Joan Jeanrenaud: A Fourth Approach to Performing Music

A Fourth Approach to Performing Music: Excerpt #03

FRANK J. OTERI: So getting back to beginnings, getting back to Memphis, you decided to a musician, to play the cello, and clearly there’s a lot of really, really great repertoire for the cello in the western classical tradition: Beethoven sonatas, Brahms sonatas, the Dvorak concerto… I mean there’s really a lot of fabulous, fabulous music. But you never really went in that direction which I’m really grateful for! (both laugh)

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Well actually, that was my focus from when I started playing the cello through when I joined Kronos. I did other things always, I was interested in other things, but I was very classically trained. I had really great teachers. That’s one of the reasons I started the cello, and I continued playing the cello, because I had a great teacher in Memphis. Then he sent me to Indiana University to study with his teacher, then I went to studies with Pierre Fournier for a year in Switzerland.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the great cellists of the 20th century…

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah, so all that time I learned all that repertoire. Now it’s actually really exciting because I have a fourteen-year-old student who is such a wiz, and she’s studying all that repertoire.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s such pull from managers and concert presenters who say: “If you want to be the next Jacqueline Du Pre, you’ve got to play the Dvorak concerto. You can’t play new music and sell out a hall.” And clearly Kronos proved them wrong. You said, “Well, we’re not doing anything before 1900.” And you sold-out halls. You were getting a new audience, and all the managers and concert presenters were scratching their heads saying, “Wait a second, this isn’t supposed to happen.”

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Well, that took a long time. You know when I first joined the Kronos, not many people had heard of the group, and it had been in existence for five years, but there had been a lot of membership changes, and Kronos had always, even before I joined, concentrated on contemporary music, but they didn’t do it exclusively.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh really?

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah, and after I had been in the group two years, I realized that on a program we were playing one classical piece, and the rest would be contemporary works, which is about the opposite of what groups usually do. But then I felt like by that time, we had been pretty well established in California. We were getting gigs in California, so we were making a living. And we all talked about it, and we thought, “Well, we should do what we really like to do, and what we’re really good at is all the contemporary music.” Why should we play one Brahms quartet if we’re really concentrating on this other piece, and we’re not going to do that piece as well as someone who’s done that for 20 years. It’s not where Kronos’s interest was focused. So two years after being at Kronos that’s the decision we made that we were just going to do contemporary music. And you’re right, pieces from 1900 on. And by this time it was also clear that we weren’t we weren’t going to have any standard management to represent us, because you’re right, they have this formula – they think: this is what the audience wants to hear, so this is what we want our artists to play. It became a very privileged position, actually, that we decided, well O.K., we’re going to play what we really what to play, and we’re going to do everything ourselves in order to enable that to happen. But actually, that was the best thing to happen because then, we really were free to do what we wanted to do, we didn’t have pressure from anybody else, we could do whatever it was we wanted. And we found, especially after those first two years, that people would hire us, and we would do one standard work, and then they realized, “Oh, well we really liked all those other pieces, so yeah, come back and do whatever you want.” So gradually that happened even more. Then there a period of time when we played all the 20th century classical works, all the Bartók‘s, the Shostokovich, Webern, Berg, all that, and I think that was really good for us as a group, and also that sort of helped people who if they weren’t so familiar with us they might be familiar the name like Bartók. So gradually, and this took a long period of time, and now of course Kronos only plays commissioned works, primarily, so this was a wonderful evolvement over that 20 year period. But you can’t say that when I first joined the group – you know we were getting 50 people at a concert.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it was an investment.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well it’s so interesting because you look at before Kronos, and post-Kronos in the contemporary music scene. There were 2 things going on. Composers weren’t really writing much for string quartet anymore, and now all of a sudden the string quartet is one of the liveliest forms for so many composers. And on the flip side it, now there are all these quartets all over the country that play mostly contemporary works. Whether it’s the Lark Quartet or the Cuarteto Latinoamericano… There are many fantastic groups that are really dedicated to contemporary repertoire. It’s made them better groups and it’s made the music that’s being written for quartet better music. A string quartet won a Pulitzer Prize a couple years ago and that was largely because of the dedication of players who commissioned that piece after he had already written a quartet for them. And you say we can never compete with a quartet that’s played Brahms for 30 years, this is the problem that contemporary music faces in total, you get three rehearsals, then the piece gets played, half the time the performance doesn’t reflect the piece.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: Exactly.

FRANK J. OTERI: By playing only contemporary music and taking it on the road when you’re touring it, and playing it over, and over, and over again before it gets recorded, and before it you play it in substantial venues, you’re guaranteeing that those pieces are nurtured and loved. And I think audiences can hear that. I think that a lot of the time when people say that audiences don’t like contemporary music, I think it’s that audiences don’t like bad performances.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: I think that you are absolutely right. And I think that’s exactly what was the case when I first joined Kronos. People simply didn’t give new works enough attention just like they would a piece, even a piece that they had known by ear, say a Mozart quartet or something else, they would give that much more attention than a piece that they’ve never heard, and I totally agree with you that a lot of the problem with audiences not responding to contemporary music is because of bad performances.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think what’s interesting now is you have a situation where the standard classical repertoire isn’t necessarily the center of repertoire for a whole generation of listeners. There is no center. And Kronos managed to attract a whole other audience for whom the string quartet didn’t really mean a whole lot before that. These aren’t people who are going to care about the intonation of the second violin in the Grosse Fugue. They’re more inclined to care about something more chronologically connected to them, and more geographically connected to them.