Coping with crisis The Chamber Music Society of Detroit and the Civic Music Association in Des Moines brought a streamed performance of the world-renowned Juilliard String Quartet, which was founded in 1946. The live performance took place more than a year ago at the 2020 String Quartet Biennial in Amsterdam. It was one of the last live performances by the ensemble before the pandemic.

The Juilliard String Quartet is one of the most famous quartets in the world. The current lineup is Areta Zhulla and Ronald Copes (violins), Roger Tapping (viola) and Astrid Schween (cello).

Opening the program was the String Quartet in B-flat, K.458 (“Hunt”) (1784), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austria 1756-91). This is the fourth of six quartets the 28-year-old composer dedicated to Haydn, the “father” of the string quartet. Incidentally the nickname given to the quartet because of the first theme’s similarity to a hunting call was not Mozart’s. The entire composition is a delight, revealing a composer in total command of his art, and it is, perhaps, his most popular.

The Juilliard launched into the opening with good energy. It appeared as though the entire ensemble kept their eyes on the 1st violinist, which resulted in marvelous ensemble. Great dynamic contrasts added to ebullient character. The minuet appears in second position, which is a bit unusual, and throws emotional weight toward the end of the quartet. The minuet is a gracious offering, elegant and refined and the musicians played it exactly so.

The slow movement is tender and intense. It contains some of those precious inner-looking moments that Mozart occasionally offers the listener. The ensemble’s playing was heaven-sent. The finale is full of life – invigoratingly played with great energy and exceptional intonation and ensemble.

Ainsi la nuit (Thus the night) by Henri Dutilleux (France, 1916-2013) is a seven-movement work (with four “parentheses” among the first five movements). It was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation for the Juilliard Quartet and first performed in 1976.

The opening “Nocturne” (indeed the entire work) is loaded with pizzicatos, harmonics, abrupt changes in dynamics, contrasts, and sudden shifts of register. There are lots of repeated motives charged with mysterious and scary sounds. The “Parentheses 1” more or less continues the mood, and snippets of previously heard motives reappear.

“Miroir d’espace” (“Space Mirror”) follows without a pause with a burst of energy immediately followed by the 1st violin in the stratosphere over the grumblings of the other three instruments. “Parentheses 2” works much the same as its predecessor and plunges straight into “Litanies.” The next two “Parentheses” surrounding “Litanies II” continue the exploration of “extended techniques” plus double stops and sudden changes in mood and register, with unexpected outbursts and enigmatic silences.

“Constellations,” “Nocturne II,” and the finale “Temps suspend” (‘Time stands still’) only convinced this listener that the composer had a seemingly endless supply of amazing textures and techniques to explore.

One was amazed at the Juilliard Quartet’s ability to turn in such a dazzling performance. If it isn’t already clear to the reader, let me say: this is fiendishly difficult music to perform and to listen to. Yet the JSQ’s tight ensemble and committed passion moves this listener to continue to explore the score in more depth. As the Wikipedia article about the piece states, “It is considered one of the most important works in the genre and has been called ‘one of the treasures of the 20th century quartet repertoire’.”

The evening concluded with a return to earth: the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873), by Johannes Brahms (Germany, 1833-97). The opening Allegro seethes with passion, with gorgeous outpourings of beautiful melodies and harmonies.

The Andante opens with a tender melody but also includes some dramatic, fiery folk-infused material. The third movement Quasi Menuetto has a middle section that is perhaps influenced by Mendelssohn. The finale Allegro non assai has lots of sturdy impassioned passages, again with folk-influenced tunes; the melodic material is mostly divided equally between all four instruments.

Those who attended were surely swept away by the superb musicianship of the Juilliard Quartet. Intonation was impeccable. But perhaps most impressive and moving was the absolute devotion and commitment of each member to work individually and together to bring the highest level of performance attainable.

Note: This concert was produced by CameraMusic and Chamber Music Detroit, and the live stream was marketed in North Carolina by Chamber Music Raleigh.