Four musicians on a mission shared


In harmony like the great string quartet they are, Joel Smirnoff, Ronald Copes, Samuel Rhodes and Joel Krosnick each listened carefully to whichever one of then was taking the lead in explaining their missions as educators and performers — and their love of music.

Currently on their umpteenth Japan tour, the Juilliard String Quartet last week made what is now becoming a regular annual appearance at the Miyazaki International Music Festival, prior to their Yokohama and Tokyo dates scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

For the four Americans, who made time to speak with The Japan Times last week, life as members of the JSQ is like wearing two hats. “But it’s important that we wear them both,” said cellist Krosnick, 62.

Formed in 1946, the quartet, comprising faculty members of that world-famous New York conservatory, the Juilliard School, has always put a premium on touring, taking their performances to cities both in the United States and the rest of the world.

Not that the members are about to give up their day jobs — they remain extremely dedicated teachers who are committed to their work with all the highly talented students Juilliard draws from around the world. In fact, their roles as educators go even beyond Juilliard to teaching master classes and participating in music camps for students of all ages.

As well as performing as a quartet, and helping their students iron out the technical problems or emotional blocks that can prevent them realizing their full musical potential, the quartet members also take the time to rehearse together every morning — above and beyond their own private practice time.

“The aspect of being performers, and staying connected with our own artistry is terribly important,” said Krosnick, a quartet member since 1974. “If we don’t do that, then, in some ways we don’t have anything to teach, either. You really have to be involved in that.”

Meanwhile, as the quartet-in-residence of the Library of Congress since 1962, the members necessarily perform the works of most of the late, great composers — though they are also committed to playing pieces by contemporary American composers. This latter genre includes several works for which they have given world premiers, such as the first-ever performance of the fourth quartet by U.S. chamber music composer Gunther Schuller, which is on the program for the Yokohama concert Tuesday.

As the quartet members will enthusiastically chorus, working closely with composers is a learning experience for them, too. Not only does it make them think deeply about the basic structure of a piece, but it also makes them think about the relationship each part has to the others, adding greatly to their appreciation of the music.

“The struggle a composer has with his own imagination and making sure what he is imagining is coming out, that’s a different thing. A performer doesn’t think in those terms,” said viola player Rhodes, 61, a quartet member for 34 years and a trained composer himself.

Without missing a beat, 52-year-old violinist Copes, who joined the group in 1997, added: “It gives a really good understanding of what stands out as being very important in a composer’s mind — and what is less important. Working with composers has been very helpful for me to see the way this hierarchy is created, and how useful it is to be thinking about music and rehearsing it from the same point of view.”

Cellist Krosnick followed with an interesting variation, saying, “When you deal that way with composers, you look at the Beethoven and Brahms you are playing on the same program, and you start to imagine the same dialogue and the same process.”

Then Smirnoff, 53, Copes’ fellow violinist in the quartet and a member now for 17 years, spoke for them all by saying: “Very often people ask us how we can keep playing the same Beethoven for so many years and still enjoy it,” he said. “The point is, you are changing as a player and as a person. So each time you come back to the piece, you discover entirely new things about it, because the artists are rich. These are wonderful documents of great minds and great hearts.”

As high as they may now soar in the music world, however, the current four JSQ members all freely acknowledge that in years gone by its previous members were their own role models, too — both in terms of performance and teaching. This ensures they never forget their responsibility to hand down what they have learned and what, in turn, has been passed on to them.

“We are beneficiaries of those who passed on that world to us. If the great artists and groups of the past did not make one feel this way, then the music at one point dies,” Krosnick said. “Either in performance or in teaching, the idea is to inspire people and make the works live.”

Indeed, the quartet’s enthusiasm and passion to spread the gospel of music doesn’t end with their stage appearances, even while on tour. On Sunday, June 8, for instance, the musicians said their audience was to be children at Honcho Elementary School in Yokohama — just as they frequently perform at elementary schools in the United States.

“You just try to turn them on and get them excited,” Smirnoff said. “You try to give them a visceral experience.”

Krosnick picked up on the theme, adding his own variation: “If something brings up an excitement and an emotion to a young person who is listening, you never know what you have done, because that person will run with that.”

“And even if they don’t get any inspiration from music,” said Rhodes, “they see four people totally involved with what they are doing with some expertise, and they see people doing something that means so much that they devote their lives to it. Maybe they won’t pick music as the thing . . .”

It was a refrain answered by Copes, who continued: “. . but nevertheless, it sets an example in that way. And so frequently, children have very little attention span. For them to sit through a movement of something that requires serious attention for five, six or seven minutes — it can be a life-changing kind of thing.”