Birthday tribute inspires a heartfelt performance

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 4/16/2004

Violist Raphael Hillyer celebrated his 90th birthday in grand style Monday night by playing quintets by Mozart and Dvorak with his friends in the Muir String Quartet, in an event presented by the Blodgett Chamber Music Series at Harvard.

Hillyer's long life in music has been full of excellent adventures. He is most famous, of course, as a founding member of the Juilliard Quartet; he played in that peerless ensemble for 23 seasons, but that was only one major thread in the tapestry of his life.

Born in Ithaca, N.Y., to Russian parents, Hillyer studied in America and in the former Soviet Union; when he was 10, his ear-training teacher in Leningrad was the young Dmitri Shostakovich. In addition to musical studies at the Curtis Institute, Hillyer completed a degree in mathematics at Dartmouth and graduate work in music and math at Harvard, where he encountered the young Leonard Bernstein, who composed a violin sonata for Hillyer in 1939, when Bernstein was 21. The two musicians were also fellows in the first two summers of the Tanglewood Music Center. Hillyer was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1942 until he left for the Juilliard Quartet in 1946. After leaving the quartet, he taught at Yale, Harvard, and Boston University, among other institutions, and served as mentor to the Tokyo String Quartet and to countless other ensembles and individual musicians.

Monday night Hillyer paid spoken tribute to those who had planned this birthday event, to his children, and to his parents. "And now let's have some Mozart," he said -- and the Quintet in D Major followed, in a delightful performance. There weren't any showy solo opportunities for the second viola, but Hillyer's understanding of harmony and harmonic movement was at the heart of the music. (The members of the Muir are Peter Zazofsky and Lucia Lin, violins, Steven Ansell, viola, and Michael Reynolds, cello.)

Zazofsky played the Bernstein Violin Sonata, dedicated to Hillyer, with pianist Michele Levin. The violinist was fiery, the pianist more placid; the music ends with a set of variations that sound like the Copland Variations for piano with powdered sugar sprinkled over them. The Dvorak E-flat Quintet closed the official progam in a spirited, toe-tapping performance; two of the movements happily opened with brief viola solos that showed Hillyer absolutely in tune, and with the rhythmic vitality of a young man.

A surprise closed the evening: a 15-minute video tribute with commentary from such luminaries as pianist Ruth Laredo and Borromeo Quartet violinist Nicholas Kitchen. But the star of the film was indisputably Hillyer, as he reminisced, exhorted young string quartets, and told an audience of students at BU that the secret of the Juilliard Quartet was "that we played as if our lives depended on it."


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