By Brian Wise
As it nears its 75-year anniversary, the Juilliard String Quartet could easily become the classical equivalent of an oldies rock act, trading on a faded name and reveling in past glories. Yet after several reshuffles to its lineup, the quartet appears to be finding its collective groove again, and a performance at Alice Tully Hall on December 12 drew a sizable and even boisterous audience.
The newest addition is Areta Zhulla, who in September 2018 became the third first violinist to hold the seat since longtime member Joel Smirnoff retired in 2009. The Greek violinist brings a substantial Juilliard resumé, having training in the school’s pre-college and college divisions followed by stints as Itzhak Perlman’s teaching assistant and as a pre-college faculty member. Though lacking major-league quartet experience, she had been a member of CMS Two at Lincoln Center.
Zhulla joins second violinist Ronald Copes, violist Roger Tapping, and Astrid Schween, who won the cello seat in 2016. As a 2017 Strings profile noted, for the first time, no current Juilliard member has studied with one of the founders. Zhulla and Schween have also brought a welcome gender balance to the ensemble, bolstering its status as a role model to student string players.
But what particularly stood out in this performance was the way in which this diversified foursome is reclaiming some of the old Juilliard Quartet verve, bringing an assertive, even intense musicality to works by Beethoven and Kúrtag.
The program began with Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1, a fitting statement of youthful vigor and passion. Zhulla’s taut and incisive treatment of the opening theme fittingly set the agenda. The other players followed her lead, matching her crisp accents and sharply contrasted dynamics. Zhulla also calibrated her tone for the Adagio, deploying broad bow strokes and a supple legato.
In the realm of 20th- and 21st-century music, the Juilliard has long favored the modernist lineage of Schoenberg, Bartók, Carter, and Babbitt, even as its quartet offspring have embraced more vernacular, minimalist, and multiethnic styles. Kurtág’s 6 Moments musicaux (2005), fits this mold—a bristling, pointillistic score that suggests the strong influence of Webern. The high points came in the Capriccio third movement, with its wry outbursts and stutters, and the fifth movement, which contains some graceful harmonics. While given an exacting performance, the piece can be a wearying ride, with its unrelentingly astringent language.
With the Kurtág still in one’s ear, Beethoven’s sprawling Opus 131 Quartet in C-sharp minor seemed all the more modern, from the austere fugue of the opening movement to the fierce, agitated gallop of the finale.
The Juilliard literally wrote the book on Beethoven’s late quartets in 2008 and won a Grammy in 1985 for its recording of all six works. It’s a score that can easily feel weighty and overwrought but the musicians mostly avoided this trap, bringing out shades of color and maintaining a forward momentum. Textural details often stood in relief, as when Schween accentuated the robust bass line of the Variations movement. A few premature “bravos” did little to dampen the effect of the muscular finale, with its headlong drive and hairpin tempo changes.
String-quartet life cycles can be fickle; brands can fade as quickly as group chemistry can coalesce. Judging by this outing, the Juilliard has potential to still reach new heights.