/ News / Curtis Mourns the Loss of Michael Tree, Viola Faculty Member and Guarneri Founding Member

In Memoriam: Michael Tree (1934–2018)

Michael TreeCurtis mourns the loss of Michael Tree (Violin ’55) who passed away on Friday, March 30. A member of our viola faculty for 50 years and a founding member of the Guarneri Quartet, Mr. Tree was a mentor and inspiration to generations of Curtis violists. He carried on the Curtis string legacy he inherited from his Curtis teachers Efrem Zimbalist, Lea Luboshutz, and Veda Reynolds. 

“He was one of the original quartet superstar violists,” remembers President Roberto Díaz. “Through his playing he raised the bar and through his teaching he left a legacy—some of the greatest young string quartet violists and orchestra principals are Michael Tree students. We will remember him for his humanity, his wit, and his incredible commitment to music, the quartet, and Curtis.” We extend our heartfelt sympathy to the family, friends, colleagues, and students of Mr. Tree.

An accomplished soloist, Mr. Tree made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1954 and has subsequently appeared as both violinist and violist with many major orchestras. He participated in leading festivals, including Casals, Spoleto, Israel, Santa Fe, Tanglewood, Aspen, and Marlboro. It was at Marlboro that the Guarneri Quartet was formed in the late 1950s by Mr. Tree, cellist David Soyer, and two other violinists, John Dalley (Violin ’57) and Arnold Steinhardt (Violin ’59). Mr. Tree volunteered to play viola, cementing the course of his career.

With the Guarneri String Quartet, Mr. Tree performed on virtually every concert series throughout the world and was awarded the New York City Seal of Recognition. He recorded more than 80 chamber music works for the Columbia, RCA, Philips, Arabesque, Nonesuch, and Vanguard labels. In addition, Mr. Tree was a member of the string trio Divertimento and, as violinist, of the Fleisher, Jolley, TreeO.

Also a dedicated pedagogue, Mr. Tree served on the faculties of the University of Maryland, Manhattan School of Music, Juilliard School, and Bard College Conservatory of Music in addition to his decades of teaching at Curtis.

Find a full obituary from the Philadelphia Inquirer here.


Shared Memories

On September 16, Curtis presented a memorial tribute to Michael Tree in Field Concert Hall. Students, colleagues, members of his family, and admirers from near and far came together to celebrate a life that meant so much to so many. In continuation of our commemoration of Mr. Tree, his past students and colleagues share touching memories and tributes.

Diana Steiner (Violin '47, '59)

Michael has been a part of my life since he entered Curtis as a young teenager. We were kids together studying with Zimbalist and Reynolds. I frequently accompanied his lessons in my dual capacity as violin student and assistant staff piano accompanist. We were friends immediately and remained that way, lifelong. Our lives intertwined at many junctures: at Camden, Maine; at Marlboro, Vermont; and in later years, when he mentored and encouraged my daughter Marcia in her efforts to make the harp a full member of the chamber music world. Michael was always generous with his knowledge and a joy to be around. Our last visit, when he came to Los Angeles, was breakfast at our home. I remember he wouldn’t eat grapefruit (“not good with Lipitor!”) Who knew that another nasty illness would take him from us. A great loss to family, friends, and the music world.

Philip Dukes

I feel privileged to have had the good fortune to both study and perform alongside such an individual, the like of which we will probably never see again.

Sophia ReuterPhoto submitted by Sophia Reuter

I was so lucky to see Michael and Jani after quite a few years—once having lunch together at their Manhattan home, and once at Carnegie Hall when they joined a rehearsal of our orchestra playing Bruckner’s 9th symphony. I felt so blessed being able to see Michael full of positive spirits and his unique charming way of being—so kindly accompanied by his beloved wife Jani who made this encounter possible. It was the last time that I saw him.

We hugged each other before they both walked away towards Central Park—the most touching good-bye ever. For me, as for so many musicians around the globe, he will always be loved and adored for his unique way of playing—his deep velvety sound making the Guarneri Quartet more special than any other quartet in history—as well as being this humble and most inspiring human being.

