Thursday, April 3, 2008
The last time the Juilliard String Quartet played at Sunset Theatre was before total renovation of the place. A passing blackbird attracted to the aphoristic “complete” string quartets by Anton Webern entered the back of the hall through an open window in the balcony, caromed off the head of a female patron and floated down to the lip of the stage where it remained transfixed for the duration. Commentary heard afterward ran from “I wonder what it heard that I missed” to “It probably thought the music was by Messiaen,” who used actual bird songs in many of his works.
These days, security at Sunset is tighter. Perhaps that is why the Juilliard chose to return after four years, even though photographic evidence at the time suggests the musicians were equally transfixed by the avian freeloader. That return takes place this Sunday afternoon, hosted by Chamber Music Monterey Bay on its final offering of the current season. For the occasion, the Juilliard program consists of Haydn’s Quartet in E flat, Op 76:6; Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 13 in B flat Minor; and Beethoven’s Quartet in F, Op 59:1. These are all major works that exemplify their composers at the height of their powers, according to Joel Smirnoff, the quartet’s first violin since 1997, who ascended to that position when founding principal Robert Mann stepped down (after 52 years!).
Smirnoff joined the Juilliard as second violin in 1986 and has nothing but praise for his predecessor, now 87 and busy composing and writing a book. “I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder,” says Smirnoff, “because I feel Bob never got the recognition he deserved.” Referring to the Beethoven quartet on the program, Smirnoff says Mann showed all the members of the quartet “how to spin a melody.” Calling Mann a tremendous force for chamber music in this country, he adds, “I don’t know anybody who would play it with such investment and care.”
What is this rarefied atmosphere that magnifies details for the executants beyond what most spectators are likely to perceive? “All performing artists have our own routines,” Smirnoff says. “It’s important for us to be comfortable, to be in a communicative and generous mood.” Playing is like breathing, he says, and something the musicians “love” to do. “If you’re uncomfortable it’s unlikely the audience will enjoy the experience,” he adds.
But it depends significantly on the music itself. “Playing great music is a privilege; it’s like jumping into a great painting,” he says, “and one wants to be worthy.” He credits some music for its craftsmanship, making an example of the Russian composer Glazunov: “It’s great in many ways but lacks ambition emotionally and spiritually.”
While other foursomes were taking up the Shostakovich quartets, the Juilliard held back. “For a long time we thought of Shostakovich as a [Communist] Party composer,” Smirnoff explains, “then Testimony came out, and that totally changed things forever.” (Testimony is Solomon Volkov’s book based on tell-all interviews with the composer.)
The late quartets of Shostakovich, like those of Beethoven, are personal expressions borne of isolation and failing health. Shostakovich’s No. 13, a single 20-minute movement, is mostly solos and duets. “Only in the middle do we actually play as a quartet,” Smirnoff says. Because of its harrowing directness, “audiences go crazy for it,” he says. “It packs a punch; he has us hitting the instruments with the wood of the bow, and pushes the viola into the stratosphere, to make it sound like a stifled cry, uncomfortable to play and to hear.” Smirnoff applauds violist Samuel Rhodes for his “great courage” in taking it on.
The Beethoven quartet on this program comes from the composer’s most popular and extroverted “middle period.” Smirnoff puts the composer into perspective: “Beethoven started out with a talent for melody and under the influence of Mozart,” he says, “but then gives it up in favor of the Haydn-model – with puzzles, permutations, inversions – as his purpose grew more intellectual.” The late Haydn Quartet in E flat, composed after the Austrian had quit writing symphonies, displays many of these devices, but with his ever-mischievous imagination richly at play.
“Haydn was a pallbearer at the funeral of Vivaldi and knew his works,” Smirnoff says. The uneven phrase lengths in Haydn were developed by the Baroque masters, and found their way into the intensified rhetoric of Beethoven, who also sharpened their dynamic contrasts. “It was Haydn who set the standard, the classical work ethic.” At the same time, “the era was a traffic jam of geniuses, with so much to write about, not least the liberation of the individual as a psychic entity.”
The 2008-2009 season of CMMB, being announced this weekend, opens Oct. 17 with the Guarneri Quartet, now in its final tour. In turn will be the American Chamber Players, TAGI (clarinet, violin, cello and piano), the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
“It’s the end of a great quartet and a great era,” Smirnoff says wistfully of the Guarneri. “When I was young we were all so dazzled by them, their intimation of the Budapest Quartet, their big fat sound, and they all played with the same sound,” he says. “We all care about each other, about keeping the fire kindled in some way. They will be missed.”
JUILLIARD STRING QUARTET plays 3pm Sunday, April 6, at Sunset Center, located on San Carlos between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. 625-2212 or chambermusicmontereybay.org.