In a move that’s hardly surprising for an en-semble, the Juilliard String Quartet players locked eyes. They were onstage at Alice Tully Hall, in one of their two annual recitals there. The audience was packed in, and awaited the quartet’s final performance on the program: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1, the “Razumovsky.” Some pupillary transmissions later, cellist Astrid Schween presented the opening statement, a wistful theme. Meanwhile, violist Roger Tapping and second violinist Ronald Copes delivered a quickly pulsing accompaniment. Measures later, the beautiful melody passed to first violinist Joseph Lin. The quartet was underway.
For many listeners, whatever comprised their hive-mind telepathy might have held intrigue. The concert was among Schween’s first with the quartet. She officially joined last September, and is the ensemble’s first-ever female player. It was no coincidence, I’m later told, that the concert had especially enchanting moments from the cello.
The Juilliard String Quartet is 70 years old this season, yet with the arrival of Schween, after the close of cellist Joel Krosnick’s grand 42-year tenure, the quartet is in many ways the newest it has been in years. For the first time, no current member has played with at least one founding member.
“You can’t help but constantly recalibrate the sounds you’re making to include the new voice. There are subtle differences in the way all the players communicate with each other, both rhythmically and sonically. It’s very multidimensional.”
—Roger Tapping, violist
It’s one week later. Met by a wash of sunlight, I enter the quartet’s rehearsal room, on the fifth floor of the Irene Diamond Building. It’s sealed from the Manhattan din outside. Despite the feeling of stepping onto sacred ground, the scene strikes me as any ensemble’s workspace might: There are chairs and stands, covered in sheet music. Lin, Copes, Tapping, and Schween have just paused their rehearsal. They play pretty much every day, I’m told, and switch hats to teach a number of students, privately and in chamber groups.
The four are part of a storied “gradual evolution.” Permutations of 15 different individuals have comprised this quartet’s players. Yet many would attest that the Juilliard has forged—and, with the school’s support, maintained—as strong an identity as other quartets with more fixed membership. In 1946, violinist Robert Mann and composer and Juilliard president William Schuman founded the quartet. The first generation included second violinist Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd. In the seven decades since, the quartet earned Grammy Awards for recordings of Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Bartók string quartets. They helped establish Schoenberg as a part of string-quartet repertoire and were the first to perform all six Bartók quartets in the United States. Creating a complete historical document, they also recorded a full cycle of Elliott Carter’s five quartets. A glance at the quartet’s season suggests a loyalty to both long-celebrated masterpieces and new music, including commissioned works. Still, I ask if the circumstances make it feel like a new era.
“It feels new to me,” says Schween, adding a laugh. The native New Yorker was a former member of the Lark Quartet, and moved from New England—where she was teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—for the Juilliard position….