You have to be talented, but much more than that you have to have good people and influential people helping you. You have to have mentors. You have to have people who believe in you. You have to be lucky. All of that comes into play. I stress to my students how important your innate character is. Who you are as a person will really determine whether you succeed.
GR: Were your parents musicians?
LC: My mom was a pianist and my dad was a trumpet player who became a high school music teacher in Rockland County. My mom studied with Olga Samarov at Juilliard; my father studied with William Vacchiano, who was the principal trumpet at the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. My dad would have been at Juilliard, let’s see, from ’37 to ’41. And my mom came as a 12-year-old to Juilliard in1936 and graduated in ’46.
GR: Studying music at such an early age, did you have a formal academic education?
I grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey and went to Dwight School for Girls. I started playing the piano a few years before the violin and the violin at eight. My parents had known Miss DeLay at Juilliard and called her after I had been playing violin for about a year, and asked if I could play for her. She accepted me into her studio. I used to go to her house for lessons, which was really, really nice.
In my junior year in high school, she said, “Sweetie, I think you should come to Juilliard next year.” I replied, “Miss DeLay, I haven’t graduated from high school.” She said, “But you can audition anyway.” With her encouragement, I entered Juilliard at 15.
GR: Was that the College division?
LC: Yes, the College division.
GR: Were you the youngest ever to enter the college?
LC: It could be there are some people younger now, but certainly at the time. With a one-year master’s, I graduated at 20. The quartet won the Naumberg when I was 17. It was strange. I was in school full-time, but also playing concerts and was represented by a manager who made the arrangements for our concerts.
GR: You spent your young adulthood on the road. Did you have a family?
LC: My husband, William Grubb, is a cellist and was in the Aspen Trio, who were also traveling all the time. It worked out well. Both my husband’s parents were musicians. It seemed very natural.
At this point my husband and I don’t even live in the same city. He lives in Indianapolis and teaches at Butler University. His parents were on the faculty at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Bill’s dad was a cellist and his mom was a harpist. They were both professors. Bill grew up there and then got a job there. He was happy to be close to his parents. We go back and forth—he mostly goes back and forth, I don’t go back and forth all that much. Except in the summer.
GR: I was thinking that having a performing career, you have so much more knowledge than if you’ve just been sitting in a room teaching.
My teacher Artur Balsam also performed all the time. He knew about performing on stages like Carnegie and Lincoln Center, and coached me as a performing artist. And that’s what I really saw today in the graduate recital of your young violinist, Jin Woo Jung, who played so beautifully. Can you speak to what you know about acoustics and what you know about playing in concert halls and being able to teach from your performing experiences ?
LC: We played a variety of halls. We played in some of the world’s great halls and we’ve played in some of the world’s worst halls, that are much more like lecture halls. Dead acoustics, very dry. The second the bow is off the string, you make a thumping sound. You can’t adjust your playing to every hall in the world; you’ll make yourself crazy. I tell my students they have to be consistent and play like they normally play. The other day Jin played in studio class; I have a studio class every week. The room is overly carpeted and the piano is dark and heavy and has a stiff action. He felt his sound wasn’t projecting and he started forcing. I said you can’t, you don’t want to force. When he listened to the recording he heard it.
I said, “You can’t start to force because you feel like you’re not being heard. That’s just going to change your conception of sound and conception of the character of the piece. It doesn’t help. You will play in a lovely room later and it’s live. You don’t have to work hard; you can play quietly. You don’t always have to feel like you’ve got to project miles to the back of the hall.” I tell them to be true to themselves.
Frankly, I don’t teach anything that I haven’t performed. Even if I only performed the work once, I have that performance experience behind me when I start to help steer them through a new piece of music. I feel because I’ve had the luxury of having multiple performances of many works over time, I can bring that experience to them. Say that you’re learning a piece for the first time. Maybe you’re not going to get up and perform it right away, but you have to be able to learn it and then come back to it and see what you’ve learned as you grow older, where your experiences have taken you.
When we’ve had personnel changes, for instance when Wolfram joined the Quartet 17 years ago, we were not going to perform our repertoire exactly as we had originally learned and performed. We wanted performances to be infused with new ideas and new blood and new information and new perspective. We’re constantly changing interpretations.
I have to stress with my students that the violin and the bow is their voice. What they do especially with their bow is how the character of the piece emerges. Does the music breathe? You can’t play Mozart the way you play Brahms. They have to learn this. It’s complex.
GR: It’s interesting that you give so much emphasis to the bow. I was at Joseph Fuchs’ solo recital at Juilliard when he was in his eighties. He couldn’t hear his exact intonation. Many people walked out, but I knew his playing. I knew what he was doing with that bow arm. And I knew how incredible his bow arm was for nuance and phrasing.
