Jerusalem Quartet: From teenagers having fun to internationally known Israeli string ensemble

Bands formed in their members’ teen years rarely survive and thrive into their adulthood.
April 13, 2016

Bands formed in their members’ teen years rarely survive and thrive into their adulthood. Remarkably, one exception is the extraordinary Jerusalem Quartet, founded in 1995 by teenagers, which is currently enjoying a major concert tour of the United States in celebration of its 20th anniversary season.

The Jerusalem's founding members — violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bressler, and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov — represent a new generation of Israeli musicians born in the former Soviet Union.

Violist Ori Kam, born in La Jolla and raised in Israel, has Russian roots as well.

“We met at the Jerusalem Academy of Music when we were teenagers,” said Pavlovsky by phone from Ann Arbor, Mich., one of the ensemble's concert tour stops on the way to the Bram Goldsmith Theater in Beverly Hills on April 14.

Pavlovsky said that though the quartet's other original founder, violist Amichai Grosz, left to join the Berlin Philharmonic, it's rare for a quartet to undergo just one change in 20 years. By contrast, the Aviv Quartet, founded in Israel in 1997, has endured multiple turnovers.

“Nothing was wrong,” Pavlovsky said. “All of us were 12 or 13 when we met in Jerusalem. In quartets, changes happen. We started very early, and after 15 years together, Amichai felt he wanted to explore something else.”

Ironically, the quartet's present violist, Kam, once played in the Berlin Philharmonic. At 40, Kam, who has known the members of the Jerusalem Quartet since its founding, is the ensemble's oldest player. Pavlovsky is 38; Zlotnikov and Bressler are 37.

“We played in the high school orchestra at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, but we loved chamber music and decided to continue,” Pavlovsky said. “Isaac Stern was associated with it, and it was important to the life of music in Israel. He brought a lot of musicians to Jerusalem. We met the Juilliard, Emerson and LaSalle quartets. We studied with the Amadeus Quartet.”

Pavlovsky is modest when talking about his role as first violinist. “A good quartet needs four great soloists and chamber musicians,” he said. “It's not about who is leading or who is following, or about who has the melody more of the time. It's about flexibility and listening to each other, like a conversation between four intelligent people.”

Indeed, the quartet's enlivening “conversation” is one of the delights of their latest recording, a two-CD set of Beethoven's six Op. 18 string quartets on the Harmonia Mundi label. Anyone looking for a rewarding entry into the Jerusalem Quartet's charming, witty and compellingly agile and seamless ensemble playing can confidently start here.

Still, there's nothing like hearing a world-class string quartet live. The Jerusalem's program at the Bram Goldsmith Theater begins with Haydn's String Quartet in D major, Op. 64, No. 5 “Lark.” From the 1750s on, Haydn helped develop, refine and promote the now-popular genre.

“The `Lark' is one of Haydn's most beautiful and well-balanced quartets,” Pavlovsky said, “with a moving second movement and a super-virtuosic finale.”

Pavlovsky added that he has “most of the melody” in the Haydn, including one played high on the E-string in the opening movement, a soaring theme above a staccato accompaniment accounting for the work's nickname.

As for the concert's centerpiece, Ravel's String Quartet in F major, Pavlovsky compared it to a work of theater where all the lights change. “It's a different world of colors,” he said, “of sound. It's one of the more magical and beautiful quartets in the repertoire. You should feel like you're hearing it for the first time. And every piece should feel like we're playing it for the first time.”

The quartet chose Dvořák's tuneful String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 ” American” for the concert's second half, not only because it was the first great string quartet composed in the New World.

“The composer was looking back and saying, `simplicity can be magical too,' ” Pavlovsky said. “It's pure Romanticism, and playing in America what was written in America is exciting for us.”

Pavlovsky said the quartet plays 80 concerts a season. “It's mostly classical chamber music,” he said, “but sometimes there's modern music on the program. Most venues prefer not going too far past Bartók and Shostakovich.”

In June, the quartet joins pianist András Schiff in London for quintets by Mieczysław Weinberg and Brahms, and next season the ensemble plans to perform different works by Dvořák, showing the composer's range. There's also a new Bartók album arriving in early 2017 on Harmonia Mundi.

Over the years, the ensemble's name has made them an easy target. In 2010, anti-Israel demonstrators disrupted a concert being broadcast by the BBC at London's Wigmore Hall. The group reportedly maintained their poise, and the live broadcast eventually continued. During another concert in London in November, protestors called the group “cultural ambassadors for an apartheid state.”

Such incidents suggest an obvious question: Have they ever thought of changing the quartet's name?

“Never,” said Pavlovsky. “Everyone should understand we all have different political views. We are a private group — four independent people who don't get any support from the Israeli government. We represent ourselves and the composers. That's our job. Besides, Jerusalem is a great city. Why change the name?”

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