Interview by Tim Janof
Born in Connecticut to a family of enthusiastic amateur musicians, Joel Krosnick has been cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet since 1974. With pianist Gilbert Kalish, his sonata partner for over twenty years, he performs annual recitals at the Merkin and Weill Halls in New York, and has recorded much of the sonata repertoire, including the complete Beethoven and Brahms Sonatas and Variations, and works by Poulenc, Prokofiev, Carter, Debussy, Janácek, Shapey, Cowell, and Hindemith. Mr. Krosnick’s principal teachers were William D’Amato, Luigi Silva, Jens Nygaard, and Claus Adam, whom he succeeded in the Juilliard String Quartet. While at Columbia University, he began his lifelong commitment to contemporary music and has performed and premiered many new works, including Donald Martino’s Cello Concerto, Richard Wernick’s Cello Concerto No. 2, and several works by Ralph Shapey. Appointed to the faculty of The Juilliard School in 1974, Mr. Krosnick has been Chair of the Cello Department since 1994. He has been associated with the Aspen and Marlboro music festivals, the Tanglewood Music Center, Yellow Barn, and Kneisel Hall in Maine.
TJ: You come from a family of amateur musicians.
JK: My father was a violinist as well as a pediatrician and pediatric allergist on the faculty of Yale.
My mother would have been a well-known professional pianist had she been in a later generation. She had played Liszt and Schumann concerti with orchestras around New York in her youth and was a graduate of Juilliard and the Yale Music School. She also played the fiendishly difficult piano parts in the Strauss and Brahms F Major Sonatas in my lessons with Luigi Silva. She wasn’t exactly an amateur pianist.
My mother was born in 1904, so she would have been pursuing her career in the 1930’s through the 1950’s, which is when American women simply didn’t go on the road to play music. At that time there was maybe one conductor of a major orchestra who would have hired a female soloist. Facing such obstacles, my mother chose to start a family instead.
My brother, Aaron, is a fine professional violinist. He taught for years at the University of Jacksonville in Florida. He and I grew up playing piano trios with my mother.
TJ: William D’Amato was your first cello teacher.
JK: He was a cellist in the New Haven Symphony, but he probably earned most of his living doing something else. I think he may have run a dry cleaning establishment. At the same time he was a very fine professional cellist in the area. He used to play in all the pre-New York trial runs of musicals that ran in New Haven. I studied with him for about a year and a half.
Then Luigi Silva joined the Yale faculty and a mutual friend of my family’s arranged for me to play for him. I ended up studying with Silva for the next ten years until he died in early 1961.
TJ: I’ve heard that Silva could break down pretty much any aspect of cello technique into a step-by-step process, thus making the impossible seem possible.
JK:Yes, he was able to do that. His teachings still echo within me to this day. In my own teaching and practicing, I’m aware, especially in the left hand, of how orderly, precise, and disciplined one must be. He talked a lot about how the shape or form of the hand affects the way the fingerboard is broken up into intervallic content.
Silva organized his students’ approach to their left hands. His students had a certain clarity of concept and ability to map out strategies for a precise physical version of the pitches being played.
I still remember a moment when I was playing Silva’s transcription of the Vitali Chaconne in his class when I was a teenager. I had to start a phrase on the B-flat above the half-string harmonic on the G string and I pre-placed my finger while I waited for my entrance. Silva, who was standing near me, quickly reached out and nudged my elbow forward about a sixteenth of an inch. Before I could do anything about it I came in and it was right! Somehow he knew the shape of the hand and the fingerboard well enough to know that I was going to be slightly flat. I asked him how he knew that I would be out of tune and he replied, “I’m not sure.”
TJ: You mentioned “intervallic content” earlier. What does this mean?
JK: I’m talking about the intervals between certain fingers. For example, in the lower positions, I have a minor third between my first and fourth fingers, unless I extend it, in which case I temporarily adjust the thumb joint, elbow, and other things, and then quickly return to the basic shape. I almost never freeze into an extended position. I maintain the basic shape whenever possible.
The three finger areas, sometimes called 5th, 6th, and 7th positions, have a minor third between the first and third fingers, unless, of course, I extend it. Again, the basic “small” shape of the hand in this region of the fingerboard shouldn’t deteriorate just because I extend for a moment. I need to be able to snap back to the appropriate basic shape for these positions as well.
