The Juilliard Quartet Shines at Alice Tully Hall

New York. Alice Tully Hall: November 19, 2018. 7:30pm

Program: Beethoven: String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3; Beecher: One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time;  Dvorák: “American” String Quartet

This evening’s program featured the Juilliard Quartet in its latest incarnation, with new first violinist Areta Zhulla. Certainly the ensemble’s famed rhythmic precision and keen feeling for instrumental balance remains firmly in place, as does its ability to “play hard” without any unpleasant roughness of tone, but Zhulla also brought to her solos, especially in the slow movement of the “American” Quartet, a welcome degree of passion and spontaneity too. It sounds like she’ll make a fine addition to the team.

The Beethoven, published as the third in his Op. 18 series, although actually the first to be written, is not one of his more compelling works. In this performance, however, the strong accents and bold dynamic contrasts reminded us of the genius to come, even as the music paid tribute to predecessors Mozart and Haydn. Lembit Beecher’s One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time was written for this ensemble, which played the work with sovereign command. Unfortunately, here is yet another contemporary piece in which the most interesting thing about it is its title. Cast in three increasingly dull movements, the work grows progressively slower and more ethereal until, by way of some admittedly imaginative handling of texture, it evaporates entirely. It’s not terribly long, or unusually difficult to listen to and appreciate. It’s just unremarkable, while the title hints at a programmatic concept not especially well suited to musical treatment. The audience, though, gave Beecher the benefit of the doubt, offering an enthusiastic ovation which the composer acknowledged in joining the quartet on stage.

The second half of the program consisted entirely of Dvorák’s “American” Quartet—one of his shortest, but nonetheless by far the most substantial piece offered. Here’s music worthy of the standing ovation at the end. The tunes! The rhythms! They textures! The work is a feast for the ears, and the Juilliard offered an intense, vibrant performance capped by an especially buoyant account of the finale—with its fanciful “train tune” chugging away as it carries the composer over the American landscape to his summertime destination of Spillville, Iowa. It’s customary now to downplay the music’s allegedly American influences, a bow to today’s politically correct disdain for anything that smacks of “cultural appropriation” or Western imperialism; but there was a time when having a genius like Dvorák turn a simple tune, whatever its source, into a miracle of musical architecture and elevated thought was considered a good thing. So it was last night—indeed, a concert full of good things.

David Hurwitz