As String Quartet Vista Shifts, Young Ensemble Springs Up On Horizon

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The Isidore String Quartet performed Jan. 13 at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. (Photo by Nick Francis)

EVANSTON, Ill. — The string-quartet world is never static, and it has seen significant turnover in recent years. The esteemed Emerson String Quartet announced in 2021 that it would retire from the stage after a nearly half-century run, performing its final concert at New York’s Alice Tully Hall in October 2023. The list of other such noted groups that have announced that they will cease performing include the Chiara, Albion, and Spektral quartets as well as the well-regarded, German-based Artemis Quartet, which went on an indefinite hiatus in May 2021. But as ensembles go quiet, others emerge.

And so it is with the Isidore String Quartet, which was formed in 2019 by students at the Juilliard School in New York City. Its name is in part a tribute to Isidore Cohen, a renowned chamber musician who served for nearly a decade as second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet and, more famously, as a member of the Beaux Arts Trio 1968-1991. The Isidore String Quartet won the 14th Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2022, earning it concert dates across Europe and North America and a two-year appointment as the Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

When the St. Lawrence String Quartet was forced to cancel its Jan. 13 appearance at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Evanston, Ill., because of the October death of founding first violinist Geoff Nuttall, the Isidore was invited to take its place. The appearance was part of the school’s Winter Chamber Music Festival, which has presented more than 20 touring quartets and multiple other instrumental combinations during its 26-year-existence. It has frequently booked winners of the Banff competition, such as the Dover String Quartet, which, up to this season, appeared every year at the festival since it took top prize in 2013 and now serves as quartet-in-residence at Northwestern. Forgoing more formal attire like sport coats or ties, the all-male Isidore took a more casual tack, opting for matching black polo shirts and gray slacks.

As might be expected from a group of four players who are still students at Juilliard and who lost valuable performing time during the Covid shutdown, the Isidore is still a work-in-progress. The quartet is clearly talented and brimming with potential, but it needs more time to gain seasoning and develop an identity. The group’s still-incomplete development could be heard in both classic works on its program, most noticeably in the opening selection, Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2 (Sun), Hob. III: 32.

Haydn is often called the father of the string quartet, and the compositional form really came into its own with the six quartets that make up his Op. 20. The composer’s deceptively difficult style, which often marries whimsy and lightness with precision and depth, can foil even the most veteran players, and the Isidore struggled to find its footing here. The ensemble brought a welcome freshness and spontaneity to the opening movement but did not fully mine the drama of the slow second movement or capture the full flavor of what program annotator Richard Rodda aptly described as the “merry abandon” of the finale.

The members of the Isidore String Quartet are students at the Juilliard School who named their ensemble after the late violinist Isidore Cohen.

More successful was the Isidore’s take on the final work — Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132. The 16 celebrated quartets Beethoven wrote across the span of his career stand together as the ultimate proving ground in this form, especially the late ones, like Op. 132, which still sounds forward-looking nearly 200 years after its creation. The Isidore brought a sense of purpose and substance to this complex, five-movement work, but it was hard not to wish for a bit more emotional bite. This was especially true in the long third movement, the piece’s heart and soul, written following the composer’s recovery from a long illness. This slow section carries the label “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode.” The quartet exhibited a handsome blend and deft dynamic control here, but it could have dug deeper and pushed harder. In short, Isidore needed to put its own interpretative stamp on the work. After several ovations, the ensemble ended the concert with an encore — Contrapunctus I from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue

Perhaps offering the best sense of the potential of the Isidore was its focused, intense playing in Billy Childs’ String Quartet No. 2, (Awakening), which was written in 2012 for the Ying Quartet. The Isidore clearly believes in this work and really took ownership of it in a way it didn’t with the rest of the program. Although Childs is best known as a Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist, he has split his career between jazz and classical composition, writing the first of his three string quartets in 2008. Given Childs’ jazz background, it might be expected that his String Quartet No. 2 would possess a jazzy or bluesy quality akin to the fusion of classical and jazz known as “third stream.” But that is not the case. The work, which represents the composer’s moving if brutal coming to terms with a serious illness his wife suffered and her recovery, is written in a sharp-edged, sometimes atonal classical language, and it shows Childs’ complete mastery of the string-quartet idiom.

The Isidore potently captured the raw, almost scary feel of the first movement, “Wake-Up Call,” which evokes Childs’ shock upon learning of his wife’s hospitalization. It is shot through with dissonant squiggles, violent pizzicatos, disorienting slides, and high-pitched screeds, the latter piercingly realized by first violinist Phoenix Avalon. (As with the Emerson and some other quartets, the group’s two violinists take turns in the first chair.) Here and throughout much of this piece, the four musicians played with little or no vibrato, giving the sound an effectively directness.

The first section’s haunting starkness persists in the second movement, “The White Room,” which evokes the sounds and feelings of his wife’s hospital room, but it is offset by a plaintive solo line for the viola, which was compellingly delivered by the quartet’s first-rate Devin Moore. Rounding out the piece is “Song of Healing,” with Avalon and cellist Joshua McClendon joining in a moving duet representing the bond between Childs and his wife, but the darkness never totally dissipates until the final, uplifting chord.