Beth Levin (Piano '70)

Thank you for the opportunity to join in remembering this great musician.

I worked with Michael Tree at Curtis and at Marlboro on some of the great piano and string repertoire. He was inspirational to say the least, funny, warm and a superb guide to the depth and power of chamber music. He helped form my approach to making music that I carry through to today in performance.

Anthony Devroye (Viola '02)

I have a clear memory of a lesson with Mr. Tree. We were working on the Schubert "Arpeggione" sonata, which I was preparing to rehearse with piano and eventually perform. Mr. Tree started talking about the concessions one needs to make when playing with piano (mostly in regards to tempered rather than expressive intonation, in order to match the piano), and became more agitated as he mulled these ideas over. Finally, in a delectable moment of candor, he blurted out: "You know, the piano is the dumbest goddamn instrument Man ever invented! It can't sustain, it can't vibrate, it can't really play in tune. All it can do is play a lot of notes, loudly! It's a poor man's orchestra!"  He said all this with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes, and just enough of a smile, and of course we well know the respect he had for the extraordinary pianists with whom he collaborated. But as I've recounted that story over the years I've come to see that, in addition to its comedic value, it encapsulates some of his most cherished musical priorities: sustain a long line, tweak your intonation to enhance expression, and for God's sake vibrate wherever possible: "Give life to every single note!"

Craig Nies (Piano '74)

“The fall of 1968, my first semester at Curtis as a piano major, began a year of significant change at Curtis. Rudolf Serkin was the new president; Max Rudolf came to head the opera program; Seymour Lipkin joined the piano faculty; Robert Levin joined the theory department; afternoon teas were reduced to one day a week; AND the Guarneri Quartet was the new quartet in residence.

During that first semester, I had a coaching with Michael Tree, quickly learning the complete Brahms Sonata in E-flat major,  and playing with freshman clarinetist David Shifrin.  I have always remembered Mr. Tree’s comment about preferring that piece on the viola!

Another semester Mr. Tree coached violinist Zina Schiff and me on the Prokofiev flute/violin sonata.  As I recall, Mr. Tree had not personally played that work, but was highly enthusiastic about the piece.  Shortly after that coaching, one of the other members of the Guarneri Quartet was injured, and the three remaining members performed string/piano sonatas in place of the usual string quartets, all with Curtis alumna Ruth Laredo.  I was very pleased that Mr. Tree chose to learn and perform that Prokofiev Sonata we had recently played for him!

Finally, I enjoyed many wonderful performances of the Guarneri at Curtis.  While all of the players were inspiring, the one I focused on the most was Mr. Tree.

Doris Lederer (Viola '76)Photo submitted by Sophia Reuter

Even though Michael is no longer physically with us he is certainly a very large part of me, not unlike the feeling of a beloved parent that has passed on. Every day that I either play or teach viola I hear his voice in my head saying things like "try to vibrate every note, get rid of the bar lines—they're a musician's worst enemy—and try using octopus fingerings" (you know, the kind where you extend outside of positions).

I also remember my tears of frustration after numerous lessons when he would play SO amazingly and beautifully for me... and I simply couldn't sound like that! Well, after about 40 years after working with him, I STILL continue to work on getting even a bit closer to those same goals that I tried to achieve then because he instilled in me/us SUCH a high bar that's impossible to ignore.

I'm just grateful that I still have the opportunity to practice and perform and continue working on getting closer to achieving those goals. Plus.... I get to work with wonderful students to whom I can pass along his legendary influence.

And on a more personal note and testimony to his huge heart, I will never forget how he appeared and surprised me at a recital I gave in NYC for the NY Viola Society many many years after I graduated. Like he had nothing better to do that day... !!!

Karie Prescott (Viola '81)

As I practice the gnarly, difficult passagework in Verdi's Don Carlo, it comes to mind that the reason I CAN navigate these difficult lines is because of Michael Tree. He was a scientist of the fingerboard, and much of my lesson times were taken up with discussing fingerings; this, in turn, allowed me to develop my own sense of what works for my hand and enabled me to find an ergonomic way of approaching fingerings that has permitted me to withstand the rigors of operatic literature for almost four decades.  His analysis of fingerings has helped me to conserve effort in the left hand, a much-needed tool of survival in countless performances of lengthy operas.  His dissection of left-hand issues allowed me to let my hand learn to think for itself, a valuable aid in letting go and being able to focus on other things around you instead of having to think about every note.  It has served me well all these years, and I now find that the fingerings I put in 12 years ago are still good without any changes needed.  THANKS, Michael!

