Juilliard String Quartet Performs Beethoven and Discusses Music-Making

June 18, 2011, 6:09 PM ·

Music must live in the moment it is played.

This is an important operating principle for Juilliard String Quartet, who performed earlier this month at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies, playing Beethoven's String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130.

So here is a quartet that is 50 years old, playing a piece nearly 200 years old. Is it all old habit by now? Hardly. As members of the quartet said after their performance, nothing is routine for a group committed to change and innovation. To that end, the group had just welcomed a new member into its ranks, first violinist Joseph Lin, who replaced Joel Smirnoff, who had retired from the group.

Photo by Nan Melville for The Juilliard School.

The group played the Op. 130 quartet with the the finale the composer intended for it, the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. Beethoven had composed a different finale for the Op. 130 at the request of his publisher, because the demanding, contemporary-sounding Grosse Fuge was so unpopular. No more -- it is now a favorite, appreciated for its forward-looking structure and dissonance.

The Juilliard quartet played with sensitivity, taste and consideration. There was restraint where needed, and energy elsewhere. At times they matched one another's colors perfectly, at other times -- mostly during that wild Fuge -- they could give the music a rough and noisy edge.

After the performance, they re-grouped on stage, without their instruments, to talk to us about what it's like to be part of a working quartet and about their philosophies of music-making together.

"We are now going to sing the whole Beethoven," joked violist Samuel Rhodes as they took the stage.

They first talked about re-learning this particular quartet together.

"Every time we perform a great piece, it starts all over again," cellist Joel Krosnick said. "We never get to the bottom of it. The discussions are ongoing, and we think it makes the music alive."

Rhodes said that when he first joined the quartet in 1969, he expected that he'd need to "fit in." But that's not exactly how it worked. A new member can be a vehicle for growth in a quartet, and the Juilliard Quartet embraces the idea of change.

"The new member has more objectivity, not having done it before," Rhodes said. It's important to listen to what that member has to offer, not to let habits get in the way of ideas.

"We still don't have a 'Way We Do It,'" Krosnick said of the group's approach to various pieces in the repertoire.

Instead of forcing the process, the group works in an organic way. "We found a way of letting something emerge, instead of making it emerge," said second violinist Ronald Copes.

Joseph Lin, who joined the quartet just this year, said, "I've been blown away with the generosity of my three partners in music-making, to start over again. If anybody didn't need to start over again, it's these three." The willingness to be open to approaching things from square one, to be open to his suggestions, has impressed Lin, "although sometimes I lose a half a night's sleep, thinking about how I'm going to present that new idea!"

"If we could play this in our sleep, we wouldn't be doing Beethoven any favors," said Krosnick. "It needs to be alive at that moment."

For example, Lin wanted to try a new bowing for the first subject of the Grosse Fugue.

"I wasn't going to let the first rehearsal go without trying it," Lin said. "I thought the craziness, the audacity with which Beethoven wrote this massive, epic fugue, could be reflected in a bowing that was also a little crazy."

In the course of playing the fugue with his quartet-mates, Lin shifted in his perception, from seeing the fugue as wild and manic to recognizing a certain nobility, majesty and grandeur in it. So he changed his mind about that bowing as well. But by then, the other quartet members had embraced his idea.

"We can take advantage of four imaginations," Krosnick said. "I climbed into your shoes and did that bowing -- then you left those shoes!"

"He tried to leave those shoes," Copes corrected, "but we wouldn't let him."

"The ideas get mixed up, and what you come out with is better than what either idea was in the first place," Rhodes said.

Sometimes those ideas come up at the last minute -- say, at the rehearsal right before the concert. When a quartet member presents a new idea at such a time, "it's always preceded with 'We don't have to do that tonight,'" Krosnick said, "but then we do it that night!"

How does a quartet replace one of its members? Who makes that decision? The Juilliard quartet recently faced such a decision, replacing its first violinist. It's happened a number of times in the quartet's history, which dates back to its founding in 1946 with violinists Robert Mann and Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd.

"We pick a person who is not rigid and who can react well with the three remaining people," Rhodes said.

Though many quartets aim for a unified sound with a silken shine, the Juilliard String Quartet sound "is more like a tweed," Copes said. "We don't look for complete unanimity of sound." Instead, the Juilliard focuses on an interaction between individual sounds.

When people ask how they have changed their sound over the years, or since Lin has joined the group, "We're clueless," Copes said. "We don't know."

How then, have they been able to work together so long, without breaking up over musical disagreements or personality conflicts?

As the newest member of the quartet, Lin observed that the group has a deep commitment to music-making, and also a concern for each other personally, which also translates to a respect for personal space and knowing where personal boundaries are.

"We give each other a quartet's worth of relationship. We each have our own lives," Krosnick said. It wasn't always so; in the earlier days of the quartet "we didn't understand how to treat each other at all."

Members of the quartet warm up separately; they practice separately.

They also try to meet the audience halfway.

"We, as chamber musicians, have the privilege of sharing some of the most incredible works of the human imagination that exist," Copes said. That's not always the easiest experience for an audience.

"The teaching we do has a great deal to do with urging and leading and bringing people along a path which has been meaningful for us," Krosnick said. "When you play for students, or for an audience, you never know what it is you give off that is meaningful to someone listening."


June 19, 2011 at 10:07 AM ·

As a child I heard for the first time a string quartet and that was this quartet on lp's. My father wrote on that cd's when he had bought them. 1 was from 1962 the other 1961. 1 lp was Ravel/Debussy quartet the other was Alban Berg/Anton Webern. Without googling I remember their names: Robert Mann, Isodore Cohen, Raphael Hiller, Claus Adams. Later my father bought all string quartets of this quartet of Beethoven. I heard them so often that when I hear Beethoven from another quartet I have the feeling sometimes they make mistakes, because they play other rithmes than the Juilliard Quartet.

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