Interview: Sleepless nights as violinist Joseph Lin integrates into storied Juilliard Quartet

Violinist Joseph Lin is the newest member of the Juilliard String Quartet, which performs at the Markham Theatre on March 28.

Violinist Joseph Lin is in his early 30s, an age at which tech entrepreneurs have already built and sold a startup or two. But he’s just a naive newbie in the Juilliard String Quartet, which he joined a little over a year ago.

The chamber group makes its first visit to the Toronto area with its new first violinist on Wednesday, March 28, at the Markham Theatre. They bring with them a textbook programme of three pieces:  The G Major quartet, Op. 54, No. 1, by Joseph Haydn;  Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet in B-flat, complete with its original Grosse Fuge ending; and Quartet No. 5 by late Bostonian modernist Donald Martino.

The resident ensemble of one of North America’s most prestigious music schools has earned an equally enviable reputation since its founding in 1946. It would be intimidating enough to become the first violin of such an established group. But it becomes even more so when two of the other three members have been with the quartet since well before Lin was born.

Juilliard String Quartet

Violist Samuel Rhodes joined in 1969. Joel Krosnick, the Juilliard’s cellist, has been there since 1974. Even second violin Ronald Copes, a newcomer, is marking his 15th anniversary with the group this year.

Given that the Juilliard maintains a core repertoire of Great Works, Lin admits to a being a bit intimidated whenever he has a suggestion to try something different.

“Sometimes, I’ll spend sleepless hours at night trying to figure out how I’m going to present a new idea to them. You can imagine why,” he says, with a chuckle.

“It forces me to think very carefully about an idea before I present it to them compared to when I’m in a group of people of the same amount of experience as myself,” Lin explains. ” An idea might pop into my head and I’ll throw it out there on the spur of the moment. I might be a little less likely to do that in this situation.

“I try to think through all of the different aspects of that passage – why it is that they do it the way they do it, what the merits are of that, and why it is that I’m prompted to try it a different way. I might spin out the argument in my own mind as to how they would respond, and how I might respond to that. That occupies me quite a bit before I even bring up an issue.”

That said, Lin points out that his colleagues have always been open to his suggestions.  “Sometimes we keep them, sometimes, we don’t,” he adds. “And I’m always happy to play something in the way they would prefer.”

Lin says he deliberately put all of his solo and academic projects on hold in order to focus on integrating smoothly with the Juilliard Quartet — and with the full-time teaching position at the Manhattan school that comes along with the job.

He says he will resume some solo work next season, and will eventually pick up his exploration of Chinese music, something that he turned into a sub-discipline while teaching at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Like a typical American kid, I shunned my parents’ culture and wanted to be as American as possible,” says the violinist of his suburban East Coast childhood. It was going off to Harvard University that “really opened my eyes o the wealth of cultures in the world and the value they have,” he admits.

Lin’s interest in Chinese music, which he encountered by visiting China, came out of a desire to understand his own background.

“I didn’t go about it trying to make any connections or bridging of cultures,” he cautions. “It was because, since my training is music, if I want to understand my Chinese background a little more, I might as well tap into the music aspect of Chinese culture. The music itself being vast enough that I’ve only scratched the surface.”

In that respect, it might be a similar feeling to joining the Juilliard String Quartet.

For full concert details, and tickets, click here.

John Terauds


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