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Why Juilliard Quartet Insists on Mixing New Music With Old

MUSIC: INTERVIEW

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THE contrast couldn't have been greater: Beethoven's masterful romantic String Quartet (Opus 132), with the grand architecture of its outer movements and the intimacy of its Molto adagio, performed together with Stefan Wolpe's bracing, angular two-movement ``Quartet'' (1968-69), with its muscular string writing and subtle use of Jewish folk tunes, jazz, serial, and atonal techniques. Could both pieces please the same audience? - one like the crowd assembled here recently at the University of Connecticut for a concert by the Juilliard String Quartet.

For the group's first violinist, Robert Mann, the question is beside the point.

``The Wolpe `Quartet' is not a great audience-pleaser,'' says Mr. Mann, a founding member, ``but the Juilliard Quartet has always been willing to sacrifice that slightly easier path of playing music that audiences easily like, and we've decided to give equal emphasis to both the music of our time and the music of the past.

``We took a stand,'' he continues. ``We said, `If you want the Juilliard, you'll have to take some Wolpe along with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.' And naturally we haven't made as much of a commercial success because of this attitude. On the other hand, ... we have slowly built a reputation; so people are willing to accept us on our own terms.''

I spoke with Mann just before the Storrs performance. As he explained, the Juilliard sees itself as part of the history of music-making.

``In Beethoven's time,'' he says, ``they played music of the contemporaries of Beethoven. They seldom played earlier works, although they did play some. Then, when concertizing was no longer underwritten by the church or the nobility, and when making music become more of a financial and material effort, people like [violinist Ludwig] Spohr and [pianist Franz] Liszt began to play concerts to make a living. People like [violin virtuoso Nicoll`o] Paganini had to sell tickets. These circumstances marked the knife-edge difference between musicians who are truly interested in the art and those who were willing to make compromises to achieve financial success.

``What it comes down to,'' Mann continues, ``is the fact that there are great 20th-century compositions, whether they appeal to the broad public or not. Some artists insist that this new music means so much to them that they won't give it up, despite pressure from the audience, the media, and the management.''

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