Arts and Culture

The Juilliard String Quartet makes its 50th appearance with the Chamber Music Society of Louisville on Sunday at Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville. It’s an association that dates to the quartet’s first concert here in 1954, when the Juilliard was still a young and fast-rising string ensemble headed for box-office stardom and recording glory.

It’s kind of hard to imagine a group calling itself a Chamber Music Society moving quickly enough to ink a concert date with a red hot New York musical act. But that’s exactly what happened when U of L music school professor Dr. Gerhard Herz teamed with music patrons Fannie Brandeis and Emilie Smith to sign the Juilliard for a 1954 concert at the old Playhouse theater at U of L.

That was 65 years ago. And, of course, the Juilliard players have changed over time – though not often. Cellist Astrid Schween, who took a seat with the quartet in 2016, is just the fourth cellist in its 73-year history.

Which she very much appreciates.

“These occasions really thrill me,” says Schween. “They remind me of the great legacy of this quartet, and the richness of the relationships that have existed over the years.”

Each season the Chamber Music Society of Louisville brings in one of the world’s elite string quartets to headline a five-concert schedule. That model goes back to 1943, when the society first presented the Budapest String Quartet, which reappeared each season thereafter through 1965 when its members retired. The renowned Beaux Arts Trio was a regular in it heyday, and the Emerson String Quartet, which ranks at the top of the genre in Grammy Awards and box-office success, is a frequent Louisville visitor.  The Emerson will appear here in February and March, and again next fall in a series that honors the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig Van Beethoven.

So for such a small club, in a mid-size city, the Louisville society certainly gets more than its share of time with the world’s top chamber groups.

But none can top the Juilliard in fan loyalty in Louisville. It’s the all-time favorite.

Sunday’s Concert ‘Sandwich’

The Juilliard’s concert program Sunday should be ideal for loyal listeners. It begins with Mozart and ends with Dvorak, with a contemporary quartet by Henri Dutilleux in between. That’s a regular programming sandwich to place the new stuff between old favorites. But it seems to work much better for chamber music than symphonic concerts. It’s as if today’s chamber audiences actually like the idea of trying a new flavor, rather than just putting up with it at the orchestra.

This might be a dumb idea, but it seems to this observer that 20th Century composers like Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich were able to intrigue audiences with stark and sharp quartets, while little progress was made with symphonic music. In fact, the whole big orchestra genre may have gone nowhere for a hundred years. At least that’s what it says here.

Maybe that’s because chamber music listeners can focus on just four voices in a string quartet. Or three in a trio. They can hear the details of sharp-edged chords and be intrigued by jilting rhythms — rather than jolted.

The Dutilleux quartet was first recorded by the Juilliard.

“It’s a very beautiful, very haunting work,” Schween said. “Every possible instrumental effect is used to create atmosphere and textures and sentiments. It’s colorful, it’s subtle … it’s emotional.”

Just in those words – atmosphere, textures, sentiment — one can see the contrast with classical Mozart, with everything fitting perfectly in place.

Schween says the Mozart quartet K.458, is often called the “Hunt” quartet, and echoes the famous Mozart horn concertos.

“It’s a great sort of outdoor tour de force,” says Schween. “The opening movement of the ‘Hunt’ calls up an image of horn calls and an outdoor kind of energy. Then the second movement is one of the most beautiful of all Mozart quartets.”

Like her fellow Juilliard quartet players – including violinists Areta Zhulla and Ronald Copes and violist Roger Tapping — Schween teaches at the Juilliard School, the famous conservatory in New York City. And she says she embraces the Juilliard teaching role as ardently as the performance legacy of the quartet.

Schween, herself, was brought along by famous musical mentors, including cellist Leonard Rose and maestro Zubin Mehta. She studied in London with the late Jacqueline du Pré, classical’s music’s most beloved cellist, who died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 42, at the height of her career.

“Of course, we had many meals together — tea time, lunch, dinner — in and around my lessons with her,” recalls Schween. “I remember on one occasion having to cut our afternoon a bit short so she could rest and get ready for her upcoming tea time guest — who, as it happens was the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, an avid amateur cellist and friend of Jacqueline.”

A Sense Of Home And Belonging

The featured number on the Juilliard program is the Dvorak “American String Quartet.” And Schween is just the cellist/teacher to talk about it.

The American Quartet was composed by the Czech-born composer Antonin Dvorak during the period he lived in America in the 1890s – a time he composed the “Symphony from the New World” and his heralded cello concerto, which Schween has performed and taught throughout her career.

Dvorak was commissioned to compose and conduct in New York, but he spent his summers in tiny Spillville, Iowa, a farming community founded by Czech immigrants. Many musicologists feel it was out on the vast farming swath of the Middle West, near to the homeland ranges of great American Indian tribes, that Dvorak picked up the themes, and ”feel” of America. And he was certainly the first prominent European composer to “discover” the roots of African-American jazz and spiritual music. Dvorak felt a personal mission to foster American composers to tap into their native roots.

And American audiences have ever since hung on to every note.

“When we hear Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony, and the American string quartet and quintet, we hear Dvorak’s impression of American music in all its different guises and shapes and expressions,” Schween explains. “And yet, the music is also unmistakeably Czech. I can’t think of another composer who so accurately captures a sense of home and belonging.”

The Juilliard concert for the Chamber Music Society is at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 24 at Comstock Hall, in the U of L School of Music. There’s a pre-concert talk at 2 p.m., and an onstage reception for the players and audience following the concert. Tickets: $40; Students $5, and U of L students free. More information on the Chamber Music Society’s website.