Later this year, cellist Astrid Schween will join the prominent Juilliard Quartet. Schween has been a professor at UMass Amherst and Mount Holyoke since 2004. When she joins the quartet, she’ll be the first woman and first African American member in its nearly 70 year history.
At her UMass office, Schween is giving a lesson to second-year graduate student Sarah Bish. They’re practicing a Rachmaninoff Sonata. Schween demonstrates a phrase, which Bish copies.
“Just really milking the string,” Schween says as she plays. “Only a piece like Rachmaninoff could take this.”
That capacity to expressively “milk” the strings, Schween says, is part of what drew her to the instrument at an early age. She grew up in New York City. Her parents took her to many concerts, including one at Tanglewood.
“There was a cellist performing, and I was apparently captivated,” Schween says. “I didn’t want to play anything else. Years later, Yo-Yo Ma’s father came to New York to start a children’s orchestra, and I started my first lessons with him. Within a year he prepared me to a level where I was able to get into Juilliard Pre-College.”
Schween started that program at age 7, and went on to get her master’s degree from Juilliard. So joining the school’s quartet will be a homecoming. As the group’s cellist, she says she’ll do a lot of driving of the quartet.
“I think the cello’s responsible for the timing overall, for the propulsion of the group and the music, and for setting the sound world on which everything else rests,” Schween says.
Schween knows she has big shoes to fill in the Juilliard Quartet. She’s replacing Joel Krosnick, who’s retiring after 42 years. Schween’s first performance with the group is December 12th in Detroit. She’ll play on a Schubert quintet alongside Krosnick.
“It’ll be a chance to actually sit and play with him in the ensemble, see how he functions, how he thinks,” Schween says.
While Schween will be the first woman and first African American in the quartet, she says practicing with the group will occupy much of her time, and those factors will become less important.
“While it’s great when glass ceilings are broken, and I’m thrilled that this group was willing to go in that direction, to open their doors to someone who’s different from what they’ve had before, and I’m happy to be that person,” Schween says, “but when it comes down to it, it’s going to be about us and the music we make, and the kind of integrity we have as players.”
Schween has been a professor at UMass since 2004. “I’ve done a lot of growing as a teacher and as a player in this room,” she says. “I’ve hopefully helped a lot of students find their way as instrumentalists and as teachers. I feel very connected to the place. I’m hopeful UMass continues to grow and the department continues to gain a bigger and bigger reputation, because it really deserves it.”
Schween won’t be leaving just yet – she’ll continue teaching through the spring semester, and after she heads to New York, Schween and her husband still plan to keep their house in North Amherst. They’ll return there on weekends.
Astrid Schween makes her New York debut with the Julliard Quartet in February. She officially takes over as the group’s cellist in September 2016.