“In order to be a great chamber musician, you have to be a great soloist,” Jonathan Ong told The Journal, recalling a former teacher’s words of wisdom. Ong is the first violinist for the Verona, Juilliard’s graduate resident string quartet, which makes its Alice Tully Hall debut in the Lisa Arnhold Memorial Recital on May 7.
Striking a balance between individuality and unison in ensemble playing is one of the most challenging aspects of chamber music. Abigail Rojansky, the group’s violist, prefers to see ensemble playing as a compromise with her colleagues that ultimately results in a better final product rather than think of it as a sacrifice of her personal voice. “I think all of us find that when we come together we end up producing something better than we had individually imagined it would be, even if it’s not inclusive of every single one of our ideas,” she told The Journal. She calls the phenomenon the elusive “fifth member,” referring to “that quartet voice which is an entity of its own.” (The third and fourth members of the quartet are violinist Dorothy Ro and cellist Warren Hagerty.)
Established in 1986, Juilliard’s Graduate Resident String Quartet program is a two-year fellowship that provides a stipend and tuition to the members, who will each also graduate with an Artist Diploma. The quartet receives coaching and mentorship from two members of the Juilliard String Quartet each semester. It also performs regularly—it was part of the Axiom concert last month and ChamberFest and the Focus! festival in January—and maintains a busy touring schedule. “I do think the quartet’s voice has grown a lot during our time at Juilliard,” cellist Hagerty told The Journal. “We’re always aiming to evolve our musical abilities as an ensemble and Juilliard has really helped us. And studying with the members of the Juilliard String Quartet has been particularly beneficial; they’re always pushing for us to have a unique and captivating voice in everything we play.”
Though the Juilliard residency doesn’t require any coursework, in an ordinary week, the members rehearse together for six hours a day, six days a week, plus an additional two to four hours a day individually. Rojansky explained that playing well in a quartet—as opposed to solo—requires some technical modifications to bowings and the left hand in order to produce a well-blended sound, but perhaps the biggest difference from solo playing is the most intangible: the ear. “You have the two ears on your head, but you always need to have a third ear that you throw out into the hall and use to listen to the group as a whole,” she said. “A chamber musician always has to listen to how their lines interact with everyone else’s, regardless of whether they are playing the melody or accompaniment,” Ong added.
The program for the May 7 recital includes quartets by Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Bartók. “I think Haydn has the reputation for being standard—even boring sometimes,” Rojansky said, though she and her colleagues hope to change listeners’ minds, given that Haydn had a sense of humor and love for practical jokes. In the rollicking finale of his String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 50, No. 1, which is the first work on the program, several false resolutions keep listeners on the edge. In contrast, Bartók’s raw, gritty String Quartet No. 5, written in 1934, reflects the modern idioms that characterized the time of its composition. “I’m hoping people will be surprised by how moved they are by what they thought was atonal music,” Rojansky said. Mendelssohn wrote his Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2, when he was 28—less than two years older than the mean age of the Verona’s players—and already an accomplished and established composer.
The Verona’s members, who hail from the U.S., Canada, and Singapore, called themselves the Wasmuth Quartet when they formed in 2013 while studying at Indiana University. They had teamed up as part of their coursework and were receiving coaching from the Pacifica, Indiana’s resident faculty quartet, which encouraged them to enter some competitions. The new ensemble went on to become Indiana’s inaugural graduate resident quartet. The name change to Verona—a subtle nod to Shakespeare—came about as they sought a name that was easy to remember, pronounce, and spell.
At Juilliard, as the teaching assistants to the Juilliard String Quartet, the Verona members coach student ensembles and assist with teaching the first-year string quartet survey class. “I still remember the feeling of playing in a quartet as a freshman and what I didn’t know and wanted to know,” Rojansky reminisced. “I think that in a chamber group, everyone gains a sense of satisfaction when they realize that they and their colleagues are moving in the same direction and creating a musical statement that is compelling in both its clarity and message,” Ong said. “That is something my colleagues and I try to instill in the groups we teach.”