The quartet members, who first met as teens in music school, will perform their specialties — Haydn and Schubert — at a concert in Seattle on Feb. 19.
When the Jerusalem Quartet makes its belated Seattle debut this Thursday in the University of Washington’s World Series, music lovers will encounter artists for whom music functions as a virtual second language. That relationship dates back to 1993, when the founding members of the quartet were teenagers. As recent immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and new to the Hebrew language, they discovered themselves arbitrarily grouped into a string quartet by their music high school in Jerusalem. Music became the ideal way for them to communicate with each other and those around them.
So essential was music to their identity that, within a year, they had become ambassadors for their music school. Now, 19 years after their professional debut, the former BBC New Generation Artists continue to move forward in a career that has garnered them awards for their recording of three Haydn String Quartets, and an ECHO Klassik Award — Germany’s major classical music honor — for their CD of Schubert’s great String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden.”
No wonder, then, that both Haydn’s Quartet No. 59 in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3, “Rider,” and Schubert’s “Maiden” appear on their program. The kicker, at least for some, will be Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, Sz. 91.
7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 19, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $40-$45, with two free youth tickets for every adult ticket purchased (206-543-4880 or uwworldseries.org).
Violist Ori Kam, the quartet’s newest member, feels that part of the problem with enjoying Bartók’s complex music and spiky dissonances stems from the fact that classical music has been falsely branded as a connoisseur’s activity that can’t be accessed unless the listener knows something about it.
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“That’s total and utter BS,” he says. “That attitude does a real disservice to classical music.”
Kam’s advice to audience members is to take a seat, find the space “where ears and hearts are open,” and simply allow the music to speak to them. “Audiences should never feel as though they don’t get it,” he insists. “Whatever you get out of it, that’s what there is to get out of it.”
Another obstacle to comprehending Bartók’s work, he believes, is that performers can get so caught up in the music’s technical challenges that they shortchange Bartók’s melodic and textural gifts. The problem, he asserts, is with the performance, not the music itself.
In contrast, the Jerusalem Quartet is committed to bringing out Bartók’s harmonies and lightness. “We have a mission to de-modernize Bartók’s music,” says Kam. “We try to play it beautifully, like Haydn. But we also know that Bartók’s aesthetic is far more current-day. There are edges and corners, and everything isn’t always round and polite. Modern big-city life comes complete with bright lights, fast-paced moving cars, and a certain beehive of activity that did not exist in Haydn’s time. Bartók speaks to that.”
The Jerusalems’ commitment, however, isn’t limited to Bartók. Aware that Haydn’s music is firmly rooted in the improvisatory spirit of the Baroque era, they perform it with a freedom and liveliness that liberates it from the boring, and restores the distinctive vitality that led Haydn’s contemporaries to revere his music.
Reverence leads to the work that often leaves audience members in tears — Schubert’s magnificent “Death and the Maiden.” The way in, for Kam and his colleagues, is to approach Schubert’s posthumously published masterpiece with a discipline that allows its breathtakingly transcendent and otherworldly aspects to envelop the listener. It is that feeling of boundless beauty that the Jerusalem Quartet hopes to leave with its new audience in Seattle.