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Wonderment, Elegance from Juilliard String Quartet in Concord


“Sold Out!” stickers were plastered across every poster announcing the event. The revered Juilliard String Quartet was in town Sunday, October 25 for a Concord Chamber Music Society concert at the Concord Academy’s Performing Arts Center.

No stage to separate quartet from audience and a smallish hall to keep people close up to the music, it was like an invitation to a room that need not be further described other than to say that such intimacy is rare, and the wonderment that filled the space rarer still. This was due in large part to those visiting musicians from New York.

This is the Julliard’s  inaugural season with its new first violinist, Nick Eanet. The other members are Ronald Copes (second violin), Samuel Rhodes (viola) and Joel Krosnick (cello).

With quartet members facing one another, the clear signal to begin was given and Quartet No. 3 in A Major Op. 41, No. 3 by Robert Schumann was underway. And once underway, the players would never, save for an isolated glance now and then, look up again. Their eyes were on the music on the stands before them. Their focus was in itself compelling beyond words—an inspiration. Who could not miss for a moment the sense of being drawn into this world of string quartet music-making by sound and by sight? Simple, unadorned, classy in the best sense of the word, theirs is a world of elegance and much more. Their intonation is nothing less than perfect.

What they do cannot even remotely be thought of as show. Art it is, but going a bit further in search of a better word, “nature” might be an apt description of their gift. Through the Juilliard Quartet, the very human-touched music of Schumann took flight through space and time into the Romantic composer’s world of music, fantasy, and joys. The gently searching opening of the piece returned in ever more sublime incarnations within the faster-paced music.

The last movement, often given more of a march-like flair and played robustly was, here, given an almost lilting lightness I had never heard before. I could not help thinking of the young Robert Schumann and younger still Clara innocently playing in the flower-filled fields they both so often described in their detailed and now famous diaries.

The Quartet’s cellist introduced the Quartet No. 5 (1998) by their long-time friend Mario Davidovsky. Speaking of the composer’s ideas about “sound qualities” and “selecting the right ones,” he went on to tell us that this “music comes from the composer’s inside” and that he hoped that we “would enjoy it.” To that end, our admired protagonist BSO violinist Wendy Putnam, director of CCMS, continues to promote worthy new music to the audience in Concord and wider afield, as her reputation grows.

First moves of the Davidovsky were lightening fast but imaginatively distant, a highly original-sounding passage that sadly did not appear often enough throughout this mid-20th century emblematic entry, a composition of gesture, of being in the moment, of never quite knowing where you are going to or coming from. But with all of the “sound qualities” you might expect from that time, the Juilliard Quartet recast both harmonic and melodic language into gems of sound. Never noisy, as might be the expected of the last century’s predilection, even the anger-provoking passages were elevated to musical sounds to which one would give a second chance. Bow and fingerboard art varied as a highly complex mosaic.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D Major Op. 44, No. 1 brought well-deserved raves. And just as they responded to the applause they received for the Schumann and Davidovsky, all four quartet members bowed graciously, another genuine moment in this most unusually inviting space in which we had spent two hours — which seemed like moments.

“Sound qualities” were everywhere. It would be impossible to estimate the nuances of sound and expression that this small group had created. Observing this intensely focused ensemble revealed a synthesis of individual and collective intent. At times it appeared that each played his own part while at other times two would join in a duet or three, in a trio. The imitative writing of the last movement displayed the Quartet’s impeccable playing as a single, miraculous voice.

A capacity audience was delighted with the encore, the minuet from Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in a minor, the “Rosamunde”; Schubert dedicated it to Ignaz Schuppanzigh, first violinist of the famed Razumovsky Quartet.  So it was a fitting introduction to this audience of Julliard’s new first violinist and a profoundly satisfying end for the afternoon concert.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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  1. I found the constant breathing and slurping noises coming from the Juillard quartet’s performance last Sunday to be a distraction and most disappointing. I have previously heard this quartet in the same hall a few years ago and they were amazing. So, overall, quite a change in sound quality for this quartet.

    Comment by Karen — October 29, 2009 at 11:14 am

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