UMass cello professor Astrid Schween to join prestigious Juilliard String Quartet

Last modified: Wednesday, June 03, 2015

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty cellist Astrid Schween will be the first woman to join the prestigious Juilliard String Quartet when she replaces a retiring musician who has been with the group since the 1970s.

Schween, who splits her time between Amherst and New York City, said she was thrilled to even audition with the Manhattan-based quartet. She will also join the Juilliard School faculty, leaving her post at UMass at the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

Cellist Joel Krosnick, who has been a member of the quartet since 1974, will leave the group at the end of this season.

“I grew up in New York City and spent my whole childhood at the Juilliard School,” Schween said.

As she sat down during her first audition with the other members of the quartet to play compositions by Franz Schubert, Joseph Haydn and Alban Berg, she was “over the moon” to have a shot at being a part of such an important ensemble, she said.

She recalled seeing the Juilliard String Quartet as a child and later as a student at Juilliard, and how she loved watching each individual musician play.

“I enjoyed the fact they were not always so uniform,” she said. “You could really sense there were four different people.”

The Juilliard String Quartet was founded in 1946 and has traveled to performances in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North and South America, according to a statement from the Juilliard School announcing Schween’s inclusion in the quartet.

“At Juilliard, the members of the quartet are among the school’s most important studio teachers and chamber music coaches,” the statement read.

Schween’s first audition lasted five hours. A second audition was another four hours, she said.

Despite the long hours, she said she felt comfortable with the other members — violinists Joseph Lin and Ronald Copes and violist Roger Tapping — and like she could be more or less herself.

“Of course I was focused on playing well and showing my quartet skills, and listening as well as I could,” she said.

Playing as a part of a quartet is an active process, with musicians searching for opportunities to play off one another and keeping track of the constant shift of who has the melody and who has the rhythm, she said.

“There is never an idle moment,” she said. “When you see rests in the part, those are just moments when you’re getting ready for the next move.”

In the Juilliard School statement, the other members of the quartet said they felt an immediate musical kinship playing with Schween.

Jeff Cox, the chairman of the department of music and dance at UMass, said Schween was already on staff when he arrived 10 years ago.

“It was very difficult to learn she would be leaving us, but at the same time, this is an exceptional opportunity,” he said.

Finding a voice

Schween never had any doubt she wanted to be a professional musician, and she wanted her instrument to be the cello.

Her mother tried to sit her down in front of the piano, but the young Schween didn’t take to it, she said.

“I loved it when she played for me, but for me it felt too mechanical, it felt too depersonalized,” she said.

While taking piano lessons was a chore, learning the cello was a quick process, she said. “It made a certain sense to me.”

To Schween, the cello’s vocal quality — the instrument’s range tracks closely with the range of the human voice — makes her feel as if the cello’s voice is her voice.

“I never cease to be excited by the sound of the cello,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing, and I don’t feel that about the other string instruments as much. The cello speaks to me.”

Her first taste of the instrument was at the age of 3, when her parents took her to a concert at Tanglewood in Lenox. All the young Schween could talk about was the sound of the cello.

She had to wait another four years until she got to try one out for herself — but, she said, it was worth it. She took her early lessons with Hiao-Tsiun Ma, Yo-Yo Ma’s father.

“He was one of the best teachers I ever had,” she said. “He taught me most of what I needed to know in six or eight months.”

Schween, who gave her age as “either 49 or 50,” earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard, enrolling in 1980 at the age of 15 and emerging in 1985 with her master’s degree.

It was during her time at Juilliard that she met cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

“She was my idol,” Schween said. “She played with a tremendous amount of passion and joy, and she was powerful. She had the most extraordinary set of colors — tonal color — she played. She wowed the world then, and even now posthumously she is one of the most popular cellists.”

Schween studied with du Pré in London during the 1980s.

While most musicians have four or five music teachers in their lives, Schween said she has had more than a dozen. She said she learned something from each, and she has tried to be a good teacher to her own students.

“Each student is so different, the teacher has to be a great diagnostician and psychologically astute,” she said. “You have to sense the personality of the student and find right away what makes them tick.”

Some students are visual learners and respond well to visual metaphors. Others require being told what to do in a very literal sense. Still others are aural learners and can hear ways to improve their playing.

Schween’s office at UMass features a large mirror for her students to watch themselves play and see what they are doing in real time.

“This simple bit of technology offers real-time feedback,” she said. “They can interpret it for themselves and don’t need me.”

Schween teaches mostly college-aged students, though she has taught children as young as 9 and 10. She said she believes every child is innately musical, and likes to tell children about the beauty, feeling and aesthetic of playing music.

Adults are different, she said.

“I think as we get older, we prioritize based on interests and necessity,” Schween said. “Adults can grow away from their creative sides.”

A ‘boundless instrument’

Schween sees a bright future for the cello, which she said has a lot to do with famous cellists like Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pré.

Cello music is being written for the more difficult higher register of the instrument, and electric cello music is taking off as well.

She and her husband, Gordon Green, collaborated on a piece called “Rhapsody” in which she plays her Yamaha electric cello and he plays digital music alongside her. Green composed the piece.

“That is a whole new take on the cello, an enhanced one and more variable,” she said. “It is a pretty boundless instrument.”

Schween joined the faculty at UMass in 2004, taking the part-time job over a tenure-track position at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. She and her husband liked the Pioneer Valley, and decided the UMass job would be a better fit. More recently, she has also joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and the Hartt School in Hartford.

For her first three years at UMass, Schween stayed at the hotel at the Campus Center, but she and Green bought a house in North Amherst in 2007 and live there part of the week.

In addition to her teaching, Schween has maintained an active performance schedule both as a soloist and with groups. She joined the Lark Quartet and played with them for 20 years, earning numerous recognitions along the way.

Two seasons ago, she joined the Boston Trio with pianist and founder Heng-Jin Park and violinist Irina Muresanu. She has loved playing with them, but will have to leave when she takes her new post with the Juilliard String Quartet.

She will also be leaving her teaching positions with UMass and Mount Holyoke at the end of the coming academic year, though she will continue to play recitals with pianist colleagues, she said.

“These two positions have made my time here in the Valley quite special,” she said.

Cox said Schween is one of the most exceptional performers he has ever heard. When she is playing the cello, it becomes a part of her voice, he said.

“There’s something indescribable when you hear it in a performer and you realize that it is something really special, and for some reason the sound that individual can create is communicated,” he said. “You are a part of what is going on.”

He said Schween has been a part of a group of faculty performers that Cox has been proud to expose students to when they arrive in his program.

“It’s going to be hard,” Cox said of Schween’s departure. “Yet at the same time, the moment she shared this was happening, all I could do was say ‘Wow, that is great!’”

Schween expressed veneration for outgoing Juilliard cellist Krosnick, and said she was excited to have the opportunity to sit in with the quartet to play a Schubert cello quintet. They will play at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City on Feb. 22.

“He has a great energy and love of what he does,” Schween said of Krosnick. “I’m very aware that I’ll be stepping into this space he is leaving.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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