By Laurence Vittes
It took the jury three hours to decide what the audience at the finals of the 13th Banff International String Quartet Competition already knew, that it was too close to call between the Marmen and Viano quartets. When they split the first prize, tours and residencies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Stanford University, it was taken in with keen interest by a cellist Joel Krosnick, former BISQC juror and now BISQC’s mentor-in-residence, who played for the Juilliard Quartet from 1974 to 2016.
In fact, three days earlier, BISQC had presented the world premiere screening of Riddle Films’ Joel Krosnick: What To Play Next? The 40-minute documentary portrayed Krosnick through his own words and those of colleagues. A discussion after the film showed Krosnick to be just like the guy on the screen: funny, humble, and wise. The most revealing parts of the film were him practicing: in the moment, decisive, determined.
I caught up with Joel Krosnick on Friday the 13th (of September). He was back at Juilliard, had finished his teaching for the week, and was looking ahead to four days of putting his “huge collection of chamber music and cello music in some sort of order,” and practicing. He had also just agreed to attend the Quartet Biennale in Amsterdam beginning January 25, “to teach and give master classes.”
What is good and healthy about the Banff Competition?
The amount of heartfelt, go for broke music making. The Banff competition manages to turn their work and competitive ambition into real performances. All the groups in all the rounds—Haydn, post-1905, Romantic, the Canadian commission, and schubertplus, much less the Beethoven at the end—those were all real performances, not auditions.
And for the audiences?
For people who love chamber music and want to hear wonderful music making—it really was a festival. Even the so-called competitive rounds themselves are real performances. They come out there and they give it everything they have for a large audience. And it’s a chance for audiences to hear several performances of the same piece by different quartets in a wide range of deeply felt interpretations.
Who was your inspiration?
I had people who were very inspiring in different ways. The conductor Jens Nygaard encouraged me to keep after it when I wasn’t sure I could do it. Luigi Silva was a magnificent pedagogue and fine cellist, who unfortunately had mostly retired from public playing by the time I studied with him.
When do you think your playing started to inspire others?
During the first many years of my teaching career I was playing concerts in New York with Gilbert Kalish when we gave a performance of Brahms’ F major sonata after which a number of students and former students came up to me, saying, “Oh my God! There’s a piece we have always struggled with and hesitated to play in public; but you make it sound really possible. Let’s do it ourselves!”
What is it about teaching that makes you want to do it as much as perform?
Jens Nygaard and Luigi Silva did that for me; they gave me information and knowledge that I use every day. My colleague, the great Juilliard Quartet violinist Robert Mann, was a transcendent example for me, teaching as intensely as he played. They all encouraged me to discover and travel my own route.
That’s what you’re doing yourself.
I seem to have helped people to keep on learning, whether it’s Nina Lee of the Brentano Quartet (as she says in the film), or any of the wonderful young cellists I am fortunate to teach at Juilliard. I had a student for the last four years who after a very challenging year won a position as associate principal cello of the Colorado Symphony. I only did for them what people, who told me I could keep going, did for me.
Tell me more about Jens Nygaard.
He was a conductor from Stephens, Arkansas, with a thick southern drawl; he founded the Jupiter Symphony, a brilliant post-graduate orchestra. I gave three performances of Donald Tovey’s Cello Concerto with him; you know, Tovey was a friend of Casals and wrote it so that Casals would have a Brahms Violin Concerto for the cello. It’s very beautiful—a work of tremendous technical and physical demands, and I spent months and months learning it. I did beautifully. But there’s a very old broadcast recording of the live London performance Casals gave in 1935 with Boult conducting. Casals played the cello as few people have played a string instrument; it’s breathtaking. I did well but he did fantastically.