While driving to Aliso Viejo on Tuesday to hear the Juilliard String Quartet play Bach, Schubert and a young American composer, Jesse Jones, at the Soka Performing Arts Center, I listened to a little early
All were artists on Columbia Records, and in the '40s, '50s and '60s, all were showing the extraordinary originality of North American music. Collectively, these musicians, with a certain shared sensibility, helped not only define a unique American sound but also provided a vision for the direction of music.
But in its current configuration, the Juilliard, which has just acquired a new violist, has what may be too much history for any quartet to live up to. This is no longer the old Juilliard. It's not even the Son of Juilliard but, essentially, a new string quartet with a new sound and a new approach, in which the refined replaces energetic impetuosity.
The propulsively urban original Juilliard launched a chamber music revolution. Formed in 1946, the ensemble played Bartók's then little-known six string quartets as though they were rock 'n' roll, years before there was rock 'n' roll. The Juilliard went on to put the quartets of Schoenberg, Ives, Elliott Carter and many other composers on the radar of listeners everywhere.
What the Juilliard did was inject a brash energy into everything it played. In the late '40s, the group even got its hands on an orgone box, a coffin-like container that was supposed to help you tap into the universal life force proposed by radical psychologist Wilhelm Reich. The fad didn't last long, but Juilliard did find a way to capture a visionary vitality of late Beethoven that proved a revelation at the time. Listen to the recordings and you can still feel it.
The players who came to Aliso Viejo obviously were not those who once squeezed into the cathartic orgone box. There have been four first violinists, five second violinists, three violists and three cellists over the group's nearly 70s years. The Juilliard's founder, violinist Robert Mann, remained half a century. When he retired in 1996, he left the DNA to be carried principally by violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick, who joined, respectively, in 1969 and 1974.
And now there is one. Rhodes left this summer, and the Juilliard's California tour is introducing Roger Tapping, a British violist formerly of the Takács Quartet. The quartet's first violinist, Joseph Lin, has been with the Juilliard for only two years. Ronald Copes became second violinist in 1997.
The biggest difference is due to Lin, whose lean, agile and precise playing seems effortless and couldn't be more different than that of Mann, who tore into everything, rarely too worried about intonation. The other big difference is the smoothness of the ensemble. In its heyday, the Juilliard was a dramatic ensemble of individuals who frequently clashed timbrally and displayed a cathartic intensity, as though they were musical characters in an Edward Albee play.
The Soka program began with the first four fugues from Bach's "Art of the Fugue." The performance was clean, careful and understated, verging on reverent. For any other quartet, this might have seem unremarkable, but here it was statement. When was the Juilliard ever reverent?
Jones, who was born in 1978 and who studied with Steven Stucky at Cornell, is a composer much championed by Lin. He is also a mandolinist who has appeared on "Prairie Home Companion," although you'd hardly know that from his String Quartet No. 3, written for the Juilliard and given its premiere in Texas on Oct. 11.
The title of the score is "Whereof man cannot speak…" and the program notes bothered to quote only the composer prospectus on the quartet before he had written it. He said he meant to explore "the spiritual and literal dimensions … as embodied in certain poetry by Yeats, Aquinas, Lamartine, etc." His intention was to transcribe inflected speech, sighs and song. He aimed at five movements, and a length of 20 to 30 minutes.
If there are five movements, they are connected over what turned out to be 34 uninterrupted minutes. The poems remain unspecified. But the sighs and song are there, and the spiritual dimension seems pretty clear. And pretty.
Jones works in eerie microtones, producing glassy surfaces like a mystically still sonic pond onto which he throws pebbles and generates ripples. He employs sliding tones, fluttering effects, modal melodies and, at one point, the Dies Irae theme in pizzicato. One hears bits of Ben Johnston's microtonal string quartets and hints of Eastern European holy Minimalism. It's an engaging, well-written piece, grit-free.
Finally, Schubert's big final string quartet, No. 15, was grandly — but blandly — played. In its recording of the work 34 years ago, the Juilliard emphasized Schubert's harmonic experimentalism and made incessant tremolo figures incessantly unsettling. Rhythmically, the recording sounds like Schubert going on Schoenberg.
Now, the Juilliard's Schubert has more lyricism, more fluency, more normality and sweep. The cello is prominent, and Krosnick, whose intonation is no longer flawless, offered a fond reminiscence or two of the old Juilliard. In his 70s, however, he probably won't be with the players too much longer.
We, of course, need to just listen. Change the name, and the new Juilliard would be a satisfyingly old-school quartet. But the old one made history, and it's hard to get over that.