In thumb position I’m aware of the octave between my thumb and third finger. When I was nine years old, Silva gave me a “glissando jet plane” exercise, where one slides up and down the fingerboard in octaves. The key, again, is to maintain a certain shape of the hand.
I also conceive of thumb position as dividing the fingerboard into a sequence of perfect fourths. This idea can be seen in Pierre Fournier’s edition of the Poulenc Sonata, where he tells us in parentheses where to put our thumb. He says, in essence, if you want to hit the c-flat with the third finger, put the thumb on g-flat. This way of conceptualizing the fingerboard is sort of home cooking for me, since I grew up with this idea under Silva’s guidance.
It didn’t take long for Silva to push me to make my own decisions. I remember asking him for his fingerings in the Scherzo of the Elgar Concerto. In those days it was customary for a teacher to dictate fingerings to students. He said, “Yes, I probably have it somewhere, but why don’t you finger it? You’ve been around me long enough, so you finger it as you think is right and bring it to me next week.” I was completely taken aback by this but I agreed to try. I immediately went to work and fingered it very carefully, making sure I followed his fingering principles.
One of his rules was to keep the hand small. He would constantly tell me, “You need to learn to use your hand small and very concisely. Otherwise you will play very out of tune someday.” I followed this rule and used lots of substitution fingerings and other tricks he had taught me.
The following week I brought it in and he sat down at the piano and said, “Alright, play your Scherzo.” I played and it went pretty well. He sat down in front of me and said, “Okay, now play it for me slowly. I want to see what you did.” I played it again and he asked me to play it one more time. When I finished he started to laugh. I asked him what was so funny. He said, “Tell me something. Is that who you think I am?” And he laughed some more. “Those fingerings are so clever. I’m nowhere near as clever as those fingerings. You have all kinds of substitutions .” He then took the music from me and gave me a blank copy, which was a great compliment.
TJ: What are “substitutions”?
JK: A substitution is a shift where one plays a note with one finger, and then the note is played again with another finger, the advantage being that a shift can be done silently. For example, play a scale fragment starting with the thumb on the half string harmonic A and play up to D, i.e. thumb, 1, 2, 3. Then play the D again, but with the first finger instead, shifting the entire hand up so that other notes higher up the fingerboard can be played in the new position. This is an example of a substitution.
TJ: You mentioned keeping the hand small. Is this about choosing fingerings that minimize the use of extensions?
JK: I wouldn’t say minimizing them; it’s more about not permanently opening the hand. His approach arose because he had tiny hands. He felt considerable bitterness toward various teachers who had told him that his hands were too small to play the cello. Rather than being discouraged, their unhelpful words inspired him to practice even more and he got so he could hop around the fingerboard with amazing facility. He could extend but he’d close the hand right away.
I use extensions all the time, of course. There are times in the literature, especially in quartet playing, where an extension is the best choice, such as when the cellist has a major third that extends to a perfect fourth, and then the root of the chord goes down a half step, which requires a backward extension. The key is to remain focused on the hand as a small unit that can be extended but sort of magnetically snaps back into the small position once the extension is no longer needed.
I recognized this notion in Starker’s “Organized Method” immediately when I first read through it. I’m sure Silva would have assigned Starker’s serial exercises to all of his students. The same idea can be found in Silva’s fingerings for the first Kreutzer Etude. They’re full of extensions that snap back to a minor or major third.
This year’s competition piece at Juilliard is the Schumann Concerto. The Schumann is a very jumpy piece in a lot of ways and sorts out the students who know where notes are on the cello from those who don’t. For example, there are those places in the first movement where the cellist has to slide up a tritone and then come back down (see Example 1). The soloist can’t hide behind the orchestra in this piece, so the shifts have to be dead on, which requires a clear technical concept in order to hit them time after time. Instincts are fine up to a point, but one had better have something to go with the ear besides the heart in order to hit shifts consistently. I continue to be grateful to Luigi Silva for giving me the essential technical tools to play a piece like the Schumann.
JK: When practicing slowly, I might note as I leave the B with my third finger and head for the high F that my thumb will be where my third finger was. Do I think about this when I’m performing? No. But I put in something that is a physical version of what I will hear. I practice it without looking and listen to the pitch while saying to my hand, “Do you understand what I just told you?” Eventually I get a feeling for the shape of the hand that equates to that intervallic space. I definitely don’t head for the high F with my thumb in the air, while saying, “Please, God!”
TJ: I imagine Silva had a bunch of exercises for the bow too.
