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Martin Juggles Cello, Computer

October 08, 1987|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Robert Martin doesn't suffer double vision. But because the former cellist of the Sequoia Quartet sees his life as a two-track affair, it's perfectly normal for him to be sponsoring a new series called "Music for Mischa" and working full time for Unisys on computer program verification.

As ever, Martin is a dual careerist: musical virtuoso and logician, with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale.

But beneath his youthful, untroubled smile and earnest commitment there lies a hint of impulsiveness, a slight unrest over traveling one path often at the compromise of another.

"I've been trying not to have to make a choice for 25 years," he says, just having arrived at the Santa Monica restaurant across the street from his Unisys office.

"Nothing's changed since the day--it was in 1957--I registered for my classes at Curtis (Institute of Music) and Lenny Bernstein, hearing the department secretary hollering at me for also taking a regular academic load at Haverford (College), came inside the office and helped sort things out.

"When he understood that I intended to be a full-time student at both Philadelphia campuses he said, 'Marvelous!' He saved me. And five years later I had two degrees. As proof that my instincts were right, I can point to my most productive periods as those with both music and academics going at the same time."

Departing the Sequoia two years ago to teach a semester at UCLA did not improve his life, Martin says.

"I had all kinds of mixed feelings at the time. Only after leaving music did I know how much I need it."

So last season, he produced four concerts of Beethoven trios at Gindi Auditorium, enlisting violinist Miwako Watanabe (still a Sequoia member) and pianist Antoinette Perry. With the profits, says Martin, he paid for a compact disc player.

While organizing and playing a quartet of concerts does not threaten his job at Unisys (research aimed at foiling computer hackers), the cellist-philosopher says he has time to worry about what will happen if the series, opening Sunday, expands.

As Martin explains it, his work at Unisys involves major research and could occupy him more broadly. But it's also flexible enough to accommodate a few of his other involvements--providing he keeps a balance.

And "Music for Mischa," honoring his late friend, Budapest Quartet cellist Mischa Schneider, seems to offer the solution.

Martin recalls that one of the last things Schneider did before his death was urge his younger colleague not to forget the cello.

"Mischa was one of the great chamber musicians," Martin says. "Later, after I came to CalArts and joined the Sequoia, I called him here. He became our mentor. He coached us. He remembered everything--even fingerings for violin parts."

Martin talks affectionately about Schneider and the other three members of the Budapest, how they represented a Russian Jewish sensibility in music--to which Martin feels a direct link.

His own father, after arriving in this country from Poland, immediately changed his name and abandoned the traditions of his father, an orthodox rabbi. Martin reincorporates that cultural heritage with his kinship to Schneider and his commitment to music.

But keeping the two facets of his professional life together takes a bit more doing.

"Everything has fallen into 10-year slots," Martin says. "That's the amount of time I devoted to the liar's paradox (1965 to 1975) and the amount of time I played with the Sequoia Quartet (1975 to 1985).

"And now? Well, I can't keep putting one career on hold for a decade. Sooner or later I'm bound to grow up and make a decision. Meanwhile there are all kinds of happy fantasies."

With the Sequoia on a year's sabbatical, a time during which the oft-changing personnel can figure out what the future holds, Martin dreams of the May concert. It will unite him with two of the current members, Watanabe and violist Brian Dembow.

Fantasies just might be in order.

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