The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Jerusalem String Quartet to make its Wisconsin debut Friday in Madison. It wants to play in more Arab countries but can’t.

October 18, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

One of the big events this week in Madison is the Wisconsin premiere of the Jerusalem String Quartet (below).

Based in Israel, the quartet has won numerous awards – the only one to have won two BBC awards – and has been critically acclaimed.

It has also been the target of picketers and political protests focusing on the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel.

The Jerusalem Quartet will perform in the Wisconsin Union Theater on this Friday, Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 8 p.m. as in past years).

The all-masterpiece program features Haydn’s Quartet in F-Minor, Op. 20, No. 5;
Debussy’s String Quartet; and
Brahms’ Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1.

Tickets are $20, $32 and $36 with $10 for UW students. Call 608 262-2201.

For more information, you can also visit this site:

To visit the quartet’s homepage, go to:

Recently first violinist and founding member Alexander Pavlovsky (below) took time to do an e-mail interview with The Ear:

It is unusual for a string quartet to be controversial. What can you tell us about political protests and the Jerusalem Quartet? How often does it happen? Does it affect how you perform or view yourselves? Do you have any political or national ties?

I don’t think we are controversial as musicians. The protests that happened were based on a wrong assumption — that we are presented, employed or supported by the Israeli government. That is categorically untrue.

As musicians, our commitment is to performing the music at the highest level possible, not to make political statements. We don’t see ourselves as qualified to do that. The protests have not changed that and have not pushed us into getting involved as a group.

But that doesn’t mean that individually we are not active. For example, two of us have long been members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (below, at a concert in Ramallah with conductor Daniel Barenboim), which is Daniel Barenboim’s Israeli-Arab orchestra.

As private citizens we should not be held accountable for our government’s actions. We ask any potential protester to ask themselves whether they would take the same responsibility for their own government’s policies.

Does performing the Brahms and Debussy quartets here mean you will be recording them for future release?

The Jerusalem Quartet records one CD every year exclusively for Harmonia Mundi label. We do have a long-term plan that includes recording of Brahms and Debussy quartets, but definitely not in the upcoming season.

What are your future projects? More Haydn and Shostakovich? Complete cycles?

Well, this season among our different programs we are performing our Brahms Project: his three quartets and three quintets – the Piano Quintet, the Clarinet Quintet and the String Quintet, Op. 111.

In a few seasons we are going to repeat the full cycle of Shostakovich quartets. Of course we are continuing to build the Beethoven and Bartok cycles as well, but again this is our long-term plan.

What links do you see between Haydn and Shostakovich, both of whom you have an affinity for and whose work has helped you garner numerous awards and high critical praise?

Since 1994, the very beginning of the quartet life, we have tried to build our repertoire as wide as possible. But indeed we always felt very special connection with the music of Haydn and Shostakovich.

Our relationship with Haydn is not just one of respect and love, but total admiration. Playing his quartets is always a fascinating journey and after more than 15 years together, we can proudly say, that the music of “Papa Haydn” has become part of us, something very personal.

Three of The Jerusalem Quartet members, including me, were born in former Soviet Union and Shostakovich’s music was always very close to us. His quartet cycle is not only one of the most important cycles of the 20th century music, but also a part of Russian history, part of our families life before the repatriation.

How many dates a year do you play and where around the world? Do you ever perform in Arab or Muslim countries?

We always try to keep a good balance between the quartet’s concerts and personal activities. We feel that performing about 60-70 concerts a season gives us time to concentrate on a different musical experiences, and we will continue to keep this number of concerts in a future.

The Jerusalem Quartet has performed in Jordan and Turkey. As much as we would love to perform in Arab countries, it is not possible since Israel does not have diplomatic relations with most of these countries.

The activities of the Divan Orchestra have provided us with some wonderful opportunities to get to know musicians from countries we cannot visit. Despite the geographical proximity, it’s inconceivable for Israelis to have friends in Tehran or Damascus.

How would you describe your approach to the music and how it is distinguished from other quartets?

Well, as I already mentioned, we have started to play together at 1994, and our average age then, was 16. That is a very unusual age to start playing in a string quartet. We grew up together, spending about six months together since the very beginning.

I believe all this gave us a big advantage in a very special sound blend. Musically, we can do many interesting and spontaneous things without really spending a lot of time and discussing them. When I listen to our recordings, many times I feel that we are very close to the golden balance between an ensemble unity and the very personal playing of each member.

How can string quartets reach young people?

I think that chamber music and specifically string quartets provide a very unique form of communication and teamwork. So much of what is great in music is hard to put into words because music is inherently abstract.

We say that music “touches,” and that is literally true. The sound waves actually “caress” tiny hairs in our ears and therefore when we play, we physically touch our audience. I think that children and youngsters can react to that in the most natural way.

Posted in Classical music

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