Saturday, October 12, 2013

Juilliard Quartet brings a new work to town to help Ensemble Music Society open its 70th season

Much anticipated on a busy musical weekend in Indianapolis was the visit Friday of the Juilliard Quartet, its first return here with its current personnel: violinists Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes, violist Roger Tapping and cellist Joel Krosnick.
Juilliard Quartet: standing (from left), Roger Tapping, Ronald Copes and Joseph Lin; seated, Joel Krosnick.
Something else was special: Jesse Jones' third string quartet, "Whereof Man Cannot Speak...," received its first performance at the Juilliard's season-opening performance for the Ensemble Music Society.  It was a pleasure to hear such top-notch artists give a world premiere in Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, which opened last spring.

The new work is a 30-minute episodic setting of the composer's grieving process after his mother's death. Jones individualizes the familiar stages of grief, and he also finds an individual way of casting in abstract musical terms emotions that don't easily find words.

The piece opens with high-pitched chords, verging on microtonality, thus reflecting the "blurry" onset of bereavement. Every successive stage likewise finds a language of its own. The 35-year-old composer never lets his grief put on a maudlin display.

His idiomatic use of the string quartet as a medium for portraying adjustment to personal loss gave the musicians a broad palette to work with, and they filled the canvas with deftly applied strokes. I loved the bold first-violin melody that seemed to embody late-blooming anger at the loss, and the way it then subsided into a soft chorale (marred Friday night by somebody's cell-phone chime) that ended the piece in a mood of hushed resignation.

The concert started with the first four "contrapuncti" from J.S. Bach's "Art of Fugue." A formidable piece for keyboard probably never intended for performance, certainly not all at once, "Art of Fugue" is valid in the concert hall with this kind of orderly excerpting.  Sparing of vibrato from the start, the Juilliard's performance was prone to make the rhythmic and textural changes from one contrapunctus to another vivid, while keeping each line clear.

The dotted rhythms that vary the subject in Contrapunctus II were lent a swinging vigor.  The inverted subject that the viola introduces in Contrapunctus III  yielded new colors, to which the quartet's legato phrasing gave restrained emphasis. To the finale, Contrapunctus IV, the quartet imparted a quasi-orchestral richness, flecked with momentary dissonance, to cap a well-balanced performance.

Beethoven's String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 occupied the entire second half of the concert, with largely successful results.  I was somewhat put off by the flamboyance and aggressiveness with which the opening movement was interpreted. After the delicate suspense of the introduction, the main body of the movement seemed too show-offy here.

The performance settled down in the Andante, with the quartet shaping the nice ebb and flow of a musical discussion undergirded by Krosnick's resonant, philosophical pizzicati. The poised minuet movement gave way to a particularly expressive coda leading into the dizzying finale.

 The "molto" in its "Allegro molto" indication was boldly engaged right up through the final double bar line. (Something that long ago turned me against classical-music films was the way the camera circled vertiginously around the Guarneri Quartet's playing of this movement; the music itself requires no visual whirlwind.)

A surprising drawback to this performance was Lin's sporadic pitch problems, especially in the first and third movements. At the Juilliard's level, one expects never to hear a note out of tune. On the whole, however, the concert upheld this ensemble's vaunted reputation, which it has been building upon since its founding in 1946.