At 70, the Juilliard String Quartet is much older than most other American string ensembles. At the same time, it’s fresher now than ever before

By Cristina Schreil

In a move that’s hardly surprising for an en-semble, the Juilliard String Quartet players locked eyes. They were onstage at Alice Tully Hall, in one of their two annual recitals there. The audience was packed in, and awaited the quartet’s final performance on the program: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1, the “Razumovsky.” Some pupillary transmissions later, cellist Astrid Schween presented the opening statement, a wistful theme. Meanwhile, violist Roger Tapping and second violinist Ronald Copes delivered a quickly pulsing accompaniment. Measures later, the beautiful melody passed to first violinist Joseph Lin. The quartet was underway.

For many listeners, whatever comprised their hive-mind telepathy might have held intrigue. The concert was among Schween’s first with the quartet. She officially joined last September, and is the ensemble’s first-ever female player. It was no coincidence, I’m later told, that the concert had especially enchanting moments from the cello.

The Juilliard String Quartet is 70 years old this season, yet with the arrival of Schween, after the close of cellist Joel Krosnick’s grand 42-year tenure, the quartet is in many ways the newest it has been in years. For the first time, no current member has played with at least one founding member.

You can’t help but constantly recalibrate the sounds you’re making to include the new voice. There are subtle differences in the way all the players communicate with each other, both rhythmically and sonically. It’s very multidimensional.”

—Roger Tapping, violist

It’s one week later. Met by a wash of sunlight, I enter the quartet’s rehearsal room, on the fifth floor of the Irene Diamond Building. It’s sealed from the Manhattan din outside. Despite the feeling of stepping onto sacred ground, the scene strikes me as any ensemble’s workspace might: There are chairs and stands, covered in sheet music. Lin, Copes, Tapping, and Schween have just paused their rehearsal. They play pretty much every day, I’m told, and switch hats to teach a number of students, privately and in chamber groups.

The four are part of a storied “gradual evolution.” Permutations of 15 different individuals have comprised this quartet’s players. Yet many would attest that the Juilliard has forged—and, with the school’s support, maintained—as strong an identity as other quartets with more fixed membership. In 1946, violinist Robert Mann and composer and Juilliard president William Schuman founded the quartet. The first generation included second violinist Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd. In the seven decades since, the quartet earned Grammy Awards for recordings of Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Bartók string quartets. They helped establish Schoenberg as a part of string-quartet repertoire and were the first to perform all six Bartók quartets in the United States. Creating a complete historical document, they also recorded a full cycle of Elliott Carter’s five quartets. A glance at the quartet’s season suggests a loyalty to both long-celebrated masterpieces and new music, including commissioned works. Still, I ask if the circumstances make it feel like a new era.

“It feels new to me,” says Schween, adding a laugh. The native New Yorker was a former member of the Lark Quartet, and moved from New England—where she was teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—for the Juilliard position.

I get an interesting response when I ask what exactly happens when a quartet invites a new member to join. “There are certain attitudes that I think we’ve had as a quartet all along that haven’t changed, and Astrid fits beautifully into that,” Copes begins. “But there are certainly some old habits that we may not have even been aware of that suddenly we notice.” He and the others steer clear of laying bare the details of a group’s working life. But, Copes offers an example of what he means.

When he joined the quartet in 1997, it actually represented two changes. Second violinist Joel Smirnoff became the first violinist, replacing outgoing founder Mann, and Copes began his tenure as second violin. “And so we were very much trying to discover, ‘What is the new voice of this quartet?’” he recalls. In first rehearsals, he discovered that the others had an impressive way of drawing attention to something without really voicing it.

About a year later, he shared this observation for the first time at an open question-and-answer session. To his surprise, his colleagues laughed. “They said, ‘We had never done that before.’” His presence, apparently, signaled an unconscious shift in the others, triggering a tacit change in protocol. “It was the four of us who, just because of that particular chemistry, found a way of working that was unlike what any of us had ever done,” Copes says.

Lin adds that one group that has played for decades has a certain deep sense of how their sounds combine. He agrees that even swapping one person can have an effect.

