by Daniel Hathaway

TouringJuilliard-SQ string quartets seem to change first violinists a bit more often than second violinists, violists and cellists, but the Juilliard String Quartet may have established a record: three different individuals have sat in its driver’s seat in the last fifteen years.

When Robert Mann, one of the quartet’s founders in 1946, decided to retire in 1997, second violinist Joel Smirnoff moved up a chair. After Smirnoff left to become president of the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2008, Nicholas Eanet, one of the concertmasters of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, was chosen to take his place. Ebullient at receiving the good news about his appointment, Eanet went inline skating in Central Park and broke his wrist — while trying to avoid an accident. Though the wrist healed in record time, Eanet withdrew a year later for unrelated health reasons. Joseph Lin took his place in November of 2011.

Lin, whose family comes from Taiwan, was born in the United States and took an educational trajectory unusual for a professional violinist. He studied Comparative Religions at Harvard College, graduating magna cum laude in 2000. He traveled to China on a Fulbright to study his cultural heritage and took up the guquin — the traditional seven-string zither.

We caught up with Joseph Lin via Skype in Philadelphia late last week where the Juilliard were about to play the same challenging program the Cleveland Chamber Music Society audience will enjoy on Tuesday, December 4 at Plymouth Church: Beethoven’s late quartets, op. 131 and 132.

Daniel Hathaway: As an alumnus myself, I’m very interested in how your Harvard education may have differed from the training you would have received at a conservatory.

Joseph Lin: Not having been to a conservatory during those comparable years, I wouldn’t know exactly how that would have turned out, but from day one I did not regret going to Harvard. It was really such an inspiring experience all the way through, and the inspiration came not only from the wonderful teachers that I had there but especially from all the incredible classmates who surrounded me. They were so committed and so dedicated and so talented in whatever they were doing, whether it be music, sports, their academic and social service pursuits — any number of things. It was a wonderful environment. It gave me the energy and inspiration to want to improve myself, regardless of what I was working on.

DH: You decided to concentrate [major] in Comparative Religions. What led you in that direction?

JL: It was something that I’d always been interested in growing up and it turned out to be a really good way to go through my four years at Harvard for a couple of reasons. I like to think of that field of study as a window on every other area of learning. Any field of learning — you name it: literature, history, any artistic field — and religion will intersect it at one point or another. And so studying a wide range of fields from the perspective of religion seemed to be a wonderful way to take in a lot of what Harvard had to offer. Practically speaking, it was also a flexible concentration. It wasn’t like one of the hard sciences with tons of lab hours you can’t do anything about. That flexibility allowed me to continue doing what I wanted to do — in music, for example.

DH: You travelled to China on a Fulbright grant. What was that experience like?

JL: I had already spent a year in China before the year-long Fulbright and my time there extended beyond that year. It was a very personal motivation to go to China — to explore a culture that is not only part of my background but a country which is really one of the most influential in the world today, and so rapidly changing. I had my own reasons for wanting to explore China and music got worked into those expectations at different stages. While I was on the Fulbright, I spent a year at a conservatory in Beijing studying the seven-string zither.

DH: Not the erhu [Chinese violin]?

JL: That’s a natural question that I get a lot. The erhu is a very obvious crossover, so to speak, but because indeed it is so similar, if I had studied the erhu I actually would have spent half my time relearning violin pieces, because half of the erhu repertory is rehashed versions of the Mendelssohn concerto, the Czardás, Zigeunerweisen, etc., etc! I didn’t want to spend my year that way. The other reason is because it’s so much like the violin, and so many people study it, you get very little attention from your teacher as an erhu student. With the zither, there are not too many students. It’s just a very personal relationship between the teacher and the student and that seemed much more meaningful to me. The zither also goes back much further in Chinese culture. It has a documented history of 3,000 years and a legendary history that takes you back 5,000 years. There’s quite a wealth of culture and tradition one can begin to tap into with that instrument.

DH: Let’s talk about the Juilliard Quartet. They’ve been through several first fiddle players over the last few years. How has that changed the dynamic within the quartet, especially from the time you joined them?

JL: That’s probably a question you’d have to ask my colleagues. I can’t really answer that one aside from saying that each change certainly affects the sound and various aspects of the way the group functions. Yet I think that when three continuing members of the group come together to choose a new member, they look for certain essential elements of how the group already works and approaches the exploration of the quartet literature. That new member will probably come in with some of those same values and curiosity so that there is really a kind of tradition that continues even with a membership change.

DH: You’ll be playing the same program next week in Cleveland as you did at Alice Tully Hall in New York last week. What does it feel like to play those two big Beethoven quartets on the same program?

JL: I’m facing the prospect of doing that again tonight in Philadelphia. It’s hard to describe. You just try from the first note in give it your all emotionally. Technically it requires all you have, and it seems to take everything you have physically as well. You do your best. There’re so many special moments in these two pieces, and then as entire works they’re just epic. You plunge into the performance with lots of preparation, but without knowing how it’s going to turn out. You hope that over the course of the evening you do some justice to these really very special works, and hope that the audience can come away with something meaningful and emotional at the end.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com December 4, 2012

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