“At first it was just a quagmire of unknowns.” Violist Abigail Rojansky of the Verona String Quartet is describing Milton Babbitt’s complex Second Quartet (1954), which the group performed at the Juilliard School’s week-long Focus! festival in January. “We couldn’t really see the hidden correlations and references he nestles into the score until we’d played through it many, many times and allowed ourselves to be open to the humor that he wrote into it and the little conversations that he builds among the four voices. It really is a masterpiece.”
“Discovery” is the key word at Focus! concerts. For 32 years, the festival has been dishing up the most delectable new-music smorgasbord in New York City. This year’s event celebrated the centennial of distinguished American composer, teacher, and writer Milton Babbitt+ (1916- 2011). The four musicians of the Verona Quartet were encountering his sophisticated 12-tone language for the first time—although a listener might never have suspected as much. Their electrifying realization of the work’s Stravinsky-esque drive and Bartókian rhythms and pizzicatos finally unlocked the secret to a composer whose music I had heretofore appreciated mostly for his puckish titles: e.g., Swan Song No. 2, It Takes Twelve to Tango, Minute Waltz (or 3/4±1/8), Sheer Pluck (for guitar), and Whirled Series (for alto sax and piano).
Cellist Warren Hagerty, violist Abigail Rojansky, violinists Dorothy Ro and Jonathan Ong
In a lively interview afterward, violinist Jonathan Ong explained, “Part of delving into the music for us really involved getting to know who Babbitt was as a person. Of course, we have no first-hand experience,” but Juilliard professor and Focus! Director Joel Sachs does, and so does Joel Krosnick, longtime cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet, recently retired. “It was such a great opportunity to work with Mr. Sachs,” says Ong, “who knew him very dearly, and Mr. Krosnick, who was a student at Columbia when Babbitt was there. Whenever they reminisced about him, they spoke so much of his humor and wit, and they laughed and smiled—they just loved him as a person.”
Cellist Warren Hagerty drew a parallel with another composer. “Bartók’s music is often based on Hungarian folk tunes and also on the speech pattern. Mr. Sachs told us that the [Second Quartet] kind of resembles having a conversation with Milton, and that Milton would tend to jump around between topics very fast. You would find yourself talking about five different things within one minute, and I think we heard a lot of that in the piece—it made a lot more sense to us.”
The Verona players will be performing Bartók’s Fifth Quartet in their May 7 Alice Tully Hall debut, which also includes works by Haydn and Mendelssohn. Violinist Dorothy Ro says she finds it “very interesting to go from Babbitt and then to Bartók. Babbitt really expanded our perspective of things, really pushed our boundaries and musical interpretation in so many ways. So when we’re working on Bartók now, I feel we have a clear palette—we have more imagination, more ideas. I feel we’re able to think outside the box more, so I think it’s done a great deal for us.”
Only three years into its formation, the Verona Quartet has straddled the professional and academic worlds, performing across North America, Canada, Asia, and Europe, amassing top awards in numerous international competitions, and playing at Wigmore Hall in London, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and this month at Tully Hall. Next season will mark its Carnegie Hall debut, in Weill Hall. Studies with the Juilliard String Quartet+ led to being named the School’s graduate resident string quartet last September, a post that will continue next season. As the designated Lisa Arnhold Fellows, they have been coaching with the JSQ and will assist them in chamber-music teaching. Also among their alma maters are Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and Eastman School of Music.
At Indiana the Verona was the first graduate quartet-in-residence and worked chiefly with the Pacifica Quartet+, which violist Rojansky credits with the encouragement to be a quartet “right from the start,” helping the group to find its voice and pick the right pieces to continue its growth. “They were a huge influence on us, and they continue to be, to this day.” Perhaps working with the Pacifica, which performed and recorded the 15 Shostakovich quartets so memorably, will lead the Verona players to follow suit.
But don’t think they ignore the classics. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a Beethoven score, a quartet part, in my case,” says Rojansky. “I think I would feel like something was missing. It feels right to have some Haydn ready when I need it, and some Beethoven scores to pull out. For a string quartet player, it’s like carrying your heart and soul around with you, especially for us.”
Speaking of Haydn, Jonathan Ong pipes up: “There’s so much humor in Haydn—it’s amazing. I love how he just toys with the listener. Right now we’re working on Op. 50, No. 1, and there are so many false endings. We’ve actually made it a point to try to get the audience to clap!”
Rojansky sums up the Verona credo: “I think forging a quartet career—and this is something that we’ve experienced and continue to experience and learn from all of our mentors in Indiana and here at Juilliard—is very exciting. It’s a lot like learning a Babbitt quartet for the first time. It exposes gems and little delights left and right. It can be very challenging and painful sometimes, but in the end it’s always worth it.”
Her colleagues nod heartily in agreement.
The Verona Quartet will perform Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 50, No. 1, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, and Bartók’s Quartet No. 5 at Alice Tully Hall, May 7 at 7:30 p.m.
+Milton Babbitt was Musical America’s 2009 Composer of the Year
+The Juilliard Quartet was Musical America’s 1996 Musician of the Year
+The Pacifica Quartet was Musical America’s 2009 Ensemble of the Year
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