For the members of the Juilliard String Quartet (JSQ), the ensemble’s 75th-anniversary season was eventful in ways no one could have predicted.
First, the quartet’s November 2021 Alice Tully Hall recital was postponed. Then, in January of this year, the Juilliard community lost longtime JSQ violist, Roger Tapping, to cancer, transforming the group’s April Tully recital into a tribute to his legacy. That was followed in May by the announcement that Juilliard faculty member and alumna Molly Carr would be Tapping’s replacement.
Carr joins her colleagues Ronald Copes (second violinist) and Juilliard alumnae Areta Zhulla (first violinist) and Astrid Schween (cellist) for the latest incarnation of the JSQ, which has gone through multiple personnel changes since it was established in 1946 by Juilliard president William Schuman.
“The best part [of being in the JSQ] is that, when there’s a personnel change, the ideas behind what inspires the quartet don’t change,” Copes says, explaining that those ideas are part of each member’s musical DNA: “Playing old works as if they were freshly written is something we have always done, but playing new works and working with new composers also gives a different perspective to playing the quartets of, say, Beethoven.”
That longtime JSQ philosophy is on display in both of its Alice Tully Hall concerts this season. Indeed, the first recital (on November 30), which was postponed from last season, pairs two of Beethoven’s late masterpieces, the Op. 130 quartet in B-flat major and the Grosse Fuge, with two new works—string quartets Nos. 8 and 10, both commissioned by the JSQ from Juilliard alumnus Jörg Widmann.
The second Tully performance (on April 18), programs 20-year-old Juilliard composition student Tyson Davis’ String Quartet No. 2, Amorphous Figures—co-commissioned for the JSQ by the Kennedy Center, Chamber Music Cincinnati, and DACAMERA Society of Houston—alongside canonical works by Mendelssohn and Dvořák.
“We’ve been looking forward to performing this piece,” Copes says of the Davis quartet. “It goes along with our commissioning history to add to the quartet repertoire. There have been some very significant pieces that we’ve premiered over the years.
”As for the November 30 recital, Copes notes that the members of quartet had been interested in commissioning works from Widmann for a while: “[He] was very intrigued by [pairing his works with] Beethoven, and we came up with the idea as having a program that was a deep dive into the Op. 130 quartet,” which Widmann considers the apotheosis of the genre of the string quartet.
“One of Beethoven’s quartets floats above them all: the Op. 130,” Widmann explains. “He not only consolidated the quartet’s forms in all six of its movements but completely reinvented those forms. He revolutionized music so much that he still has something to tell us today.”
Alongside Widmann’s works, the JSQ will perform Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet and the Grosse Fuge, which was the original ending of the B-flat major quartet; however, negative public reaction led his publisher to urge Beethoven to replace it with a less weighty final movement.
Widmann is not worried about having his works performed next to Beethoven’s: “For me, string quartets are always a challenge to try something new and to create new forms, which is the case with my No. 8: I have hardly ever written a set of variations on anything, and this was the first time I did it in a quartet.”
Although the 8th and 10th quartets are part of a cycle dedicated to Beethoven, Widmann also created them with the Juilliard String Quartet in mind. “I knew I wanted to write (these quartets) specifically for the wonderful sound of the JSQ,” he says. “The JSQ has so many great qualities; specifically, I think that the JSQ’s lyrical quality is really unique, so that led me to write the quartet No. 10, which is one small movement, as a kind of an epilogue.”
Copes says, “These are quite wonderfully deep and heartfelt pieces, and the nature of Jörg’s expression respects [Beethoven’s original works].”
That combination of old and new—of finding fresh perspectives on the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Dvořák through performing works by Widmann and Davis on the same programs—has served the Juilliard String Quartet well for more than three-quarters of a century, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the years ahead.