The Juilliard String Quartet played at the Jane Mallet Theatre on Thursday evening – bringing with them a chilly program for a chilly January night. The program was part of Music Toronto’s Contemporary Classics series.
The New York-based Juilliards have a well-earned reputation for tackling tough modernist scores. Earlier this year, they completed the cycle of Elliott Carter quartets that they began in the 1990s. They’ve also championed quartets by Milton Babbitt, Stefan Wolpe and Roger Sessions, among others.
So Anton Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, and Shulamit Ran’s String Quartet No. 2, which followed, were right up their alley. Beethoven’s Op. 135 String Quartet, which concluded the program, wasn’t exactly contemporary music – but it fit well with the “classics” side of the Contemporary Classics label.
Before the quartet put bows to strings, Music Toronto’s composer-advisor Jeffrey Ryan offered a brief introduction. In his comments, he noted that the Webern piece still sounds like new music, more than a century after it was written.
Ryan intended his remark as compliment – but I believe his observation neatly underscored a fundamental problem. Yes, this music does sound “new,” but only because its musical language remains culturally alien and unassimilated. I suspect Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet will sound just as bafflingly unfamiliar to most listeners in another 100 years.
The performance got off to a shaky start, with the Juilliards having to restart the first movement, due to a tuning problem in the first violin. The second attempt was more successful, as the quartet gave the movement a detailed yet restrained reading. And so it went: the ensuing movements were played with a precise, tight-knit fragility.
Ran’s String Quartet No. 2 (subtitled “Vistas”) is quite dissonant, yet less atonal than the Webern. Indeed, there are passages when specific pitches are forcefully established as central. Constructed according to a classical model with a four-movement form, the quartet is cyclical, with ideas from several movements recurring in the last.
For most of its 25 minutes, it’s a difficult piece – difficult for the players, certainly, but also for the audience. There’s an “extreme” quality about this music, and remarkably it seems to inhabit opposite states simultaneously. At the same time it’s dispassionately calculated and raging with angst.
The Juilliards dug into the score with a full-throttle commitment. They’ve been playing this piece a lot this season, and their thorough knowledge of it was immediately apparent. In the first movement, Ran’s stridently independent treatment of the four instruments called for an individualized virtuosity from the musicians, and they rose to the occasion. The second movement is lyrical and linear, and that’s how the Juilliards played it – yet also with dramatic edges on the ends of phrases. The third movement, a kind of scherzo, was performed with manic agitation. And the finale was a return to the fierce, angular counterpoint of opening movement.
Although an impressive succès d’estime, this quartet ultimately bounces of the cultural wall the way so many modernist works do. I don’t think it will ever find much love in the world of classical music. (And I see no injustice in this, by the way.)
After the two modernist works, Beethoven’s Op. 135 Quartet held forth the promise of a warmer, friendlier kind of music. But that’s not really how the Juilliards played it. Rather, their approach was a reminiscent of the Ran quartet that they had just performed. To be sure, they played with plenty of energy and with great attention to detail – but their tone was steely, and sometimes just plain harsh.
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