By the time Beethoven finally tried his hand at writing string quartets, he'd already written a dozen piano sonatas, three piano trios, several sonatas for violin and cello, and five string trios. But still he was intimidated by the new form. In 1801, after revising String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, he ordered his friend Karl Amenda not to show anyone the early version. The world, he thought, might compare the subtle, dramatic piece to similar works by Mozart and Haydn, geniuses of the genre.
The Juilliard String Quartet opens Da Camera of Houston's season finale with that revised String Quartet in F, but, unlike Beethoven, the famous quartet shows no reluctance to juxtapose new work with the classics.
Despite that tendency, and despite sharing a name with the noted conservatory, the group is hardly a bunch of neophytes. William Schuman, a former president of the Juilliard School, founded the group in 1946. Today's ensemble includes Joel Smirnoff and Ronald Copes on violin, Samuel Rhodes on viola and Joel Krosnick on the cello.
The foursome will be joined on piano by Da Camera Artistic Director Sarah Rothenberg during Schumann's Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-Flat Major, Op. 44. This tune was a favorite of Clara's, Schumann's wife, especially toward the end of her virtuoso piano career. Before her marriage, though, she avoided it. Word has it that her father vehemently opposed her choice in husbands.
The Juilliard ensemble also tackles Elliott Carter's String Quartet No. 5, composed in 1995. Carter, an American, says he refuses to write music that requires players to "goose-step together." Instead of a single, dictatorial beat, he prefers a complicated rhythmic counterpoint he calls "tempo modulation." Carter seems unworried by comparisons to Mozart and Haydn.