JK: He had all kinds of bow stroke exercises. He edited the Kreutzer, Piatti, and Servais etudes and indicated all sorts of variants for bowings, articulations, and rhythms. Unfortunately, these are out of print now.
TJ: What was Silva like as a person?
JK: He was very warm and Italianate. He had a sense of humor, but he was very serious and spoke with the utmost clarity. The strongest words I heard from him in the ten years I studied with him were, “Look here.” When he said this I knew I’d better pay attention. He never raised his voice, though he made it clear when he was not pleased.
TJ: You’ve described some highly technical training so far. Did you go to Claus Adam, cellist in the Juilliard String Quartet, for some different musical ideas?
JK: Yes. Claus was a wonderful teacher, coach, and friend, and he helped me tremendously. Our lessons were exciting and he had an incredibly wide ranging and unpredictable imagination. Just when I thought I knew what he was going to say, he would go in an entirely different direction. He helped me quite a bit as I became interested in music such as the Carter Sonata and other pieces that most of my young colleagues avoided.
He was a fascinating man. His parents were Austrian but he was born in Indonesia because his father was the curator of the Jakarta National Museum. He greatly appreciated why I was going to Columbia instead of Juilliard since he preferred a well-rounded life himself. He was very well-read and humane.
A group of Columbia students, myself included, formed the Group of Contemporary Music at Columbia. We formed a string quartet and programmed the Berg Opus 3. Claus, with no compensation, coached us time after time. He was fabulous, of course.
When Claus was in town he would open up his house on Friday or Saturday night and have huge chamber music bashes with the Juilliard kids. I wasn’t at Juilliard, I was at Columbia, but I was studying with him and he would invite me too. He had a huge sheet music collection, of course, and he would pull out lesser known music, like the Spohr quartets, so that students wouldn’t feel the pressure of playing music that Claus played professionally. His wife, Eleanor, would cook up a storm for these events. The first time I went, I made the mistake of eating beforehand. I never did that again.
I still remember the first party I attended. Mr. Silva had died recently and I was a new student of Claus’. I had been feeling a bit lost, insecure, and tense about where I was going with music and Claus was trying to help me play with less tension. At a certain point in the evening I was watching and listening to the others play when Claus said, “I’m going to get something to eat. Here’s my cello.” He then handed me the ‘Juilliard’ Amati.
Believe it or not, I was completely comfortable. I had been playing chamber music most of my life and I had already played tons of chamber music with the students at the party since they lived near me. As I played I totally forgot myself and felt totally relaxed. An hour or so later, Claus, who was still getting to know me, took his cello back and said, “You’re completely comfortable, aren’t you? I’m glad to know this about you. You play completely differently when playing chamber music. You do it so easily.” From that point on, I got lots of calls for chamber and contemporary music jobs from people I didn’t know. I would ask how they got my name and it was always Claus who had referred me. The irony of this is that I would later replace Claus as cellist in the Juilliard String Quartet.
TJ: Claus Adam studied with Dounis and Feuermann. Did he ever mention them?
JK: Absolutely. Some of his ideas regarding playing with minimal effort and playing with a focused sound that isn’t over-vibrated come from his time with them.
TJ: You also studied with Jens Nygaard, who died a couple of years ago. I saw a short video clip about him but I never quite figured out who he was.
JK: In order to answer your question, I have to digress for a moment. There are certain people who are geniuses at certain things. For example, there are figure skating or swimming coaches who have an uncanny ability to understand the physiology of their sports. Some were virtuoso athletes in their youth and some weren’t. Regardless, they understand instinctively the muscular lineups and the various things that have to happen in order to execute something masterfully.
Jens Nygaard was one of these geniuses. Had he not become a musician, he would have been a superb tennis or baseball coach. I’d go to baseball games with him and he’d critique various players. He’d notice defects in a player’s batting stance or ability to go after a fly ball. He saw things that most people didn’t.
I remember sitting in the bleachers at a Giants-Mets game shortly after the Mets were formed in 1961. We were in the outfield in right center field and two screaming fly balls were hit over a couple of innings. Willie Mays was in centerfield and Felipe Alou was in right field. When the ball flew out to centerfield Willie Mays scrambled over and caught it in the web of his glove. The second flyball went to right centerfield and Alou ran over, but he was half a step short and the ball bounced off his glove. Jens said, in his thick southern accent, “Ah, my friend, Willie Mays started on the foot closest to the ball. Alou started on the foot away from the ball.” I was completely taken aback. As he says in an interview that is posted on the internet, “Somehow one of the gifts I have is to be able to look at a physical event and take away the imprecision and just understand what has to happen.”
