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Ensemble Music features the Juilliard Quartet

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Juilliard String Quartet
  • Juilliard String Quartet

Founded in 1946 by William Schuman, then president of the Juilliard School of Music (and a 20th-century composer), the celebrated Juilliard String Quartet is surely the oldest chamber group still touring with that name. Not surprisingly, none of the four originating players remain with the quartet -- the present complement consisting of violinists Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes, violist Roger Tapping and cellist Joel Krosnick, with Tapping its newest member.

A well filled Schrott Center heard the foursome play Bach, Beethoven and Jesse Jones--the latter a 35-year-old American with a somewhat unlikely name for a "classical" composer. His brand new quartet, "Whereof Man Cannot Speak . . .," had its inaugural performance here on Friday.

Ultimately written to commemorate the passing of his mother, Jones' work opens on soft, vibratoless, common chords in the higher registers. It then transitions through a compendium of modernist constructions, one evolving seamlessly into the next, but always grounded by a return of consonant chords, with D minor much in evidence as a home key. It ended much as it began, but with a bit more "questioning" dissonance. This well written new work appeared to have been well rehearsed, granting that it's much harder to judge performances of unfamiliar music.

Bach (1685-1750) came before the existence of the string quartet -- a form actually launched by Haydn (1732-1809). But Johann Sebastian's late-written The Art of the Fugue, for which no instruments were specified, seems as made to order for four stringed instruments as for the keyboard. Having written fugues all his life -- mostly great ones -- Bach summed up what could be done in this most organized form of contrapuntal writing with the above work.

We heard only the first four parts, each of which Bach called a "contrapunctus," but there are a total of 14 contrapuncti, followed by four canons--all 18 of these on a single D minor theme, getting progressively more complex. Thus we heard the four simplest ones. The first is a simple statement of the theme, then treated fugally; the second with an added dotted rhythm; the third with the theme inverted starting on D; the fourth inverted starting on the dominant A. With the miracle of this "linear" structure and the ageless harmonies that evolve from it, I found the experience transfixing.

The Juilliard players ended their program with the only repertoire work of the evening: Beethoven's Quartet No. 9 in C, Op. 59 No. 3, the third one dedicated to Russian Count Razumovsky. Following the lengthier, more ambitious first two quartets of that opus, No. 3 looks back to the more Classical format of Mozart, especially his "Dissonant" Quartet, K. 465. It even substitutes a third-movement minuet in place of Beethoven's newly incorporated scherzos.

Op. 59 No. 3 is the evening's only work which invites comparison with the myriad other performances I've heard over the years. Our players gave us a good, substantial one, but not in league with the greatest I've witnessed: the now defunct Cleveland Quartet's account in the War Memorial Auditorium years ago, which equaled their CD recording of it, still available. Lin's intonation went flat in a few places in the opening movement, and the rapid, fugal Finale almost ran away with itself, though the foursome managed to stay together till the end. Oct. 11; Howard L. Schrott Center for the Arts

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