The 2008-09 season of the Juilliard String Quartet is both usual and unusual. We are, as usual, playing concerts throughout the United States and Europe, and are making a short trip in May to perform at the Miyazaki Festival in Japan.
As I write this in early March, we have just finished a semester and a half of intense teaching of our instruments and of chamber music at Juilliard; we have just spent many hours joining our faculty colleagues in the annual Juilliard entrance auditions. And now, our European tour starts on March 11 with two performances of the Schoenberg String Quartet Concerto with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra; the tour includes, among other works, the first European performances of the Elliott Carter Clarinet Quintet (with Charles Neidich), in Berlin and Helsinki. Even the unusual repertoire is usual for the Juilliard Quartet.
However, this is indeed an unusual year for us in the J.S.Q. In the spring of 2008, our cherished colleague, first violinist Joel Smirnoff, was appointed president of the Cleveland Institute of Music. Our concerts this season are our final ones with Joel, who has been in the quartet for 23 years, 12 of those years as our first violinist. This summer we will play our farewell concerts with our dear friend, at the Ravinia and Tanglewood Festivals, and in April, our last two concerts with him at the School which gave us our name.
But, back to last spring: with our first violinist leaving, where would we go from there? Already in May 2008, violist Samuel Rhodes, violinist Ronald Copes, and I (joined by President Joseph Polisi and Dean Ara Guzelimian) spoke intensely together about the continuation of the quartet, which is so important in the lives of its members, as well as in the pedagogical, cultural, and musical life of The Juilliard School. We were all committed to the meaningful continuation of the Juilliard Quartet as a vital musical force. But how and where would we find a new member who would share the long traditions of the quartet (now in its 63rd year) while also bringing fresh inspiration to its rehearsals, explorations, and performances?
Sam, Ron, and I sat for a number of hours together, suggesting and discussing colleagues in the world of music who were truly devoted to chamber music—and specifically, who were passionate about great string quartet playing. Surely, anyone who would join the Juilliard Quartet would have to be devoted to the music of our own time, as well as to the widest range of music of the past. Whoever would join us would have to be able to bring an imaginative personal voice to our quartet, as well as to help us re-examine and reinvent some of the interpretive traditions developed and honed over the many years of the ensemble. We were also all aware of a desire on our parts to gradually make the Juilliard Quartet younger—to regenerate it, perhaps, so it might possibly go on forever, blending the old with the new.
After much discussion, the three of us came up with the names of three superb chamber musicians who were vastly experienced string quartet players, and who we thought would be as excited about what we do as we are. That would be a start, at least, of our search for a new colleague.
After setting a wide range of mutually agreed-upon repertoire—from Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert to Ravel and Bartok—and after finding that the three people we had thought of were indeed interested in playing with us, we scheduled two full days of rehearsing and playing with each potential new colleague.
These rehearsals were not auditions in the usual sense. We four came together and shared the music we all love; we conversed together with our minds, spirits, and musical instincts. Each musician who came to play with us was a superb instrumentalist and artist. Sam, Ron, and I felt, I am sure, an obligation to play at our very intense best, so as to truly join each exciting new candidate. We tried to represent, in every musical way, what we believe the Juilliard String Quartet has come to mean. For two long days with each artist, we imagined and created together, so as to know at least a bit about what such a Juilliard Quartet might be. Over those six days, the musical and emotional sharing was remarkably intimate, yet deeply felt.
When we started to share the Mozart K. 589 and Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet with Nick Eanet, I thought I felt a special kind of lyrical magic enter the room. I tried my best to answer Nick’s voice with mine; and then I noticed that Ron’s and Sam’s instrumental voices were also heightened as we each responded to what seemed to be happening among the four of us. Nick returned our emotional response with his sound, and we returned his. The irrational magic of four single voices becoming one, each voice contributing its inspiration to a shared emotional quest—that is the dream that has motivated so many of us since our earliest days of being able to play an instrument. With Nick Eanet, at that moment, we knew that the four of us should play together, that we would be the new Juilliard Quartet.
Yes, we talked more together, shared lunches, and even met some days later to talk again. But I think that we knew it then, at those moments shared over Mozart and Schubert. When, in our later conversation, Nick began to talk about what “we” should do together, I think we all stopped and stared at him. And when he said, “Yeah, I’m in,” it was a great moment for all of us in the Juilliard String Quartet.
As we continue to share these last performances with our dear colleague, Joel Smirnoff, we are also meeting for photos and conversations with Nick, planning the 2009-10 season and discussing the new repertoire we will undertake together. At the end of May, after the Juilliard Quartet Seminar, we will start to work with Nick, preparing our first concerts, which will be on July 8 at the Ravinia Festival, July 10 at the Orford Festival in Canada, and July 12 at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, N.Y. The coming season will include concerts in the U.S. and Europe, as well as an extensive Asian tour. A particular highlight for us will be our two Juilliard faculty concerts, in Alice Tully, which will occur in the fall and spring of the 2009-10 season.
So, early this summer, the usual season of the Juilliard Quartet will end with powerful and nostalgic emotions as we say goodbye to Joel Smirnoff, our dear colleague of 23 years. And then, the unusual season that it has become will recommence, almost at once, with the ecstatic welcoming of Nick Eanet, who will share with us the many years in front of the once-again-renewed Juilliard String Quartet.