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Music review: Juilliard String Quartet at Beckman Auditorium, Caltech

October 18, 2010 |  5:15 pm

Juliard One doesn’t expect to run into a long ticket line for a Sundays With Coleman chamber music concert. But on a rainy afternoon 15 minutes before show time at Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, the line of people waiting to hear the Juilliard String Quartet kick off the estimable chamber series, which featured a program of works by Haydn, Bartók and Brahms, curved around the hall.

Maybe it was due to the group's durable brand name, or perhaps it was curiosity about its new first violinist, Nick Eanet. Eanet, 38, took over in July of 2009 when Joel Smirnoff exited. He made his debut with the quartet in September of that year. He is a former concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra who studied at the Juilliard School with the group’s founding first violinist, Robert Mann.

Remarkably, in its 64-year history the Juilliard Quartet has had only 11 different members, including founding cellist Arthur Winograd, who helped it become arguably the first American string quartet to achieve international status. He left the group in 1955 to pursue conducting and died in April at age 90.

With Eanet's arrival, exclusive membership in the quartet bumped up to an even dozen since its founding in 1946. Unfortunately, he will also be the fastest in and out the door. He announced last June that he will be leaving at the end of the 2010-11 season due to an acute and chronic digestive ailment. While not life-threatening, the ailment does not respond well to the Juilliard Quartet's stressful worldwide touring schedule.

The current quartet's other violinist, Ronald Copes, joined in 1997; violist Samuel Rhodes in 1969; and cellist Joel Krosnick in 1974. Talk about continuity. With Eanet, the quartet sounded as unified, technically secure and warmly expressive as ever, but also as low-key. He led them in an eloquent and perfectly paced reading of the concert opener, Haydn’s Quartet in A major (Opus 20, No. 6). Their performance of Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet lacked the drive and power produced on record by the more charismatic 1949 and 1965 Juilliard musicians. But they did convey the composer’s embattled mood of intense musical conversation without missing his humor in the Finale’s sudden bend into tonality -- suggesting inane café music that quickly goes out of tune. 

After intermission, the group gave a relaxed account of Brahms’ inexplicably influential and enduringly unpopular Quartet in A minor (Opus 51, No. 2). It was a committed, texturally clear reading –- no small feat –- of an uninspired and sluggish score incapable of generating sufficient audience enthusiasm to elicit an encore. And it didn’t here. Still, the mellow, disciplined humanity of the Juilliard's music making was satisfying enough for the trip home in the rain.

-- Rick Schultz

Also performing: 7:30 p.m. Monday. Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, La Jolla, $40 - $45.

Photo: From left, Nick Eanet, first violin; Ronald Copes, second violin; Joel Krosnick, cello; Samuel Rhodes, viola. Credit: Vanessa Briceño-Scherzer