Music review: The new, old Juilliard at South Mountain

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PITTSFIELD >> Call it a trial run. The Juilliard String Quartet opened its 70th-anniversary season Sunday afternoon at South Mountain with the debut of a new member — its third in five years. Musically, the group sounded as if was still getting acquainted.

The Juilliard has to be the oldest string quartet going in this country (senior, for example, to the Emerson, which is marking its 40th anniversary). Cellist Astrid Schween, the group's first woman member, is the newcomer, succeeding Joel Krosnick, a 42-year veteran who retired last spring.

She joins violinist Joseph Lin and violist Roger Tapping, who came aboard in 2011 and 2013, respectively. This leaves violinist Ronald Copes, who joined in 1997, as the senior member and only direct connection to Juilliard tradition.

The ensemble played a program of Haydn's Opus 20, No. 5, Bartok's Quartet No. 1 and Beethoven's first "Razumovsky," Opus 59, No. 1. The playing generally was robust but unfocused — that is, lacking in the specific tone, nuance and overarching conception that make music more than an assembly of its notes. The group produced a big sound but Lin, the first violinist, tended to dominate beyond his primary role.

Speaking of Juilliard tradition: The Bartok performance recalled the original Juilliard's championing of the six Bartok quartets back in the late 1940s, when they were virtually unknown in this country. The first of the Juilliard's three recordings of the cycle came out in 1949, helping to launch the works into iconic status. The then Juilliard, a dynamic assemblage led by violinist Robert Mann, played the works for full shock as well as musical effect. Performances, including the Juilliard's, have settled down since then.

In Sunday's performance, the First, a work straddling the romantic-modern line, came across in a generalized, smoothed-out manner that made it seem long-winded and rambling. Similar qualities marked the other performances.

The players probed the storm and stress in the Haydn quartet, yet the four movements, providing contrast within the overall framework, were performed with long lines that rendered them similar in character. The "Razumovsky," similarly, had energy aplenty but had not yet settled into a cogent performance. The scherzo's rhythmic drive lacked urgency, and the playing in the adagio flowed smoothly along the surfaces of its lament.

In calling the Juilliard Quartet into being, William Schuman, then president of the Juilliard School of Music, wanted a group "that would play the standard repertoire with the sense of excitement and discovery of a new work and new works with a sense of reverence usually reserved for the classics." The reborn Juilliard Quartet has seven more road programs before it arrives at Lincoln Center on Oct. 17: time enough to close in on the high goal set by Schuman. The program then will be Beethoven's "Serioso" plus the Bartok and Beethoven quartets performed here


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