In addition to a gifted athletic diagnostician, Jens was a magnificent pianist and a great musician. He had been a prodigy clarinet player and violinist, but I knew him as a wonderful pianist and magnificent conductor. I met him when I was in college, shortly after Silva had passed away. We talked a lot about the physiology involved in producing a sound, and much of what was in the March 2005 Strad article about my thoughts on cello technique came from him, particularly regarding the bow arm. Of course, I have assimilated his ideas and I have my own take on things, but the root of several points in that article go back to my lessons with Jens.
Jens and I met after he heard my performance of the Boccherini B-flat Concerto with the Columbia University Orchestra. We ran into each other the next day and he introduced himself, saying that I was very gifted but that there were some things I did with the bow that resulted in a lot of tension. He then drew some diagrams on a napkin for me which demonstrated ways I could draw the bow in a much more energy efficient way. I had heard that he was a weird guy and he lived in a sixth floor walkup on the edge of Harlem, so at first I thought, “Yikes, forget it.” But I took the napkin home and tried what he suggested and it felt really great! I kept trying it and I kept thinking about what he said and also trying what I thought he’d said, and I finally concluded, “What the hell!” and I called him on the phone and asked for a lesson.
His teaching style was very precise and disciplined. He would show me at most one thing in each hand in a given lesson. Then we would go through whatever I was working on and he’d show me example after example of how the new ideas applied. I left each lesson absolutely clear on what I needed to work on.
In the Strad article I mention that somehow the energy has to originate from the ribcage and shoulder blade, route around the shoulders and through the elbow, go down the forearm and into the hand, and then become focused in the thumb, index, and middle fingers. Jens would refer to this by saying, “There’s a rubber band connecting the whole thing, and don’t break the rubber band.” He saw the channel for the energy as being an energy pipeline of sorts, like a lined up conduit for transmitting the energy from the back, around the arm, and down to wherever it’s needed. He talked about the energy flowing down the arm precisely into the place that could meet the stick and have the hair directly under that point and the string under that. When it came to focusing the energy in a particular place in my hand, for example, he had me focus it in the index and middle fingers.
One day he said, “I want to show you what I think in terms of angling the hand so that you can play with less effort. The hand is angled so that the energy is channeled into where you wish to have it. You should do this instead of spreading it equally between the four fingers because you have to squeeze the entire hand in order to maintain the same energy.” He then rolled up a washcloth and attached it to my bow with a rubber band. While feeling the stick with my index finger, I rested my other three fingers on the washcloth. I was immediately able to feel what he was getting at from one end of the bow to the other.
In my own practicing to this day I spend a certain amount of time bowing with only my thumb, index, and middle fingers. I want to make sure that the energy is being transmitted down the arm and through the appropriate fingers in my bow hold. Nothing should be squeezed and everything should be gently aligned for optimal energy transmission.
TJ: What do the other fingers do in the right hand?
JK: The last two fingers of the hand have all sorts of functions, including balancing the bow in the hand and maintaining a ringing sound during bow changes at the tip. They ensure that the index finger doesn’t overpress.
TJ: How long did you study with him?
JK: I studied with him for five or six years, even though I was already professionally active at the time. I had become a professor at the University of Iowa and was a cellist in the Iowa String Quartet. I was also performing lots of contemporary music. I’d been at Columbia University when they started a doctoral program for music composition, so I was playing a great deal of contemporary music, both solo and chamber works. There weren’t a lot of people interested in contemporary music at the time, so I had a busy performing schedule after I left Columbia. As a result my lessons with Jens were a bit erratic, though I thought nothing of going to New York for four or five days and taking several lessons in a row when I had a gap in my schedule.
My music friends at the time usually assumed that I had only “coached” with Jens since he wasn’t a cellist. As you can see, I didn’t coach with him, I took cello lessons! It wasn’t easy to admit that I was taking lessons from somebody who didn’t play the cello, but I gradually realized that every time I asked him how to do a certain shift, for example, he gave me a precise physical answer for what to do.
TJ: There seem to be similarities between Nygaard and Dounis. Dounis also had a remarkable talent for seeing the totality of a player’s motions while also understanding what needed to be addressed on a very detailed level.
JK: I’ve shared some of Jens’ ideas with my colleague, Bonnie Hampton. She indicated that Nygaard’s ideas reminded her of her time with Dounis.
