Two arts documentaries by Vineyard filmmakers Robert and Marjory Potts will play Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven.
The two documentaries, sponsored by the Hebrew Center’s program committee, serve as bookends to the filmmaking careers of Mr. and Mrs. Potts, who live in West Tisbury.
“Making Music: The Emerson Quartet,” is a portrait of The Emerson Quartet string ensemble they made during their early days as filmmakers. “Their Lives in Art: Robert Henry and Selina Trieff,” made later, concerns two artists and longtime Vineyard summer residents who now make their home in Wellfleet.
The two journalists began their 25-year filmmaking career with “Making Music,” which they filmed in 1982 while the quartet was performing on the Island. The four performers, Lawrence Dutton (viola), Eugene Drucker (violin), David Finckel (cello), and Philip Setzer (violin), have won nine Grammy awards, two for Best Chamber Music Recording and seven for Best Chamber Music Performance.
The quartet had been working together for six years at the time the film was made and has recorded 30 albums. They named the quartet after 19th-century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who led the Transcendentalist movement. The musicians won their first two Grammies in 1989, for both performing and recording “Bartok: 6 String Quartets.” It was an unprecedented achievement, since no chamber music group had ever won the awards before. They also played in the Oscar-nominated film “Little Match Girl.” The New York-based group has been in residence at the State University of New York at Stony Brook since 2002.
Thirty minutes long and the only documentary made about the quartet, “Making Music” explores the personal and musical qualities that go into creating a successful string ensemble. The Pottses were in attendance when the quartet performed on the Vineyard in 1981 as part of a summer music series run by the Nathan Mayhew Seminars. It was the summer the Pottses moved year-round from Brooklyn to the West Tisbury house they built in 1978.
“We were struck by how amazing they were — and beautiful,” Ms. Potts said in an interview last weekend. Because Mr. Potts, who was then working as News Director at WMVY, had written and produced TV news stories in New York, the two decided to become filmmakers, and they chose The Emerson Quartet as their first subject. They enlisted “60 Minutes” cameraman Tom Spain to do the filming, and even their children worked on the film.
“Oliver was Best Boy, and Phoebe took notes,” Ms. Potts recalled. She counts one of the more remarkable aspects of the 16-mm film as its seamless transition from the rehearsal of Ravel’s “String Quartet in F Major” to its performance and back again. The quartet’s one requirement of the filmmakers was that they must approve the sound. While the four performers watched “Making Music” at a Middlebury College preview, laughing at their portrayal almost as if it were a home movie, the Pottses anxiously awaited the group’s approval on the sound track.
“Fine,” they told the couple, almost as an afterthought. “Making Music” went on to be shown at film festivals, at the Museum of Modern Art, and on Bravo cable network. It won a first prize at the National Educational Film Festival and sparked a career for the husband and wife duo in educational and instructional films, as well as documentaries, after the film began to be used in music schools throughout the country. “We were off and running,” Ms. Potts recalled.
“Their Lives in Art”
Before moving on to other projects, they created 14 films in 22 years, the last of which was the hour-long “Their Lives in Art: Robert Henry and Selina Trieff,” completed in 2004. Both successful painters, Mr. Henry and Ms. Trieff are longtime friends of the Pottses, whom they met in New York. The couple summered and painted in West Tisbury for 30 years before relocating to Cape Cod.
“Their Lives in Art” asks the question, what does it mean to live an artist’s life in modern times? It explores questions of how ideas are transformed into art.
While never becoming art superstars, Mr. Henry and Ms. Trieff, who have been married for more than 50 years, have made their living as successful artists, painting and teaching as well as raising two children. The artists studied with Mark Rothko in New York and Hans Hoffman in Provincetown. Mr. Henry has served as president of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and Ms. Trieff has been called “an American original” by the New York Times. Work by the two is exhibited widely.
“It is a story that goes to the heart of the creative process, whether in art, writing, or music,” Ms. Potts has written.
Although the Pottses have not made films in recent years, Mr. Potts published “The Broadside,” a West Tisbury-based newspaper from 1999 to 2012, and Mrs. Potts runs Broadmeadow Bed & Breakfast and pursues a variety of writing projects. The Pottses will attend the Sunday afternoon screening of their first and last films and will answer questions. The Pottses’ company, Vineyard Video, continues to distribute copies of these and their other films.
“Making Music: The Emerson Quartet” and “Their Lives in Art: Robert Henry and Selina Trieff,” Sunday, Feb. 17, 4 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $5 suggested donation. For information, visit mvhc.us.