It never ceased to amaze me how he could toss off a difficult passage from the piece I was playing in a lesson, almost as if he had practiced it that day.  His intuition was palpable, he was focused, and he was always very considerate.  I would not hesitate to say that my lessons were actually FUN, something that not everyone could say during my years at Curtis.

We all absorbed him: his fabulous sound, his essence, his largess, and his approach to the viola.  He helped us with the "how to" of viola playing: how to project, how to turn to the audience when playing an important line, and how to think like a violist and understand our role in chamber music. His statement that the violist is the philosopher of the string quartet could not be more accurate!

This is my favorite quote from Michael:  ALWAYS PLAY LOUDER THAN YOUR COLLEAGUES THINK YOU SHOULD"....he GOT it!!

He was always a gentleman to me with no game playing or funny business that interfered with what we were there to do.  THANK YOU, Michael!

Photo submitted by Luosha FangOne of the greatest memories I have in my life is from January 1st, 2009:  the phone rang at my home in Los Angeles, and I heard "Karie, it's Michael Tree!  I'm calling to tell you that I think you should start a string quartet!"  How many people would go out of their way to do something like that?

THOSE BIG BLUE EYES and the twinkle that was often in them are forever etched in my mind!

There will never be another Michael Tree; he was unique, profound, and one of a kind.  He changed my life for the better, gave me valuable tools, and I will be forever grateful to him and respectful of who he was.  The world is a lesser place without him in it.

Thank you, Michael, and may you rest in peace.

Luosha Fang (Violin '14)

Mr. Tree has inspired me as a musician and a human since 2006, as my first serious string quartet played with him in the Mozart Viola Quintet in C major at Bard College. After I went to Marlboro in 2015, again I was very fortunate to play the exact same piece with him. Sometimes, he would surprise us by giving us magic tricks. I would always remember the sound he created from the viola and how he expressed each note with such intention and beauty. His half-steps were always so intimate and close to each other that made such human qualities. Most importantly, he would always let us know how important vibrato is (much unlike the trendy playing style).

Sifei Cheng (Viola '94)

I don’t pretend to have known him well, even though I had the honor of studying with him during my final year at Curtis. He was quite busy, so I only had a handful of lessons. The thing I remembered best about him didn’t have anything to do with music. Although his ability to help me navigate difficult passages was memorable, it was the last thing he said to me that struck me most. As I was leaving after my final lesson, he said “Sifei, I want to help you in any way I can. All you have to do is let me know.” Perhaps it’s something he said to all his students, but he said it with such sincerity I was genuinely touched. After all, he barely knew me and I probably wasn’t even one of his better students. It’s not greatness or fame that I value in people, but their kindness and empathy. To me, he had it all. RIP, Mr. Tree.

Anna Polonsky (’99 Piano)Photo submitted by Anna Polonsky

Michael was a presence in my life since I entered Curtis at the age of 17. He was an inspired mentor, a warm and supportive colleague, and with his unending supply of stories and colorful Yiddishisms, could almost have been a member of my own family. There are so many pieces which I can never imagine without Michael's glorious sound and old-school timing. I will miss Michael's pure, joyful spirit, which was infectious to anyone in his presence. Rest in peace, dear Michael, thank you for lighting up our lives.

John Russo (Clarinet '62)

Sunday, September 16 was a special day as it paid tribute and commemorated the prestigious life of a prolific performing artist and master of the viola. The celebration was primarily upbeat in nature, though there were a few very heartfelt moments. I felt very honored to be in attendance. There was a wonderful reception where faculty, colleagues, alumni and students gathered to enjoy a reflection of this outstanding musical artist, teacher and mentor who gave so much to his students and his colleagues.