LC: Everything we do as a string player comes from the right hand, the bow arm. What we have in the left hand, besides technical stuff, is vibrato. You have to have 100 different vibrato speeds because that adds to the color. Everything else we do that contributes to how we play musically is from the bow.
GR? What do you see as the particular role of the second violinist?
LC: I have a rather alto voice and so I’ve always been interested in that role in the Quartet. I get to control much of the timings and colors. Especially if you’re playing Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven. As Wolfram likes to say, we’re the carpet. We lay the carpet out for our first violinist, Peter, to be able to do what he wants. I’m a big component in setting the color of the sound for the three lower voices: the second violin, viola, and cello. That gives Peter Winograd the luxury and freedom to do wants to do, when he knows there’s beautiful layer of sound under him. I control a lot of the subtle timings. Even though I’m not playing soloist much of the time and playing harmony, I have never been interested in playing first violin in the Quartet.
GR: I understand completely because when I play piano four-hand with colleagues, I love to play the bottom part. I love the sounds of the harmony and bass. In a sense the harmonic structure supports the direction of the other parts.
LC: When violinists in a quartet switch places it becomes difficult to have a consistent role. I prefer that everybody’s role be consistent.
GR: Many famous violinists studied with your teacher Dorothy DeLay, such as Midori, Gil Shaham, Itzhak Perlman, Pinky Zuckerman.
LC: One of the legendary teachers that I’ve known. I was incredibly lucky to both study with her and work with members of the Juilliard Quartet. They were a big influence on me and the ASQ too—all of the members of the Quartet—and this is going to back when Claus Adams was the cellist. When we won the Naumberg, we commissioned Claus, who was just leaving the Juilliard Quartet, to write a quartet for us.
One of the great things about Miss DeLay was that she didn’t teach any two students the same way. She looked at who you were as a person and individualized her approach. She knew right from the start that chamber music was important to me. And she guided me. For years after we had all graduated, we set up meetings with Miss DeLay to talk about our careers and what she felt we should be doing.
She guided from a motherly and a psychological place. She never raised her voice. You knew that she wasn’t happy when she’d say, “Sweetie, you know, I don’t think that sounded quite as good as it could.” You went home thinking, ooh, I better get this in shape by next week.
She influenced my approach to teaching. I think I’m nurturing with my students. I let them know when I’m not pleased, but it’s never through a raised voice or reprimands.
GR: Unlike other styles of teaching! One great violinist at Juilliard was known to throw the music out the window onto Claremont Avenue. Many were insulting as well. This could never happen nowadays!
LC: I was probably naïve in some ways. But I certainly never experienced that with the people I worked with. Another important influence was Felix Galimir. He was so sweet and so soft-spoken and funny. I first met Felix when I was 13. I was in the New York String seminar the first two years it existed, which was 1969 and 1970. Miss DeLay encouraged me to audition and Felix called up my parents and said, “Do you have a problem with your 13-year-old daughter living in a hotel in New York City?” My father said, “No, no, no problem.” Everybody was much older than I was.
Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet was the one who encouraged me when the Quartet was first getting started. I remember three-hour lessons in his apartment on Central Park West, getting us ready for the Naumberg competition. We had won the Coleman a couple of weeks before the Naumberg. We had three hours of agonizing, in-depth coaching. I could see what it meant to him and I certainly knew what it meant to me.
GR: It’s well-known that the Budapest rehearsed every morning. What is the ASQ rehearsal schedule?
LC: When we were first starting, yes, we rehearsed a lot. Sometimes it would be 8 o’clock in the morning, sometimes 10 o’clock at night. When we won the Naumberg, we had three pieces in our repertoire. We had to seriously learn repertoire. And we rehearsed every day. Probably three to five hours a day. When you’re thrown into the deep end and you don’t have a lot of repertoire, you have to start learning repertoire!
The summer that we won the Naumberg, Gordon Hardy was the dean at Juilliard and he was also head of the Aspen Music Festival. I had been a student in Aspen since 1971. We won the Naumberg and Gordon said “I’d like to invite the Quartet to play in Aspen this summer.” He gave us teaching jobs. I was 17!!
I remember I had a group who were all graduate students. They wanted to learn Opus 131 of Beethoven. Well, I’d never played that quartet. I remember studying the score five hours a day for the week before their coaching. It was completely new to me but I knew how to work and how to learn and how to get through this quartet repertoire. That’s how I learned Op. 131, and all these years later it’s still my favorite Beethoven quartet.
We did a live Beethoven cycle in Tel Aviv and included Op. 131. I hadn’t heard it in about a year, but the last time I looked on YouTube, there were over 500,000 hits. I’m happy with this performance.
