A battle has been raging among the audiences of San Francisco concerts, and the conflict came to a head Sunday night at the Nourse Theatre. There were jeers and hisses and contempt lobbed into the air.

Juilliard String Quartet © Simon Powis
Juilliard String Quartet
© Simon Powis

But it was not the Juilliard String Quartet they were angry with. It was each other.

The Juilliard was busy breathing life into one of Beethoven’s lesser works, his String Quartet No. 2. It has little of the grandness and intricacy that are the hallmarks of the composer’s later greatness, but in the hands of these musicians we caught glimpses of his brilliant future self. First Violinist Joseph Lin infused each melody with vivacity, giving simple lines unexpected but welcome urgency. During one passage of thematic development, the quartet dug in with their bows and punctuated the chords rhythmically. The second violin and viola then brought out some almost Bartòkian dissonances in the middle voices, and effect was reminiscent of an older genius, one capable of composing the Grosse Fugue.

As the first movement ended, a few members of the audience gasped in awe and began applauding enthusiastically. This is how the drama began. After the second movement was performed with equal skill, the audience once again erupted in applause. Or rather, they tried to – before being cut off by a chorus of taunts.

The quartet smiled a little awkwardly and continued.

When people started clapping again after the third movement, a man in the fourth row lost his temper. He yelled, at the top of his lungs, that the happy clappers should be silent. Others joined in, crescendoing until everyone’s hands were resting firmly in their laps.

These episodes, in a way, made the Juilliard Quartet’s performance even more remarkable. That they were able to remain coherent, let alone deliver a powerful performance, is a testament to their collective mastery.

The no-clapping rule has always been an odd, counter-intuitive tradition in classical music, one that only took firm hold during the twentieth century. Wagner is often credited with starting it during the première of Parsifal, requesting the performers not to pause for applause. But it is likely Leopold Stokowski, who considered applause a sort of primitive ritual to be overcome, that inspired concertgoers to give up spontaneous clapping.

San Francisco, with its reputation as a free-spirited city, is a natural place for the rule to be broken. And it often is. At the San Francisco Opera, it is normal to hear applause after every aria. It is less common at Symphony Hall, but it is not unheard of. Chamber music is where things get tricky. The intimacy of a small venue makes it easy to connect directly with the music as more than just a listener – we can look the musicians in the eye and almost become a participant. Audiences become passionate, which might lead to clapping enthusiastically at any time – or passionately clinging to tradition and listening intently.

But listening intently was surely in order for Jesse Jones’ String Quartet no. 3. Jones, who lost his mother at the time he began composing the piece, has created a shimmering elegy. It opens delicately, with microtones (notes between the notes we are accustomed to) forming a cloud of sound that shifts between melody and pure texture. Harmonies begin with consonance, but a single, slowly sliding tone marks the start of simple melody that wanders through dissonance before settling again into a warm chord. The effect is utterly profound.

At times, the piece lost its focus, devolving into a display of tricks and special effects for stringed instruments, but for the most part, it is a moving exploration of loss. It ends, predictably but effectively, as it began. But now the harmonies are simpler, the microtones more subdued. Here, we know that grief, though not extinguished, has turned into understanding.

The Schubert String Quartet in G major (D. 887) that followed should have been the Juilliard at its best. Schubert is one thing they are know for, but something was missing. The expressiveness and agility of Joseph Lin that made the Beethoven so exciting suddenly seemed out of place in a work that demands a strong ensemble sound. Cellist Joel Krosnick’s solos had the richness we expect from him, but he sometimes fell behind the beat, leading to an unstable sound. While second violinist Ronald Copes and violist Roger Tapping played well in their own right, the effect was that of four master musicians playing at the same time, rather than together. With one relatively new violinist and one brand new violist, the quartet has not quite become one ensemble.

But at least the audience was well-behaved. Instead of spontaneous applause, socially acceptable coughing and throat-clearing filled the silence between movements.