- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

Classical music always has involved questions of access, where exposure and understanding count almost as much as the price of a ticket. This is particularly true of chamber music, an intimate but abstruse genre that has neither the Sturm und Drang of the symphony nor the easy emotion of opera.

Two internationally renowned string quartets with strong ties to the area have embarked on new arrangements to ensure that the music of both old and new composers can resonate with the widest possible audience.

"I never would have become a musician if I hadn't had the opportunity to hear music when I was in public school," says Amy Leung, cellist with the Coolidge Quartet, which this season embarks on a new relationship with George Washington University as its quartet-in-residence. "It always makes me feel lucky that I had that experience."

The Coolidge Quartet was founded in 1997 with the encouragement of another young ensemble, the Emerson Quartet. The four members decided to honor Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, longtime benefactor of chamber music at the Library of Congress, by taking her name for their ensemble. Mrs. Coolidge's donation of the Coolidge Auditorium in 1925 sparked a new interest in the genre.

Since its formation, the Coolidge Quartet has been as much concerned with outreach as with giving a voice to new composers and new life to old works. The quartet recently completed a three-year residency at the University of Maryland, where all the members were doctoral candidates. There, the group worked with members of the Guarneri Quartet, gave master classes to students and performed regularly in a variety of settings.

After their residency ended, Coolidge members cast about for a new situation. George Washington University, with its diverse student body and ties to local arts and educational institutions, seemed ideal.

"We're really lucky that GW has decided to have us," Miss Leung says. "It's important for a young quartet to have a base."

The Coolidge Quartet's relationship with GW is all the more significant, says music department Chairman Roy Guenther, because the school has a relatively small number of students specializing in music. Only 20 students are declared music majors, but far more are music minors, and close to a thousand include lessons or performance opportunities as part of their course of study each semester.

"Most are not people who are looking to be professional musicians," Mr. Guenther says. "But the arts are well represented here in the context of a liberal arts education."

The Coolidge's youthful appeal makes it popular on campus

No stranger to works in the traditional chamber music repertoire, the quartet also has embraced contemporary fare, including many of the pieces originally commissioned by Mrs. Coolidge by such composers as Benjamin Britten, Bela Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg. The quartet also is fond of the music of contemporary composer John Adams.

"It's really cool music," Miss Leung says. "We play along with sampler tracks from a CD. It's the kind of thing that speaks to kids like us."

Of course, musicianship is paramount.

"They really are an extra resource for us," Mr. Guenther says. "Single members can serve as coaches to student ensembles as an ongoing part of their relationship with music. Students here are riveted at the thought of interacting with them."

The quartet's new relationship with GW includes a series of evening concerts in the Hand Chapel of the college's Mount Vernon campus and lunchtime recitals at the Western Presbyterian Church near the main campus.

In addition, the quartet is planning outreach programs involving area schools to ensure that today's students have the same opportunity to understand and appreciate classical music that Miss Leung did. There also is talk of cross-curricular activities with other departments at the university.

"They are simply a marvelous quartet," Mr. Guenther says. "We're quite glad to be hitched up with them."

Meanwhile, the venerable Juilliard Quartet has redefined its relationship with the Library of Congress, ending its longtime residency but ensuring that its music, and chamber music in general, will continue to be heard.

Working with Jon Newsom, music division chief at the Library of Congress, the quartet devised a plan that includes a three-year mentoring relationship with a young professional quartet along with public rehearsals, coaching and other educational opportunities.

"We wanted to find a way to best use the funds to spend on music," says Joel Krosnick, cellist with the Juilliard Quartet since 1974.

In business for more than 50 years, the Juilliard Quartet began its relationship with the Library of Congress in 1962, when it succeeded the Budapest Quartet as the assigned group to play the legendary group of Stradivarius instruments donated in 1936 by Gertrude Clarke Whittall.

"She intended the instruments to be shared with the people of the United States," Mr. Krosnick says. "Over the years, though, the interpretation of the best way to realize her intention has evolved."

Initially, the bequest resulted in a legendary series of chamber music concerts that featured the Washington premieres of new works by some of the most important composers of the 20th century. Through the years, though, financial constraints dramatically curtailed the number of concerts offered.

"Last year we played only three pairs of concerts," Mr. Krosnick says. "When the chamber music series was at its height, we played over 10 pairs."

In addition, playing the library's Strads always has proved somewhat problematic for musicians because the provisions of Mrs. Whittall's bequest prevent the instruments from being removed from the premises.

Although the Juilliard is no longer the official quartet-in-residence, the group plans to mentor new young quartets that will also be able to play the library's Strads, beginning in the 2003-04 season. Education, with master classes and outreach opportunities, is akey component of the new program.

The Juilliard Quartet's association with the Library of Congress will continue, Mr. Krosnick says. In fact, several concerts are planned for the 2002-03 season, which marks the 40th anniversary of the quartet's association with the library.

"We are using the occasion of the quartet's 40th anniversary with the library to celebrate with something that seems new, but is really the original idea behind Mrs. Whittall's gift," Mr. Newsom says.

Making chamber music accessible to wider audiences is easier today in part because of the library's long history of concerts in Coolidge Auditorium. Today, more than ever before, fresh, young and exciting groups like the Coolidge, coupled with the wisdom and musicianship of the Juilliard, make it possible to understand, appreciate and enjoy this quietly affective musical form.

"I remember the first time I was put in a string quartet," Miss Leung says. "Suddenly, everything became clear."

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