The current quartet is made up of Areta Zhulla, first violin (the newest member), Ronald Copes, second violin, Roger Tapping, viola, and Astrid Schween, cello. Their performance on Sunday afternoon, February 10, showed why they remain one of the most esteemed chamber ensembles.
Our seats for this concert were way up front—the second row of the 600-seat Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center. It was a great opportunity to observe what I call the central miracle of the string quartet: four distinct musical personalities coming together to produce a single interpretation of a composition. Every professional quartet is expected to pull off this miracle in every concert, but the Juilliard Quartet is especially notable for its unified—and intelligent—performance of this music. From our close up vantage point, we could see the subtle eye and face movements as they signaled to each other at the start of each movement. What we couldn’t see, but only surmise, was the communication that took place among the players throughout each piece to create their singular approach.
These qualities were amply displayed during the first work on the program. Beethoven began his celebrated output of string quartets with the six works published as Opus 18. The Juilliard Quartet performed No. 3 of this set in D Major (although the program notes inform us that this was the first composed of this set). This four-movement work may have come relatively early in Beethoven’s published output, but it is in every sense a mature and enduring contribution to the string quartet repertoire. This was a particularly fine performance of this gem.
The Juilliard Quartet usually includes a more contemporary piece in its program, and Sunday afternoon’s concert was no exception. This time, the program included a three-movement work by the young American composer, Lembit Beecher, with the enigmatic title, “One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time.” The composer explains it this way:
On first hearing, it was difficult for this listener to hear the similarities in the musical material across the three movements. But it was enjoyable nevertheless. The musical language was certainly contemporary but still didn’t stray that far from the traditional building blocks of melody, harmony and rhythm. The third movement—which incorporates a waltz by the composer’s Estonian great-uncle--was particularly appealing. The composer was in the house and, when asked to stand by the quartet members, was warmly applauded by the audience.The three movements of this quartet are like successive generations retelling the same story. Musical material is passed from movement to movement, but along the way it is reinterpreted and reshaped into something quite different.
The renowned pianist Mark-André Hamelin joined the quartet for the final piece on the program, Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81. This is one of the glories of the chamber music repertoire. It begins with an achingly beautiful melody played by the cello with piano accompaniment, and goes on from there to offer four movements of totally inspired music. What makes it so special? A couple of features come to mind. The cello solo that begins the piece is only the first example of the fact that Dvorak gives some of the best moments to the cello and viola (Dvorak was a violist). Another unique element of this piece is the Czech flavor. For example, the second movement is given the title “Dumka,” which is sort of Slavic Blues, and the music is wonderfully evocative of Dvorak’s homeland. The final movement has a catchy dance rhythm; we can almost picture a dance in the village square in the Czech countryside. But it almost seems unfair to single out these two movements, since all four movements are superb examples of the composer’s art.
Hamelin is practically a legend among pianists for his astonishing technique, but I wasn’t conscious of his virtuosity in this performance. And that’s a good thing in this setting. Rather, I was aware of his complete integration and rapport with the Juilliard Quartet as they delivered a warm and stirring performance of this masterpiece.