The Juilliard String Quartet is such an eminent and familiar ensemble that musically the players must be given the benefit of the doubt. But in terms of sound, something was very wrong about their three-part program Wednesday at the recently refurbished Bovard Auditorium at USC.
Violinists Joel Smirnoff and Ronald Copes, violist Samuel Rhodes and cellist Joel Krosnick played in front of a red velvet curtain used to create a more intimate-sized stage. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the curtain seemed to act like a sponge for the sound.
The Juilliard's playing was uncharacteristically small and distant. Much, if not all, of the lower resonance evaporated, making the music seem disembodied, thin and characterless. The upper partials were there, all right, warm, sweet and glinting. But the overall impression was like listening through gauze or in a fishbowl.
So although doubtless these excellent players intended differences between Schubert's "Quartettsatz," Bartok's First String Quartet and Beethoven's Quartet No. 14, all three composers sounded disturbingly identical and none quite right. It was an unnerving lesson in acoustics.