GR: The Budapest, players were known to dislike each other. When they traveled to performances they each took a different route.
LC: Considering two were brothers, that was particularly strange.
GR: You apparently get along well. You never had difficult interactions?
LC: Oh, no! I think you can’t work with other people and not have an innate respect for them. In my quartet, even after all this time, if one of my colleagues says, “You know, I think that could be more expressive or could you use a different vibrato there or could you…?” I trust everything they say.
One of the great things about quartet playing is how much you learn from each other. It’s a constant learning experience. You strive for perfection, knowing that it’s never going to be perfect. But we work to make whatever composer we’re playing sound the best it can be. We are constantly reminding ourselves—maybe that’s a little bit too rough a sound for Mozart or for early Haydn. And certainly we distinguish early Beethoven from middle Beethoven from late Beethoven. There are sounds that we produce in the late quartets that we wouldn’t produce in the Opus 18’s.
We’re constantly talking to each other; it’s all about compromise and finding solutions to problems and really working together. We really do like each other. We share our meals together all the time when we’re on tour. We’re happiest doing that.
GR: Recently I was at a concert at Manhattan School of Music where you played several 21st-century pieces. Has the ASQ commissioned new music?
LC: At that concert we played a piece by Vivian Fung, whom we met 21 years ago when Richard Danielpour organized a composers’ seminar in Florida. We had recorded three of his quartets and he invited us to join the seminar since he knew our work. There were probably 10, 12 composers. We read their music and made suggestions. Vivian had just written an impressive movement of a quartet. It was meant to be the scherzo of a quartet, and was an all-pizzicato movement. Up to that point there were only one or two all-pizzicato movements. We invited her to finish writing the quartet. In 2005 or so we played the Great Wall Festival in China and called Vivian to let her know we were going to play her quartet in China and to invite her to speak about the music. Vivian said “I’d love to, I’d be honored.”
More recently I ran into Vivian in Chinatown, “What are you doing down here?” I asked. She said, “I’m learning Chinese,” which she didn’t know. She grew up in Canada and her parents wanted to assimilate as quickly as possible. When we were asked about whom we would like to write a new commission, we chose Vivian again. She wrote a fascinating piece for us without melody or harmony. All of the sound waves morph from just one series of sounds. It’s called Insects and Machines and was inspired by a trip to Cambodia. I found it fascinating.
Robert Sirota also composed for us. We just played Triptych, written in response to 9/11. It’s a fantastic piece about the destruction of the towers. We had played it in Chicago five years ago, on the 15th anniversary. We were invited to return for the 20th anniversary and their request was to play all of Triptych. It’s a powerful and moving piece.
Bob also wrote American Pilgrimage for us four years ago. It’s based on Maine in the morning, the South Carolina shootings in the Black church, a sunset in Santa Fe, and Manhattan late at night. Each of the four movements has a completely different character.
We like working with composers, and especially—talking about Vivian or Bob—articulate composers, who know what they want and can express it well so we have an idea of how to make it work.
GR: How did the pandemic affect the ASQ?
LC: We came home from Europe March 14, 2020, and everything just stopped. We didn’t play a concert until July 31 of 2020. I will never forget because we were invited by a friend who runs a series in Connecticut. The concert was on a loading dock which Martha Stewart’s production company had used when she had her TV programs. Afterwards it became the Museum of Modern Art in Westport, Connecticut. We picked repertoire that we knew we didn’t have to rehearse much. I think we played a Haydn quartet and Shostakovich’s Third quartet and a Ravel quartet.
They had lights and a carpet down for us on an outside loading dock, and the audience sat in the parking lot. There were big chalk X marks where the audience could put folding chairs. Many had brought wine and dinner, and there was also a gourmet food truck. It was emotional, because we only got together the day before to rehearse at Pete’s house outside. He made a big dinner and we sat far away from each other. We were being super cautious. It was emotional to play together for the first time in months after not doing anything.
GR: Was it months or years?
LC: We hadn’t played together in four-and-a-half months. It was teary. Then school started in September with strict guidelines..
GR: When did you start traveling again, big time?
LC: Last summer. After a year and a half. We had made a few livestream and videotaped concerts for various series, but really we didn’t start traveling until last summer. That’s when things started to come back. Now it’s quite busy.
Gena Raps, Persimmon Tree Music Editor, has performed internationally and across the United States. Her recordings of Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorak can be found on Musical Heritage Society, Arabesque, and Naxos among others. She has taught at the Juilliard School, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Mannes College of Music, and has received numerous prizes and honors. She has been on the jury for competitions at the Juilliard School and the Fulbright Fellowship. Recently Ms. Raps has been giving concerts at the Tenri Gallery in New York City and donating the proceeds to help Ukrainian children.