"Let's say you have two friends -- you like each of them equally but because their personalities are different, you're a different person when you're with each of them," Paul Katz says.
Cellist for the world-renowned Cleveland Quartet, Katz is trying to explain how his ensemble changed two years ago when first violinist and co-founder Donald Weilerstein left after a 20-year tenure. He was replaced by William Preucil, who is, by all accounts, a very different sort of player. The Clevelanders in their new constellation will make their first appearance here in several years when they perform at 8 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore Series.
"Bill [Preucil] is a looser player, a more relaxed player than Don was," Katz continues. "There was an underlying intensity to everything Don did. But although I can say that the quartet is very different, I can't really articulate exactly how that is so."
Other people who have heard the "new" Cleveland -- perhaps because they are not as close to it as Katz -- have less of a problem identifying the difference.
"Bill Preucil is such a steady player and he has changed everything," says composer Samuel Adler, one of whose works the quartet will play tonight. "I wouldn't say that they're better -- they're just great in a different way. If there is perhaps less of a sense of four strong individuals, there is more of a sense of things fitting together."
The quartet, which is in residence at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., was founded in Cleveland in 1969 at high tide in that "do-your-own-thing" decade. Partly because the quartet was so brilliant and partly because its intense, on-the-edge interpretations captured the imagination of the younger music lovers of the time, its success was immediate. By the middle 1970s, the Cleveland was generally regarded as the most exciting quartet in the world. Between 1981 and 1987, it went through two changes of violists, but longtime Cleveland listeners say the inclusion of Preucil, the former concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony, was the watershed.
"What we wanted when we began 22 years ago was to be able to express ourselves and still be able to express a coherent whole," Katz says. "Not every quartet wants to do that. You hear a lot of talk about sublimating one's personality into the whole of the group.
"I think we still adhere to the first position -- what else is chamber music unless it is different voices interacting? -- but we're adhering to it with different people and that changes everything," Katz continues.
"People sometimes ask me if we teach our interpretation of a piece to a new member when he comes into the quartet. But that's impossible. The old way of playing would be forced and artificial because you need the person who's no longer there to make it work."