TJ: How did you end up replacing Claus Adam in the Juilliard String Quartet?
JK: That happened in 1974 and is a long story.
When a member of a quartet is going to be replaced, it’s usually kept quiet so that promoters aren’t scared away because they assume that the group is missing a member. An announcement isn’t made until the replacement has already been appointed. When I auditioned for the group, Mr. Mann asked that I keep it quiet for this reason. He also asked me to not mention my audition to Claus because he knew how close Claus and I were and things could get awkward. In order to pull this off and not lie to someone I considered a close friend, I made sure that I was never in Claus’ presence. I avoided him by any means necessary. For example, both Claus and I once played at the Santa Fe Music Festival. This was around the time when it seemed likely that I would be chosen to join the Quartet, though I still had one more audition left. I played in the first three weeks of the festival and he played in the last four weeks. As soon as I finished playing I immediately left the festival and went to a friend’s house in the area so that I wouldn’t be forced to talk with Claus after the concert. My plan was foiled because we ended up having the same chauffeur and Claus asked the chauffeur to drop him wherever he had dropped me off. Claus had finally caught me.
This ended up being a truly wonderful moment. He said, “Joel, for God’s sake, yes or no!” I said, “Claus, honest to God, I don’t know exactly, but it might be yes.” He replied, “You know how I know it has to be you? Because I hear my colleagues talking about all kinds of people they don’t like and all kinds of people that wouldn’t work and all of that. One day I suddenly said to my wife, ‘You know, one name is conspicuously absent from all the discussion: Joel. Nobody’s saying anything about him. It must be Joel!”
Shortly thereafter I was appointed to the Quartet and Claus had one last season to finish. I remember a charming phone call from him in which he said in a low, gruff voice, “Hello? Is this Joel Krosnick?” I said yes. He said, “Well, this is your predecessor .” Claus was a very dear person to me.
TJ: You were in the Tchaikovsky Competition. Who competed with you?
JK: Among others, Stephen Kates, Laurence Lesser, and Nathaniel Rosen. This was Rosen’s first time. He was only sixteen years old.
TJ: How did you do?
JK: I didn’t get past the first round, which is what happened in every other international competition I entered. I think I played very well, but things didn’t go my way for whatever reason. I never had any luck in competitions.
TJ: Given that you now teach in one of the most esteemed music schools in the world — Juilliard — and are a cellist in one of the world’s most successful quartets, it seems that your competition experience didn’t have much affect on your career. Would you say that competitions are highly overrated in terms of them being a critical step in the path to a successful music career?
JK: In some ways, yes, but they are still a great teaching device. They structure and focus a student’s practicing with an intensity that one rarely sees otherwise. Competitions also force students to work in ever greater detail, which prevents them from being distracted by the demands of everyday life. A major competition might require two concerti, sonatas, Bach Suites, virtuosic technical works, and a contemporary work that is written specifically for the event. These pieces can be used in recitals and other smaller competitions that lead up to the major competition so that they are battle tested before the main event.
I tell my students, “Look, if they’re going to give you a prize, they’ll call you. Just keep your mind on the work and on the performance at the competition.” I was probably too focused on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when I was competing. The lasting value of competitions is all the work that leads up to the competition rather than the prize one is or is not given.
The irony is that competitions don’t always pick the most interesting player. When a competition has a large number of judges, things can become rather complicated because of sharp differences of opinion on certain issues. For example, two judges may like red and orange, while two others hate red or orange, but like green or blue, which the red and orange judges hate. What ends up happening is that a contestant who’s gray ends up winning because he or she doesn’t offend either side, though neither side is particularly enamored with gray. At least the judges find somebody they can agree on, though because of this “gray” phenomenon, competitions don’t have a good record of predicting who will grow into a more interesting artist later in life.
I’ve judged competitions in which the contestants were between 18 and 23 years old. Most are very gifted, of course, but the challenge is to figure out who seems to have the most promising future versus who already plays brilliantly at a young age but may not develop further. I myself have voted for the winner in a major competition only to discover years later that it was the second prize winner that ended up having the more fertile imagination and more energy and therefore the staying power to maintain an international career. It’s very difficult to discern these things when the contestants are so young.
Having said this, I must re-emphasize that I’m not saying I don’t believe in the value of competitions. I didn’t have much luck with them in terms of prizes, but they did force me to work extremely hard, and that’s really the point.
