New York's finest
Not worn down after 60 years, the Juilliard String Quartet keeps looking to the future.
“We usually rehearse all morning, teach all afternoon, catch a plane on Friday night, and then come back to start again on Monday,” says Joel Smirnoff, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet. The list of chamber ensembles with university ties is a long one, but the Juilliard is one of the few routinely considered among the best for both its playing and its teaching. Their playing has an edge and excitement coupled with a musical intelligence you’d expect a group charged with educating the next generation to have. Smirnoff and his colleagues, violinist Ronald Copes, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick, kick off Northwestern’s Quadromania festival (“A Festival of Fours,” the brochure calls it) Wednesday 28.
The quartet turned 60 last October, and has had its current lineup since 1997. “The original group was a group of four extremely energetic guys,” says Smirnoff, which lacked the seasoned insight of the ensemble’s current incarnation. Today’s Juilliard plays with the standard and goals of its founders, almost as if “looking back on the Juilliard Quartet,” as Smirnoff puts it. “When the quartet was founded, there was no preeminent American string quartet. They broke that ice.”
Today’s quartet shares its founders’ aggressive will to grab a listener, as a double-disc release of Shostakovich quartets released last year on Sony Classical proved. Its founders made a specialty of Bartók’s six string quartets and gave them their American premieres; today’s quartet’s performances of Bartók still snarl, with the Third Quartet on the Northwestern program. (“[Our Bartók] still gets you in the viscera,” says Smirnoff. They’ll play all six at Ravinia this summer.)
Bartók was a contemporary composer when the group was founded, and new music has long been central to their identity. Quartets by the bristly modernists Elliott Carter and University of Chicago-based Ralph Shapey formed an important part of their repertoire, and they continue to seek out new works. Smirnoff politely but firmly refuses to name composers they’re considering commissioning. “We have been talking premieres with a lot of people,” is all he’ll allow.
That questing spirit informs their teaching, which, according to Smirnoff, isn’t so different from rehearsing with the quartet. “You’re trying to reach an agreement” in both cases, Smirnoff says, and the less that has to be spoken, the better. Now that he’s been in the ensemble for 21 years, Smirnoff notices they say less to each other in rehearsal than they used to. “It’s like a Ouija board: It’s hard to say who’s doing what. We tend to play at each other more than talk with each other.” Aware that the shopworn cliche stating that string quartets serve as conversations among equals lurks around the corner, Smirnoff knowingly resists saying they are actually communicating with each other.
With all that teaching, and the fact that the Juilliard’s members have trained the Emerson, St. Lawrence, Tokyo and numerous other quartets, the question becomes, Is there an American string quartet sound? “I don’t think you can say that at all,” Smirnoff states bluntly. The original Juilliard members trained in Europe, and so did he and cellist Joel Krosnick. “We’ve Americanized the world with rock,” says Smirnoff. There’s no real need for an exportable brand of American quartet-playing. Moreover, as Smirnoff points out, nationalism isn’t quite as in fashion as it used to be when the quartet was founded.
“We probably play more romantically” than did the founders of the Juilliard Quartet, Smirnoff reflects. They’re older than those gentlemen, and a maturing process is inevitable, if not necessarily welcomed, as one ages. But given their history, it’s almost impossible to see them fading away.
Smirnoff and friends take shots at Mozart, Bartók and Schubert Wednesday 28.