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Cellist Is Philosophical About Pulling It All Together

April 25, 1993|DONNA PERLMUTTER | Donna Perlmutter writes regularly about music for The Times.

For a long time Robert Martin thought he was destined to balance himself, with each foot in a separate canoe. No more. The cellist and founder of Music for Mischa finally lives in a world where his dual careers--chamber music and philosophy--have merged.

Catch him this afternoon at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall and you will hear his string quartet playing a concert with guest pianist Mona Golabek. Catch him Tuesday morning teaching an upper-division class, philosophy of music, and you'll see the other part of his utopia, his dream come true.

"At last I've managed to pull the different parts of my life together," he says, ignoring for a moment the sandwich set before him at the Faculty Center's dining area. "And it feels better than I could ever imagine."

The current good fortune began four years ago when he was appointed assistant dean of humanities. Before that he had taught the occasional course at UCLA, but now the virtuoso cellist, who also has a doctorate in philosophy from Yale, need not be an outsider to academia.

He recounts the longstanding dilemma that his double interests have posed:

"From the very beginning it was a battle. I remember registering for classes (at Curtis Institute of Music) with Lenny Bernstein in the next office overhearing the department secretary holler at me for also taking a regular academic load at Haverford College.

" 'Marvelous,' he said, of my intention to be a full-time student at both Philadelphia campuses. And that ended the argument. Five years later I had two degrees."

But the competition between philosophy and music took him down separate paths for a decade each. During the first, he taught at various universities. During the second, he was a founding member of the Los Angeles-based Sequoia Quartet. After leaving the group in 1985 he briefly abandoned music and took a job at Unisys, the computer company, doing research aimed at foiling computer hackers, while continuing his halftime teaching career.

Martin acknowledges that his brief fling in industry was "an attempt to make the best of a bad situation," a means of supporting his family while performing took a back seat. But no one would have guessed then that beneath a youthful smile lay such disappointment.

To satisfy his frustration, in 1986 he founded Music for Mischa--named after the Budapest String Quartet's cellist, the late Mischa Schneider.

"Music is my preserve of purity," Martin says, "that place where nothing extraneous intrudes. It affords me the luxury of dreaming up desert-island programs. And all the back-and-forth articulating we do as a quartet--the whys and wherefores of interpretive decisions--naturally leads to the commentary that's so important to this philosophy of music course."

For the first three seasons the group played at Gindi Auditorium. Since 1989, the venue has been Schoenberg Hall. And next fall, in addition to local dates, Music for Mischa will make its debut at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"Calls continue to come in," Martin says. "Of course, that makes us happy. But because we are not firm on an advance calendar we cannot schedule guests like Arnold Steinhardt, who has made us a standing offer."

Partly, the problem can be laid to the difficult economic times, which have hit all the performing arts, reduced audiences and made chamber music a particular victim.

But because Martin self-produces the ongoing concert series at Schoenberg he takes a certain financial burden off his presenters. At the same time he provides them with a regular agenda of chamber music.

Michael Blachly, director of UCLA's Center for the Performing Arts, says he couldn't be happier with the Sunday afternoon series.

"Especially when they can bring us such a healthy following and guests of consistently high caliber, all of whom earn unanimously outstanding critical comments."

So does Robert Blocker, dean of the School of the Arts, place an exalted value on what Martin's group can deliver. "Chamber music represents the university at its best," he said, "people working together diligently in the spirit of tolerance and mutual appreciation."

Although these endorsements please Martin, his head is equally turned to matters of the classroom--where he pits Allan Bloom ("The Closing of the American Mind") against Plato, "both of whom, curiously, felt that certain musics must be censored so as not to ruin our youth."

What he finds so fascinating, affirming and even amusing in this postulation "is the idea that music, by logical deduction, must be awfully powerful if it can cause a decline in society."

He also is drawn to the standing question: Is music a contact point of emotions or is it an abstraction devoid of feeling and valuable strictly as an artistic construct?

Whether performing or teaching, Martin says he tries to be true to the beloved Mischa Schneider, his friend and mentor, arguably one of the greatest string quartet cellists who ever drew a bow:

"It's his standards that are always in mind and his humanism and immense generosity. Back when we were just starting the Sequoia Quartet I asked him to come out here to coach us. He did, and could remember everything--even fingerings for the violin parts.

"One of the last things he said to me was: 'Never forsake the cello.' As if I ever could."

Music for Mischa performs at 4 p.m. today at Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. Tickets $9 to $15. Call (310) 825-2101.

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