TJ: I have a couple of questions about the article about you in the March 2005 Strad. One of the statements in the article is about squeezing with the thumb in the left hand. It says, “If I grab, then I no longer have the freedom to swing my fingers and get the brilliant stroke from which vibrato comes.” What does “swing my fingers” mean, and what is a “stroke”?
JK: By stroke I mean the finger stroke. Bonnie Hampton describes it as the drop of the fingers.
If I’m grabbing with the thumb and holding onto the neck and the fingerboard, then I really limit the freedom of the finger from the top joint (the knuckle) in order to throw the finger and create a brilliant articulation.
TJ: And how do the finger stroke and vibrato relate?
JK: The impulse that initiates vibrato is the energy that is released by the finger drop. The energy sort of bounces off the string and sets the rest of the joints in the forearm into motion, which produces a reflective motion in the lower and upper arm. This all assumes that the joints from the fingers to the shoulders are properly aligned in the first place so as to allow the necessary freedom of motion.
When I practice scales, I immediately get out of the way of the energy of the finger drop so that it can be channeled into either initiating vibrato or a trill. With trills, I don’t have to shake my arm in order to get a trill going. The impulse of a well articulated finger drop produces plenty of energy to set either vibrato or a trill in motion.
TJ: The article also says regarding the bow hand, “The little finger must act as a guide to relieve the friction of the index finger.” What does this mean?
JK: That didn’t quite come out right. When bowing, the bow hold should be loose enough so that the tug on the index finger’s skin can be felt. This little tug is produced by counteracting the friction or resistance the finger senses as the bow moves along the string. In other words, there is a definite “pulling” aspect of bowing, both on the downbow and on the upbow. The sound should be pulled out, not pushed down. While this is occurring, the little finger helps stabilize and balance the bow’s tendency to go in and out of the string, which is caused by the friction of the bow on the string and the flexibility of the stick and the hair.
If I bow using only my thumb and index and middle fingers, the energy can be directed into the bow and the sound will come out fairly evenly. As the bow goes back and forth, the index finger’s angle relative to the stick varies due to the constant changes in pronation required to maintain the leverage or placed energy on the bow.
The bow may to a certain extent go in and out of the string while bowing. This is because we’re not actually holding the bow up; the bow is sitting on the cello and the bow responds in subtle ways to varying friction and other forces. When the rest of the fingers are placed on the bow, the bow is balanced within our hand, and the back of the hand (the last two fingers) acts as a shock absorber as the bow responds to the string. As long as the hand remains supple, the cello is allowed to ring.
There’s a place in that article where I discuss something which I think I got from Ralph Kirshbaum. The last time I saw him play, he basically held the bow with his thumb, index finger, and little finger. The initiator of the sound was his index finger and the counterbalance to that provocation was the little finger. The thumb is the mediator between the two.
TJ: The article also says, “When you change direction in the bow, it is necessary to slow the bow.”
JK: This doesn’t apply all the time, but often when you change direction, especially at the frog, the bow may slow down depending on the musical situation, and the little and third fingers need time to engage and counterbalance the index finger, otherwise the index finger will dampen the string’s vibrations. This is less true at the tip, since the index finger and thumb are doing most of the work out there, though I’m pretty sure I hear more of a ringing sound during bow changes at the tip when the index finger is counterbalanced somewhat by the third and fourth fingers and the string is allowed to ring more freely under the bow.
This idea becomes strikingly important in a piece like Messiaen’s Louange from Quartet for the End of Time. The bow must move extremely slowly and the sound must be maintained, even during bow changes. The only way to do this is to make sure the bow is in your hand, not just on the cello, meaning that the last two fingers must be used to maintain an exacting balance with the index finger. I don’t disengage the index finger, I add in the counterbalancing action of the third and fourth fingers.
TJ: When preparing pieces like, say, a Beethoven Sonata versus the ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, do you make conscious choices as to the kind of sound that is appropriate for each piece?
JK: I don’t know whether I “figure it out,” exactly. That would imply some mental gymnastics that I’m not inclined to do. But there’s no question that the harmonies are carefully selected by a composer, and that the harmonic language is used to produce different effects. This is why it’s important that one study the score to find clues as to what the composer may have intended.
Let’s look at the keys of the six Bach Cello Suites. Why didn’t Bach write them all in the same key? I believe he did so because each key has a different sound color. G major and E-flat major could not be more different in their sound on the instrument the way we tune it, and I’m sure Bach was aware of how the different keys sounded on the cello.
