There are certain words or names in many disciplines that immediately connote not only excellence, but the absolute pinnacle of achievement. For classical music, it is "Juilliard" and second to the iconic music conservatory in New York City, it is the string quartet bearing that name. Founded in 1946, it has been the quartet-in-residence at the Juilliard School from its inception to the present day. Seventy years on, even with an exponential influx of great string quartets from all over the world, the Juilliard String Quartet (JSQ) is still considered one of the most highly regarded ensembles of its kind in the history of music.
This appearance at the North Carolina Museum of Art, presented by Chamber Music Raleigh, was a highly valued and special event, but not unique by any means. Not only has the JSQ appeared numerous times in Raleigh, usually sponsored by this presenter (formerly known as the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild); they performed here in 1949, one of their first forays outside of NYC. A reliable source informed me that in conversations with Robert Mann, founder and first violinist from 1946-97, he spoke fondly of that first concert and subsequent ones in the capitol city.
Speaking of longevity and changes in personnel, Joel Krosnick was the cellist from 1974 until he retired in 2016, then replaced by the German-born Astrid Schween, the first woman to join the ensemble. Violist Roger Tapping is also a relative newcomer, taking over from Samuel Rhodes who had been with the group from 1969-2013. First violinist Joseph Lin joined in 2011. Second violinist Ronald Copes, playing since 1997, is the current "old man" of the JSQ.
The program the JSQ brought to Raleigh is one that they are using in many dates on their current tour and a wonderful cross-section of some of the best from three distinct periods in music. I'm not sure if it was the JSQ's intent, but it has almost become a cliché by many string quartets to begin their program, or even their season, with a quartet by Haydn (1732-1809). Known as the "father" of the string quartet genre and composer of sixty-eight of them, it makes great sense to settle the audience with one of these gems. This afternoon it was String Quartet in D, Op. 76, No. 5 – one of a set of 6. Gone was the style of writing where the first violinist was the star, while the other players served as primarily his (usually) accompanist(s). What makes these later (1796) quartets so magical is that despite them being written as patronage, they are as far from being musically dumbed-down as you can get. The JSQ romped through the nearly uni-themed first movement with a joyous abandon that flaunted their consummate artistry without pedantry. The Largo, in the far-off, frightening key of F-sharp, was a display of sumptuous tone, expressive lines and uncanny unity in phrasing and interpretation. It was this movement alone that would have dispelled any misgivings about the new-cellist-on-the-block not "fitting in." Schween has a beautifully controlled sound that adapts to what the music demands and seems to constantly be scoping out the other players for cues, emotional hints, or rhythmic give-and-take.
From the string quartet's childhood and the essence of the classical style, we jumped to the 1930s and one of a group of six quartets that many thought, at the time, destroyed the austere, stately and proper string quartet tradition. The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók composed his fifth quartet in 1934, and it premiered the next year at the Library of Congress. Having heard this work dozens of times, I sometimes envy those hearing it for the first time. The five movements alternate between a frenetic yet controlled rhythmic pulse, and mournful, quasi-sensual movements in melodic patterns that deliciously taunt you with melodic structures that straddle folk elements and atonality. This is virtuosity at the highest level, and the JSQ not only seemed to not even break a sweat handling one treacherous passage after the next, but they did so with precision, remarkable camaraderie, and elegance.
After what was an uncertain interval as to whether there actually was an intermission, the JSQ returned for the final work: Antonín Dvořák's Quartet in C, Op. 61. Certainly less known than the composer's "American" Quartet, this is a sprawling example of Romantic musical nationalism at its finest. Separated from the Bartók by merely fifty years, the use of Czech and Bohemian folk elements is a central focus of this quartet, although it is rarely a matter of an obvious restatement of a known melody. This is a somewhat dense work, similar in aspects to Brahms, but the JSQ revealed the beauty and strength of Dvořák. Sitting merely a few feet from the performers, it was a lesson in telepathic communication and musical insight even though the four players have not been playing all that long together.
One non-musical aspect of this performance I particularly enjoyed was Lin's address to the audience after the Haydn. Nearly all string quartets, especially of this caliber, perform without saying a word all night, except for the name of the encore, and often not even that! It was a refreshing change to humanize the musicians and make the audience feel part of the music, and not just another contracted gig.