Juilliard String Quartet, which plays at Meany Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Nov. 9, is a 71-year-old ensemble with a mission to approach new music like centuries-old masterpieces, while revitalizing old music with fresh discovery.
Care to hear a venerable string quartet perform one of the finest classics in chamber music repertoire? What if you could take a deep dive into that performance: single out the sound of each player, or visually track the music’s progression along a printed score, or delve into the piece’s cultural and historical context?
There’s a very cool app for all of that.
“Juilliard String Quartet — An Exploration of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden,’” an elegant and illuminating download co-produced by the New York City conservatory Juilliard School and education app developer Touch Press, was released in 2015 for Apple iOS mobile devices.
Juilliard String Quartet
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9 at Meany Center for the Performing Arts, University of Washington. $44-$52, 206-543-4880 or 800-859-5342, https://meanycenter.org/tickets/2017-11/production/juilliard-string-quartet
Along with digital streaming of the Juilliard String Quartet’s recordings on Apple Music, the app is a step into modernity for the 71-year-old ensemble, which balances rigorous traditions with inevitable change.
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The quartet performs in Meany Center on Thursday, Nov. 9, with a program that includes Beethoven’s Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5; Sir James MacMillan’s Quartet No. 2 (“Why is This Night Different?”); and Dvorak’s Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61.
Founded in 1946, the quartet was formed to give equal weight to 18th and 19th century string repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) and 20th century composers (Bartok, Schoenberg, Shostakovich). Commitment and drive were key to the quartet’s acclaimed sound. Original first violinist Robert Mann dominated the quartet for more than 50 years; his influence, wrote music critic Ted Libbey, was “readily apparent in the ensemble’s sharply chiseled, high-intensity style of playing.” (Mann retired in 1997.)
Among the 15 string musicians who are past or present members (and all Juilliard School faculty members), several have had remarkably long tenures, including viola player Samuel Rhodes (1969-2013) and cellist Joel Krosnick (1974-2016). Musicians who embody so much of the quartet’s history have helped maintain its mission to approach new music like centuries-old masterpieces, while revitalizing old music with fresh discovery.
That doesn’t mean tradition necessarily gets in the way of spontaneity and intuition.
“Nothing is articulated or self-consciously held as tradition,” says current first violinist Joseph Lin. “Longtime members will naturally pass along what they’ve gained and learned. But we take an open-minded and sincere approach to any work, whether it has been in the repertoire for centuries, a few decades, or is a premiere. There is a respect for the composer having something to say, and a magic in the moment of bringing any work to life.”
Lin, 39, joined the quartet in 2011, followed by violist Roger Tapping in 2013 and cellist Astrid Schween (the quartet’s first woman) in 2016. That makes second violinist Ronald Copes, who joined in 1997, the senior member. Lin has been there long enough to experience both the quartet’s heritage and evolution.
“The happy anticipation of what a new member will bring is part of any transition process. It’s not all a preconceived sense of continuing on a certain path. It’s more, ‘let’s see what’s going to happen.’ With two more changes in membership since I joined, there has been something in flux in a wonderful way. The potential for going in any number of directions is greater.”
Among the Juilliard String Quartet’s premieres are works by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and, recently, Mario Davidovsky. Luminaries who have shared the stage with the ensemble since its inception include Aaron Copland, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma. Theoretical physicist and amateur violinist Albert Einstein once played with the group, astonishingly enough.
About the Beethoven piece on the Meany bill, Lin says “of all Beethoven’s works, it’s about the most joyful, exuberant and playful. There’s a folksiness that comes out, as well as operatic lyricism.”
Scottish composer MacMillan’s “Why is This Night Different?” conjures “a faraway time and land,” says Lin. “The title refers to the Passover rite in Judaism. There’s a sense of vulnerability, of sadness, but also the possibility of joy and liberation.”
The Dvorak is “on an epic scale, in the lineage of the great Germanic composers. Yet at the same time he can’t escape being himself. It’s a constant flow of melodic material, so beautiful, and very much from his native Czech land.”
Is there much conversation during the quartet’s daily rehearsals about this music and more?
“We try not to talk too much,” Lin says. “All of us feel so much more can be conveyed through playing.”