For over a quarter century, the Cleveland Quartet was among the handful of top international string quartets.
It was formed in 1968 at the annual summer music institute at Marlboro, Vermont. The founders were violinists Donald Weilerstein and Peter Salaff, violist Martha Strongin Katz, and cellist Paul Katz (Martha's husband). All four were university or conservatory professors in Cleveland, Ohio. Their debut as an ensemble was in 1969 in Cleveland, and they became the quartet-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute.
In 1971, the quartet took the same position at the State University of New York in Buffalo and performed its first traversal of the complete Beethoven cycle, sponsored by the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle Bequest. It soon toured East Germany, appeared at the Casals Festival, toured Europe, and in 1974 was the resident quartet of the South Bank Summer Festival in London.
The Quartet became one of the premiere full-time touring ensembles in the world. It ordinarily gave 100 concerts a year, requiring its members to be on tour for nearly 180 days annually. It gave recitals on all six inhabited continents, in all major music centers of the world and many smaller locations, virtually every prestigious summer festival, including annual appearances at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York City. It was the summer residence quartet at the Aspen Festival in Colorado for 20 years.
Throughout its lifetime two members remained constant: second violinist Salaff and cellist Katz. Mrs. Katz was succeeded, in turn, by Atar Arad and James Dunham as violist. In 1989, Donald Weilerstein stepped down and was replaced as leader by William Preucil, then concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Always known for outstanding blend and exceptional precision, the quartet took on a deeper, warmer tone, which many commentators found even more beautiful than before, while retaining its special sense of insight and intensity.
The quartet individually and as an ensemble taught large numbers of outstanding young string players and chamber musicians. Eight of the string quartets they coached have won the Naumberg Award. The awards won by the Cleveland in its own right are too numerous to begin to list. It made many recordings, including two Beethoven cycles. Most of its records were on the Telarc label. Throughout its life it commissioned new music, including quartets by John Harbison, Libby Larsen, Christopher Rouse, Dan Welcher, Osvaldo Golijov, and John Corigliano, who composed its last new work, the Farewell Quartet. It also premiered the concerto for string quartet and orchestra, Three Places of Enlightenment, by Stephen Paulus. The quartet disbanded in 1995 not out of any internal dissension or lack of friendship, but because the pressure of its intense touring life got to be too much. They left as their legacy, out of funds generated by their farewell tour, a permanent endowment for the Cleveland Quartet Award to be given to "an exceptional young ensemble in the early phase of its career."
Paul Katz described one of their most touching honors in his notes to their final concert. During a complete Beethoven quartet cycle of five concerts in London, an eight- or nine-year-old girl sitting in the same seat each night, caught their attention from the first night with "[h]er enormous concentration and her joyous, uninhibited response ... " to the music. "Let's play this one for the little girl in the first row" became the slogan of the series. After the last concert, she came backstage and gave them a "cuddly velvet octopus" that she had named "Mr. Cleveland" because "it has one head, one heart, and eight hands that work together perfectly."