Why didn’t Beethoven write his violin concerto in E-flat major instead of D major? Why did Mozart write the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major instead of D, despite the fact that violists at the time tuned their instruments up a half-step so that more ringing overtones were produced? I think composers choose their keys very carefully, and trying to figure out why they do so is part of our job as musicians.
One must also look how a composer treats a piece within a key. Implied emotional content or colors can be affected by the degree of chromatic underlining used. As you might guess, I believe that a strong grounding in music theory is an essential part of becoming a musician.
Once we determine what type of sound or feeling is desired in a certain place, then we have to figure out how to produce it on the instrument. Fortunately, there are many things one can do technically to produce various colors, most being related to the bow. The bow can be placed at various contact points between the fingerboard and the bridge, the bow speed can be varied, and the amount of energy placed into the bow can be adjusted. We must endlessly experiment with different combinations of these three things in order to achieve the desired effect. To complicate matters further, the range of contact points narrows considerably the higher the left hand is on the fingerboard. And carefully applied vibrato adds yet another variable. Our ultimate goal is to channel all these technical issues into some sort of organic response to the harmonic and emotional content of a piece and to not get lost in the technical and overly intellectual details.
The Juilliard Quartet has been playing a Hugo Wolf quartet, which was written when Wagner was still alive. The piece is very chromatic and very Wagnerian in the harmonies. It’s also very dark and intense. This results in my using a very different kind of sound and a different set contact points than I use when I play another piece on the same program: Mozart’s K. 499 D Major Quartet. Different composers and time periods require us to employ different techniques. We don’t want Haydn to sound like Shostakovich.
The type of vibrato used might vary from key to key as well. The vibrato used in a piece in D major will likely be different, on average, than in a piece in E-flat major. Vibrato in a piece in D major might be somewhat lighter, narrower, more brilliant, and may be produced more in the finger joint, whereas vibrato in a piece in the key of E-flat major may be, on average, wider, a little slower, and involve more of the arm. Of course, I’m over-generalizing and there are so many exceptions that it’s dangerous to take this too far.
TJ: Janos Starker mentioned that he uses a somewhat wider vibrato in the key of E-flat because of the relative lack of overtones on the cello in this key.
JK: Rather than wider, I prefer to think of it as simply allowing the vibrato to actively go a little further into the forearm and the upper arm, and allowing the sound to have a slightly darker quality.
TJ: Do you consciously change your intonation, perhaps narrowing certain intervals and widening others, in order to make the music more expressive?
JK: Intonation is a very personal thing and can greatly affect one’s sound. Compare Heifetz’s and Milstein’s recordings of the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and this will become apparent. Heifetz’s half steps are very tight while Milstein’s are somewhat more relaxed, which reflects the overall differences in their sound colors. The more sensitive you become to the sort of intonation you like, the more personal your tone color becomes. Intonation is a part of your point of view about music and should be carefully considered, among a myriad of other things, such as vibrato, contact point with bow, bow speed, and so on.
Joel Smirnoff, my colleague from the Quartet, is very fond of a recording that highlights differences in concepts of intonation of two historic players. Nathan Milstein and Erica Morini recorded an imitative piece — Bach Trio Sonata in C major for 2 violins — which is mind blowing. Morini is determinedly playing with equal half steps and with no sense of leading tones, while Milstein is playing in very much the opposite manner. In a sense, she is speaking in her accent while he is speaking in his,and the overall music result is wonderful.
After awhile the pitches we play should become part of our own personal accent and become about more than just playing cleanly and in tune. Over time we should develop our own way of hearing pitches. After all, we are telling the audience about the piece note by note, harmony by harmony. Of course, this shouldn’t devolve into a quirky or deliberately personal approach about intonation, i.e. out of tune. If one involves oneself with intimate muscle memory and therefore intimate aural memory and the two become allies, a unique musical intensity and intonation will emerge.
Intonation is something we experiment with all the time in the Juilliard String Quartet. We don’t try to stretch our intonation to extremes because things would simply sound out of tune, but we certainly consider our approach to intonation. We often play chromatic works or a Bartók or Hindemith piece, which are borderline atonal, or at least polytonal, and we ask each other whether we are playing with tempered tuning or whether we are conscious of the fact that the key is a “flat key,” for example. It’s important in an ensemble to unify a group’s conception of intonation.
TJ: Does a professional quartet spend a lot of time in rehearsal playing things very slowly?
