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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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