Conversation Without Words

The Juilliard String Quartet. At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, November 17.

Reviewed by James Hanley Donelan

Juilliard-String-Quartet-We.jpgWhen the four members of the Juilliard String Quartet took the stage last Friday night, they didn’t say a word, barely acknowledging the presence of the audience. They huddled together and buried their faces in the music, glancing at each other only occasionally. Of course, classical musicians normally arrive and depart in silence, but these four — Joel Smirnoff and Ronald Copes, violins, Samuel Rhodes, viola, and Joel Krosnick, cello — focused their attention on the music with such intensity that at first it felt as if we were intruding. But when they began to play, we received an invitation to join a conversation that had been going on for centuries.

The meaning of these three quartets, K. 428 in E-flat, K. 421 in D minor, and K. 465 in C, came through as clearly as if we were at the table hearing Haydn and Mozart discuss their art. As Charles Rosen wrote, “the most striking innovation of Haydn’s string quartet writing” is “its air of conversation.” The Juilliard Quartet demonstrated beyond a doubt that these works — three of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn — take Haydn’s conversational style a step further by turning them into a discussion between the two masters about the endless possibilities of the form. All three contain numerous occasions when a graceful, perfectly balanced line reminiscent of Haydn opens a cadence, and an even more elegant, witty response characteristic of Mozart closes it. By bringing this conversational quality to the fore, the Juilliard Quartet made their performance not merely flawless, but also enlightening.

In every movement, we heard something new, even 250 years after Mozart’s birth. For example, the subtle counterpoint of the E-flat major quartet becomes clearer when Samuel Rhodes balances the viola line against those of the two violins. Similarly, their delicate touch with the entrances at the beginning of the C major quartet made the dissonance of the work’s subtitle more of an unresolved question than a clash. When the concert ended, the audience gave the group a well-earned standing ovation — and they smiled in response. We were all good friends after such a long talk.

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