Robert Mann, a founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet and perhaps Portland’s most renowned classically-tuned native son, died Monday in Manhattan.
Mann was born in Portland in 1920 to immigrant parents. In the 2013 documentary about his life, “Speak the Music,” he said he got his musical start when his father sent him to lessons with Edouard Hurlimann, the concertmaster of the then Portland Symphony, now the Oregon Symphony.
At first, Hurlimann just told Mann to practice more. But then, one day Hurlimann was so taken with Mann’s translation of the assigned piece of music that he cancelled the rest of the afternoon’s lessons to spend more time on it — and changed the course of Mann’s life.
“Up to then I was going to be a forest ranger — hopefully in a national park, that was my dream,” Mann recalled. “That day, I thought music was very interesting. And so, I never practiced enough, but I practiced more and became a musician.”
Mann joined the Portland Junior Symphony (now the Portland Youth Philharmonic) at age 13 and rose to spend two years as the symphony’s concertmaster. After he graduated high school, he went to Juilliard and won the prestigious Naumburg Competition in 1942.
Mann formed the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946 with three other musicians and played first violin with the ensemble until 1997, lasting through multiple lineups and eschewing the life of a soloist. The quartet has been widely hailed as being a primary player in the revival of the chamber music form in the U.S.
“Robert Mann has been largely responsible for the ensemble’s continuity of style and the maintenance of its stature in international chamber music circles,” wrote the critic Donal Henahan in “The New York Times,” in 1980.
Mann also composed and conducted for orchestras worldwide and mentored some of the centuries leading musicians and string quartets.
“I remember studying with him, also playing for him, as a violin teacher, or rather in Bobby’s case, I would say as a music teacher,” said violinist Itzhak Perlman in “Speak the Music.” “Because with Bobby, it was, it is all about the music.”
The Portland Youth Philharmonic gave Mann its first Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.