Golden year for chamber group Masters: Acclaimed Juilliard String Quartet celebrates 50 years of performing.

November 10, 1996|By Walter Wager | Walter Wager,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 1948, a group of not exactly famous painters in New York City's lively Greenwich Village asked four not quite celebrated classical musicians to play a concert for them. Since the 8th Street Club artists had a chronic shortage of cash, they showed their appreciation by having a member give each of the young performers one of his enamel paintings.

Those works are worth well over $150,000 apiece today, for the donor was Willem de Kooning, who was soon hailed globally as a giant of the newish abstract impressionism. The four musicians haven't done too badly either. They've dazzled audiences and won the esteem of critics around the world as the brilliant Juilliard String Quartet, which turned 50 last month.

Teachers at school

U.S. chamber music's Fab Four are the quartet-in-residence and teachers at the Juilliard School, the top-notch conservatory. The JSQ already has given the world premieres of works by more than 60 American composers. The members of the internationally celebrated quartet are also masters of the classical repertory. In some 5,000 performances in the United States and a score of other countries, the quartet has played more than 500 diverse compositions with distinction -- and sometimes with controversy, too, especially at the beginning.

The quartet's co-founder is Bobby Mann, born in 1920. His family was living outside Portland, Ore., when young Bobby began taking lessons on a violin his father had bought with a coat. The teacher was sincere but given to drink and quick to anger, all of which ended when someone shot him fatally.

Lessons with the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra followed, and they led to Mann's playing with the Portland Junior Symphony.

He graduated from Lincoln High School at 18 and made one of his few mistakes. Confusing the two top music schools in New York, he went East to the Institute of Musical Arts instead of the Juilliard Graduate School. He solved the odd problem by earning degrees from both in sequence. Since then, they've come together in today's large and influential Juilliard School.

Called into the Army in 1942, Mann was assigned to the Signal Corps and a jazz band on a coastal defense base 120 miles from Manhattan.

Mann's dream

Even before the war ended and he returned to civilian life, Mann was nurturing a challenging new idea. Committed to the intricate elegance and magic of fine chamber music, he wanted to build an excellent American string quartet that would equal or surpass such brilliant European groups as the famed Budapest String Quartet. It would be the first world-class string quartet of American musicians, a group that would superbly play not only the traditional repertory but also the best new works by talented contemporary composers.

One evening not long after the war ended, Mann was speaking to a Juilliard faculty member named Edgar Schenkman, a confidant of William Schuman, the Juilliard School's new president.

Mann spoke of his idea for a world-class American string quartet to be in residence at Juilliard. "Edgar's face lit up in his Cheshire smile," Mann recalled, "and he told me that Bill Schuman had something similar in mind."

Schuman left it to the young Oregonian to recruit the three other players. Mann brought in as cellist a buddy from his Army days, Arthur Winograd; violist Raphael Hillyer; and second violinist Robert Koff.

They were helped much by a caring and brilliant mentor, a violinist with the Boston Symphony, Eugene Lehner.

After rehearsals and warm-ups in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the totally unknown Juilliard String Quartet gave its first public performance in New York on Oct. 11, 1946. There were no reviewers or critics in the audience at the Juilliard School theater, but violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Zoltan Kodaly came to look and listen.

They approved.

Soon after the last note sounded, word went out in New York's tough-to-impress concert community that this was a quartet that deserved attention. That buzz was confirmed by the enthusiastic reactions of a paying audience when the JSQ finally had its formal debut on Dec. 23, 1947, in mid-Manhattan's Town Hall.

In the years that followed, fine playing and imaginative programming combined to earn the Juilliard String Quartet increasing recognition. The new quartet showed enormous talent and no fear. Some six months after the Town Hall debut, the JSQ made musical history when it presented the U.S. premiere of six Bartok string quartets as a cycle. They've since won international acclaim with a number of other compelling cycles, including one dedicated to Beethoven quartets.

What Beethoven wanted

In those early days, there was considerable controversy about how the Juilliard performed Beethoven. They did it their way, which was the way the composer had indicated in his tempo markings on the original manuscripts. Over the centuries it had somehow become the custom to play these works much more slowly.

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