Chamber Salvation

A former Cleveland Orchestra player makes music and performance his retirement hobbies

If, as he recently suggested, Harvey Wolfe has been experiencing a little withdrawal over the last few months, you can hardly blame him.

After all, from 1967 until this summer, when he and wife, Suzy, moved here to retire, he had been a cellist in the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, performing or rehearsing with that group as many as eight times a week. He had played on recording after recording, appeared more than 100 times in Carnegie Hall and gone on frequent tours of the United States, Europe and Asia. He had worked for a string of leading conductors, including the late George Szell (1897-1970)--an intimidating and tyrannical perfectionist who led the Cleveland Orchestra to extraordinarily high levels of excellence.

"The withdrawal is not so much from the orchestra, but from the routine of life," Wolfe says. "I mean, I always knew where I was going to be every week. Now, I don't have those hours accounted for. So I have to fill them."

Music, not surprisingly, has been an answer--this time, however, Wolfe is performing it not in an orchestra but with a handful of local musicians in a group he founded called the Daystar Chamber Players.

Daystar has begun presenting concerts in venues all over town. It will present the same program of string trios--that's music for a combination of violin, viola and cello--two times later this month: first at Academy Village, Nov. 23; then at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, Nov. 27.

Wolfe will join violist Melissa Hamilton and Carla Ecker, a violinist who's the associate concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Their concert will feature Beethoven's C-Minor String Trio as well as Serenade for String Trio, written in 1902 by Ernst von Dohnányi, whose grandson, Christoph, was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra during much of Wolfe's tenure.

Wolfe, a native of Cleveland, took up the cello after that city's public schools introduced it to him. He is not your stereotypical retiree. He doesn't play golf. He has few hobbies, other than reading. Music is still his thing, and when you listen to him talk about it--he's an animated, articulate and urbane conversationalist--you quickly get the feeling that Daystar is not only the perfect antidote to withdrawal, but also an ideal way to end a long and productive career.

"I love to play," he says. "I love to prepare (concerts) with intelligent, like-minded people from whom I learn something every time I sit down. The bar is set very high for the performance of classical music. One never attains anything even resembling perfection. But every once and a while, you feel as if you're getting a little bit closer to it."

Although Wolfe loved playing in the Cleveland Orchestra, he has, like Szell, come to view chamber music as his "salvation," the one vehicle that will enable him to keep his skills sharp, to keep growing in musical terms.

"When you play in an orchestra, you make no choices; you play what's put in front of you," he says. "But in (Daystar's) case, you not only get to choose the music; you also get to choose how it's going to be done. That's how I want to spend my remaining years."

The founding of the Daystar Chamber Players has its roots in winter vacations that the Wolfes began taking in Tucson about seven or eight years ago. (Daystar takes its name from Daystar Farms, a now-defunct bed-and-breakfast where the Wolfes stayed during one visit here.) They liked the city so much that they decided to make it their future retirement home. Harvey, who also has a master's degree from Arizona State University, began preparing for his musical future here.

"I saw that it was a place where there was a lot of art and culture, where there were other musicians," Wolfe says. "I made it my business to meet as many musicians as I could. I gave recitals. I played chamber music. I did as much networking as I could."

In time, Wolfe hooked up with Alexander Tentser, one of the city's leading pianists, and recruited him into his group. (Tentser won't play with Daystar this month; he's to present a recital in Mexico.) Tentser's participation, coupled with that of a wind instrumentalist or two, underscores Wolfe's desire for programs of variety and quality.

A Daystar program might include a piano quartet by Mozart, a piano trio by Shostakovich and a quintet for flute and string quartet by the late American composer Walter Piston. Twelve-tone music is not out of the question in the future. Nor is the possibility of rescuing certain gems from obscurity, such as a string quartet by Elgar, the composer of Pomp and Circumstance fame, which Wolfe would like to interest his colleagues in playing.

"The choice of programming will be pretty much what people want to play," Wolfe says. "We have no agenda, except to perform beautiful and interesting music."