The Juilliard Quartet cellist brings lessons learned from Jacqueline du Pré and Robert Mann to beloved repertoire
By Laurence Vittes
Before Astrid Schween joined the Juilliard String Quartet, she had already, at age 16, performed the Lalo Cello Concerto with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, studied with a host of cellists led by Jacqueline du Pré, and been mentored by members of the Amadeus, Budapest, Borodin, La Salle, Guarneri, Paganini, and Juilliard quartets. When I talked with her for a Strings article a few years ago, it was her studies with du Pré, which spanned seven years, that stood out:
“My lessons took place during school holidays and summer breaks . . . Jacqueline was one of my idols, and I had every recording she made . . . I spent countless hours trying to work out what lay behind her extraordinary tone color, long singing lines, and sheer power. When I was actually with her, we spent quite a bit of time listening to these recordings, analyzing her interpretations, and discussing the secrets behind those wonderful colors. There was also time for plenty of stories and anecdotes. She had a wonderful sense of humor.”
In addition to a host of other playing and teaching activities, including a new CD of Romantic sonatas with pianist Michael Gurt, Schween will step onto the stage at Macky Auditorium at the University of Colorado campus on March 2, 2019, to play the Elgar Concerto with the Boulder Philharmonic conducted by Michael Butterman. I caught up with Schween from LA while she was in a Manhattan taxi.
Why Elgar in Boulder?
I had played the Elgar at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival many years ago; the director, Katherine Lehman, had heard it and when she was named executive director of the Boulder Philharmonic starting in January, she contacted me and asked if I’d like to do the Elgar.
You worked on the Elgar with Jacqueline du Pré.
I had many teachers, of course, but the lessons with Jacki are things I still learn from. It’s great to make my way into that piece every few years with some performances. Its also a piece I love to teach. It’s very exciting, very fun.
What do you need to play the piece?
Overall you need a soaring quality of sound, because in such an epic piece the sound of the cello permeates the fabric of the whole work from beginning to end. Jacki was very involved in talking with me about how color and power are linked in this concerto: on the stamina it takes to play—the cello has to cut through a whole orchestra [including four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, and tuba] including a whole section of cellos—and how to differentiate the sound so that it occupies its own recognizable width within the fabric. She was extraordinary in achieving those elements herself and then expressing them to me. Of course we listened to her recording, which was the perfect model of how it might be done. I find it endlessly inspiring.
How are you preparing for Elgar in Boulder?
I read through it last week—just sat down, closed my eyes, and played it all the way through, smiling at the special moments. Of course I also read through the orchestral score. I played it with an orchestra in Massachusetts just before my Juilliard audition, and I remember smiling to myself then, too. The piece comes up every few years and enables me to measure of my progress as a cellist—each performance, each iteration, and each revamping of the interpretation is a nice way of showing me the changes I’ve undergone.
After your few years with the quartet, what’s your sense of the legacy established by Robert Mann, Robert Koff, Raphael Hillyer, and Arthur Winograd?
I feel connected to the earliest versions of the quartet via several strands—through my lifelong admiration of the JSQ and its recordings and concerts; as a native New Yorker, I attended most of the JSQ’s in-town performances while growing up (I always admired the JSQ’s unanimity of interpretive effort and yet, preservation of individual voices); through quartet coachings with Robert Mann while a student at Juilliard, as a professional, and as a member of the Lark Quartet as we prepared for our Naumburg Award concert; and now, as a member of this ensemble in which all four members have experienced deep and thoughtful musical engagement with one another over time, consciously passing along the torch into the future. I should add that my new role has also allowed me to observe the extraordinary support of the Juilliard School for the Quartet, it’s legacy, and ongoing mission.
What personal cello and bow do you use when you are not playing on the Quartet’s instrument from their matched set?
My own cello is a Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, purchased for me by my family when I was 19 years old. Last season, I commissioned two cello bows from the great American bow maker Michael Yeats who currently lives and works in Amsterdam. The bows are spectacular in what they have offered me as I perform on various cellos within and without the quartet.
Why two bows?
During a JSQ tour of the Netherlands last season Michael spent several hours listening to me play through a variety of repertoire in his Amsterdam shop. Based on his observations, Michael designed two bows, with the expectation that I would select one. When the bows arrived at my apartment in New York several months later, I was so delighted with their performance, I bought them both.
The strings I’m using at the moment are Pirastro Evah Pirazzi Soloist on the A and D and Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore Tungsten medium on G and C. I find this combination gives me the resonance, power and malleability of tone color that I need for most of my playing.