The internationally famed Juilliard String Quartet was in residence in Midland this past weekend, with a concert of mixed success with the Midland Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, and an unblemished chamber music recital Sunday. While it’s somewhat hard to think of chamber music being appropriate for a 1500-seat auditorium, like that at the Midland Center for the Arts, the combination of exquisite musicality and the hall’s superb acoustic shell system produced a stunning performance that should be long remembered.
Sunday’s program, sponsored by the Midland Performing Arts Society, was simply ethereal. The program began with Haydn’s f minor Quartet, Op. 55, and immediately it became clear that the ensemble’s voice was delicate, intimate, precise, jaw-droppingly intricate at times, and exquisitely tender. Violinist Joel Smirnoff was as deft and graceful as anyone playing chamber music today at tossing off Haydn’s classical ornamentation.
Cellist Joel Krosnick took five minutes to explain Elliott Carter’s Quartet No. 5, educating the audience about the composer’s history of pushing the limits of musical expression and how it would appear in this work. For those who prefer long lyrical musical lines, intertwined consonant polyphonic passages, and prolonged harmonic chordal codas, this was not the piece. Much of Carter’s work has seemed to audiences more of social commentary than a musical one. Nevertheless, the Juilliard’s performance was sufficiently engaging and with lace-like intricacy that the audience seemed to genuinely approve.
After intermission, Smirnoff announced that the Quartet was substituting Beethoven’s c-sharp minor Quartet Op. 131, usually listed as number 14, for the Op. 132 which was published. It turned out to be a felicitous choice, playing directly to the Juilliard’s strengths. Beethoven marked the first movement, an intricate and introspective fugue, as “Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo,” or “Slow, but not too much so, and very expressive.”
The tempi would surely have pleased the composer, but far more importantly, they took the admonition to be very expressive as license to produce quite simply one of the most gorgeous readings of anything I have heard in a long time.
Beethoven put no pauses between any of the movements, and so the entire work proceeds through myriad emotions, moods, and colors. It is a Herculean challenge to maintain forward momentum, keep the interpretation on an even keel, and maintain the audience’s attention to all that the work has to say. The Quartet held the audience in the palm of its collective hands, as in the Presto fifth movement where, in the quiet sections, the entire 1200-plus audience was totally silent, palpably edge-of-seat riveted on the music that was being made.
The previous evening’s concert featured the Midland Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Carlton Woods, with the Juilliard Quartet as guest artists, in a performance that was not quite so successful. First, there is simply not much repertoire for string quartet and orchestra, and while it was an utter delight to see Elgar’s magnificent Introduction and Allegro on the program, it was hardly a surprise.
What was a surprise was the lack of engagement and precision by the MSO’s strings, resulting at times in cringe-making losses of articulation and pitch. This dramatic work could have brought the house down, but unfortunately only served to disappoint.
Violist and Juilliard veteran Samuel Rhodes was heard early on in an extraordinarily lyrical and inviting solo passage. But the Quartet was seated at the front of the stage, surrounding the conductor’s podium, almost in the exact location they would be the following day. Being at a much farther distance from any part of the acoustic shell to allow much projection of sound, their concertato effect was all but lost much of the time.
After intermission, the orchestra and Quartet were featured in Schoenberg’s reworking of one of Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi. The Juilliards were heard to better effect here, thanks in part to Schoenberg’s orchestration, and they produced delicate and sensitive playing. The orchestra navigated the devilishly difficult writing as best they could, but more rehearsal would have brought a better, more accurate reading.
The orchestra fared much better when the Quartet was not on stage. The program began with a spirited and disciplined reading of Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon Suite. The orchestra rose wonderfully to the demands posed by the work’s tour de force orchestration and full, lively, and rich orchestration.
The evening’s final work was Richard Strauss’ delightfully quirky and voluptuous tone poem Till Eulenspiegels. Woods led a thoroughly prepared, eager, and much larger orchestra in a rich and full reading that was among the best of Woods’ and the orchestra’s recent performances.