Classical continuity

Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes discusses the challenges and delights facing classical musicians today.

Juliard Quartet 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Juliard Quartet 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
If you're searching for the fountain of youth, look no further: "Playing in a quartet keeps you young," says Juilliard Quartet violist Samuel Rhodes. Speaking by telephone from New York ahead of the quartet's two Israel Festival performances next week, Rhodes discusses the challenges faced by classical musicians and why after four decades with the group, he's still very excited to perform. Among classical music lovers, the Juilliard Quartet is a household name. "We're one of the quartets people know about and understand," says Rhodes modestly. Founded in 1946 by Robert Mann and Robert Koff on violin, violist Raphael Hillyer and Arthur Winograd on cello, the current members are violinists Joel Smirnoff and Ronald Copes, Rhodes on viola and cellist Joel Krosnick. The quartet has garnered numerous Grammy awards and continues vital and full international touring and recording schedules. First violinist Smirnoff will be leaving at the end of the 2008-2009 season to become president of the Cleveland Institute of Music. His position has not yet been filled and classical music lovers are on tenterhooks to learn who will replace him. Rhodes doesn't rule out the inclusion of (gasp!) women for the first time or younger players. "We always choose a new member who would add a new perspective; who would help us grow and evolve." In the more than 60 years of the quartet, it has been a benchmark of musical continuity with its 11 members being absorbed into the existing framework. The most dramatic personnel change came in 1997 when founding first violinist Robert Mann passed the bow to Smirnoff. "It was a change in terms of the public perception, but we didn't feel it was such a change since Joel moved over from the second violin." Could this happen again? "We just want the most suitable person for the job," he says evasively. Or perhaps the group's choice will reflect the need for outreach to youth and minorities to replace the gray heads of hair that primarily make up its audiences. "The perception of classical music is not as widespread as we'd like it to be. There are more elderly people in the audience growing older without younger members taking their place. It is a worldwide problem, except perhaps in the Orient." Rhodes adds that the newer, younger members of most international orchestras come from the Far East, and in the quartet's tours of the region it's played to significantly younger audiences. Beyond a totalitarian-dictated regime of classical music, however, what would Rhodes suggest as a gateway to the genre? The answer, surprisingly, does not come in the form of a string quartet, rather opera. "In the opera you have a story and a text you can get involved with. Using that you could see how the music makes it more vivid. Once you have the idea of the forms, you can move onto abstract music." What of movie scores, a la The Red Violin? "The amount of concentration on music in a movie versus an opera is extremely difficult to ascertain. I personally could be concentrating on 5 percent of the music in a movie, but I am 100% aware in an opera." He pauses, reflects and admits a time he was enthralled by movie music, while watching Hitchcock's Psycho. The score was by Bernard Herman, a famous contemporary composer. "I was very struck by the music." (No pun intended.) INCLUDED IN the ensemble's Jerusalem performance is a piece which takes its cues from the opera world, Verdi's String Quartet in E minor. The teacher in Rhodes surfaces (he and all the other members of the quartet teach on the faculty at Juilliard) and he recounts its history. "It is his only string quartet. He was staying in Naples rehearsing Aida, and the soprano was ill. Verdi became bored and amused himself by writing a string quartet - since there wasn't any soccer on the hotel's television that day," he laughs. It is an unusual piece and harks back to Verdi's opera and ballet work. Explains Rhodes, the first movement is like an overture. The second is a dance interlude, as is the third, which also includes a tenor aria. The fourth recalls a fugue in Verdi's Falstaff. It sounds so almost opera-like that I wonder whether Rhodes adds a plot while he's playing as a means of interpreting a character played by the viola. "When there isn't a clear characterization, things may evoke certain emotions, but I don't connect a story, unless the composer has already done that, and even then it's not connecting the dots." The group will also perform Elliot Carter's String Quartet No. 2 in its Jerusalem show. Written in 1959, the composer has definitely "connected the dots" between the four instruments. "The characterizations are so clear and what Carter has written is so clear that just from the musical gestures you can understand it. You hear the four different personalities interact in very specific ways; hear four different people agreeing and disagreeing, keeping character, going through a life experience together. "The quartet could be considered a ground-breaking work in his output in which he most clearly brings to fruition his ideas of sharply contrasting characters in order to illustrate the social problem of interaction, opposition and agreement among human beings. In the classical chamber music repertoire," writes Rhodes in the concert's program notes, "we have come to expect a civilized conversation among the various instruments, each one making a particular contribution to the whole according to its character. Carter takes that idea as a point of departure." At the end of April, the quartet was honored to premiere Carter's Clarinet Quintet, which the Juilliard School commissioned over the summer. Rhodes gives the background of the work's commission: "We heard a rumor that Carter was interested in writing a clarinet quintet and would the school be interested in commissioning it? We took it to the head of the school who replied, 'Well that's a no-brainer,' and within a few months the piece was ready." At the April 29 performance, clarinetist Charles Neidich and the quartet played the piece straight through once. Carter, who will celebrate his 100th birthday this December, was at the scene and participated in a dialogue with the dean of the music school after the intermission, and asked the musicians to illustrate by playing certain excerpts. "He composes the old-fashioned way," says Rhodes, and no computer plays the piece for him before it's actually performed live. As with Carter's quartet, the music is both deceptively simple sounding and incredibly difficult to perform. "That's part of the fascination: that Carter's vision has let us all develop the necessary techniques to play it. We have to develop methods to get that, to progress and become better musicians. That's why the music is wonderful, both for the musicians and the audience." The Juilliard Quartet will perform June 10 at 8:30 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theater and June 12 at 8:30 p.m. at the Herzliya Performing Arts Center.