Tapping, formerly of the Takács Quartet, notes they’ve all undergone this process of joining something that already exists. “The person who comes in changes; the other people change. Even their relationships with each other change. It’s a very fascinating thing to watch, and it’s not really spoken,” Tapping says. He joined the Juilliard in 2013. “You can’t help but constantly recalibrate the sounds you’re making to include the new voice. There are subtle differences in the way all the players communicate with each other, both rhythmically and sonically. It’s very multidimensional.”

Finding a cellist who fit into the sound was only part of the equation. The person would have to “feel similarly” about the music, Copes says. Current members valued a new perspective—something especially key in discussions.

Schween, a Juilliard School alumna, says it was thrilling to learn she was being considered. “Then the reality of what that meant started to sink in,” she adds, laughing. She immediately went to Juilliard’s online store and bought all the music on the audition. She knew they were looking for how well versed she was, in addition to whether she was “available in every way—emotionally, mentally, physically, intellectually—to pivot and respond to what’s happening.”

The audition included carefully considered repertoire, Tapping explains, that probed different styles of cello playing. It included a bit of Haydn, Berg, and Schubert. Schween describes the reading as comfortable, as pleasing an experience as any audition could be. The other three wanted her in a space where she could play her best. After a second reading, it was Tapping who made the fated call. He emphasized she should take her time to consider everything.

“Don’t say yes or no right away,” he advised.

Schween had other plans. “I was sitting there sort of computing what he had just said—‘I think he said yes. Did he say yes?’—and then he said, ‘So we really want to take a few days, don’t say a thing.’ And I said, ‘Uh huh, uh huh. Yes.’”

Lin’s invitation, before joining in 2011, had an opposite vibe. The former violist Samuel Rhodes called when Lin was traveling in Japan. For some reason, Lin was not as quick to respond, and shared his entire thought process. Looking back, Lin says he meandered—less than ideal for an international call. “At one point he cut me off and said, ‘So, are you telling us yes, or do we need to call the next person?’”

I ask if there’s a pressure upon joining a long-established ensemble. Is there a responsibility to ensure that the group feels and sounds like the Juilliard String Quartet as fans know it?

“I think the continuity comes from the way that, over the years, each member chosen has inevitably shared a strong sense of passionate performance and intellectual inquiry,” Tapping speculates. He asserts the first place to start is in a direct connection with the composer. That principal exploration of a composer’s intent is distilled at the core of the quartet motto, set forth by founding members: “Play new works as if they were established masterpieces and established masterpieces as if they were new.”

Lin says the motto crystallizes what they all strive for, “to get it to a point that there are elements in the music that can speak to even a first-time listener very directly.” He lists some possible things at play: the lyrical and playful elements, and emotions, both obvious and elusive. There’s the quest to get a sense of the composer’s language, to tap into the work’s emotional meaning. “It comes from a deep understanding of the elements that the composer is bringing into it. It takes time.”

Approaching new works like this is essential, Copes adds. “You figure out a way of somehow signing it in such a way that a listener even unconsciously recognizes, ‘Hey there’s a resonance with that.’”

This morning, the quartet is doing just that. In rehearsing Fragments, String Quartet No. 6 by Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky—the first new piece learned together since Schween’s joining—they discuss strategies. Namely, how they will contend with a metric shift, aligning how they think about it in a way they could remember while performing. The work, which players say reflects the 82-year-old composer’s vitality and imagination, is a co-commission by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and the Juilliard School. The premiere was in Tucson in December and the ensemble returned to Alice Tully Hall for a February performance of Fragments. It’s fascinating, Tapping offers, to see “inside the brains of the others,” while learning. Schween calls it “great fun” to uncover what no one has played before. More projects on the docket: The quartet toured Europe in early 2017. Soon afterward, they’re set to  record a new album, including works by Beethoven and Bartok.

Whatever else is in store, the quartet appears in the best circumstances to continue its legacy. In illustrating their roles, Copes makes an interesting comparison: In the same way a musician is caretaker of a famous instrument for a short period of its long lifespan, these musicians are caretakers of the quartet. “It’s a little bit of that same feeling,” he muses. “We’re the current occupants of this quartet but the quartet itself will still transcend each of us. It has already.” 

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