JK: We do this when our intonation seems a little mushy. After awhile, though, we simply need to play the music. We often stop during these intense sessions and remind ourselves, “Wait a minute. We’re not really playing it. We’re still in intonation mode. Let’s just play and listen.”
We also practice slowly when we are working on fast movements. We’re preparing the Bartók Fifth Quartet for an upcoming European tour, and we’re certainly working slowly on the fast movements. We want to make sure things line up and that we hear what needs to be heard. We quickly revert to real playing, though, so that we don’t get locked into technical thinking.
TJ: Who were some of the Juilliard String Quartet’s more memorable guest artists?
JK: We haven’t played with many guest artists, but the ones we have played with were people with whom we felt close on a personal level. Clarinetist Charles Neidich, Seymour Lipkin, and Gilbert Kalish are important collaborators of ours. Bernard Greenhouse played the Schubert Quintet with us many times.
Another that comes to mind is Jorge Bolet, who was a truly fascinating pianist. I’ll never forget our first rehearsal with him when we worked on the Franck Quintet. He started the quintet and it sounded gorgeous, but the piano in our studio, though in tune, was in terrible shape. Each key had a different tension. What came out wasn’t what he wanted and he asked to start over. On the next run-through all the notes that had been uneven were suddenly perfectly regulated. He had such incredible control over his muscle memory and sound production that he could almost instantaneously adjust to whatever piano he was playing on. He had devoted his life to having the kind of mastery over every element of piano and piano sound that he could do anything he wanted.
TJ: You are known for your interest in contemporary music. Are there pieces, perhaps from the last ten years, that you feel deserve to be added to our standard repertoire?
JK: I tell my students at Juilliard to just go forth and learn new works. Every once in a while you may learn one that you don’t want to ever see again, but more often than not you will really find something that you like. I have a student tomorrow afternoon playing Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s solo sonata. Zimmerman was a German composer who wrote Die Soldaten, an opera that was at the Metropolitan Opera not too long ago. The same student also played the Berio Sequenza, which was Berio’s last work before he died.
Gilbert Kalish and I are always looking for works to record and one composer in whom we deeply believe is Ralph Shapey. His Evocation II for cello, piano, and percussion, as well as his three sonatas for cello and piano are modern masterpieces. Another piece that has won our love and regard is the recent Duo for Cello and Piano by Richard Wernick.
A little older piece would be Ginastera’s 1979 Sonata for Cello and Piano. Audiences go crazy for this piece. Gilbert Kalish and I recently played a recital in which we programmed the Ginastera and Chopin Sonatas. Somebody came up to us afterwards and said, “We’d like to suggest that next time you close with the Ginastera. As beautiful as the Chopin Sonata is, it’s not quite exciting enough to follow the Ginastera.” That’s a great sign that the Ginastera will make its way into the standard repertoire.
In terms of quartet music, we’ve been playing a lot of music by Elliott Carter and Ralph Shapey. We believe that the five Carter quartets and the ten Shapey quartets are masterpieces of the highest order. We’ve been touring recently with the great oboist Heinz Holliger and have greatly enjoyed the Carter Oboe Quartet as well.
I try to encourage my students to get involved with composers at Juilliard. One of them recently had a work written for her by Adam Schoenberg. I’ve heard it many times and I’m convinced that it’s a very fine work.
Part of our jobs as musicians is to simply play the music of our time so that we serve history by bringing it forward to future generations. Imagine if that clarinet player hadn’t shown an interest in Brahms. Not only would we not have Brahms’ pieces with clarinet, we might not have other great works that followed that were likely inspired by Brahms. I don’t even want to try to imagine what our quartet literature would be like if Beethoven didn’t have a quartet to write for. It is our duty to play contemporary music.
What has been wonderful to watch is when certain pieces make it into the standard repertoire. The Carter Sonata, for example, was written in 1948 for Bernard Greenhouse. I first started playing it in the early 1960’s and was inspired by Greenhouse’s wonderful recording from the year after the piece was written. I’ve recorded the piece twice but I still consider his recording to be the recording of that work. This piece has now been recorded by many other cellists as well. It has grown into a modern classic and belongs alongside the Beethoven A Major and Brahms F Major Sonatas. A similar thing could be said about the Bartók Quartets, which have gone from being totally unknown to pillars of our repertoire in the last sixty years. I’m convinced that classics-to-be are being written even as we speak. We just need to find and perform them.