Andrew Janss: Coaching Christopher Walker in the movie A Late Quartet
“String quartet is terrifying. Nothing else is like that” begins Andrew Janss. “String quartets are tremendously hard but they are hard for a reason and if you can face that difficulty it will make you improve like nothing else would”.
Janss was the founding cellist of the world renowned Escher Quartet. He was also Christopher Walker’s cello coach for the movie A Late Quartet. He firmly believes string players gain a lot from playing in a quartet. Piano trios are fun, he says, but they don’t push you in the same way quartets do. The intonation and extra two string voices make it exponentially harder to be together. The young man is particularly fond of the Brentano Quartet. For him the Brentano Quartet is a terrific example of a group that balances clear individual expression with solid quartet technique. “With a group like Brentano, each member has both the capability of playing with as much lyricism as a great soloist when it's their "turn", so to speak, while also having the ability and aural skill to perfectly blend into each other when appropriate.” And it’s precisely the ability to master the whole hierarchy of possibilities of sound from the individual to the ensemble and everywhere in between, that makes the very best quartet. According to him, one should especially take advantage of one’s years at school to live the experience. School is the easiest place to form a quartet. Surrounded by motivated young musicians, you actually have scheduled chamber music rehearsal time scheduled, as well as valuable coaching. “I can’t stress that enough”, states the cellist. “Just find three people at school who are better than you are, who you want to play like and then just bug them until they agree to be a quartet.” That’s what he did back in college: “I met the Escher [Quartet] guys in my junior year at Manhattan School of Music and I think I progressed more in those two years than during the previous 12.”
Andrew Janss ended up coaching Christopher Walker in A Late Quartet thanks to his friend Andrew Yee, cellist of the famous Attaca Quartet. They had always helped each other, trading gigs back and forth. Yee originally worked with Yaron Zilberman, director of A Late Quartet, on a documentary about Beethoven’s opus 131. A couple of years later the project turned into the feature film. For the movie, Zilberman asked Yee to spend many hours coaching Christopher Walker. Because he couldn’t commit to all of them, Lee asked Janss for help. Originally, the director wanted all of the actors to actually play their instruments. Even though he is not an instrumentalist himself, he loves music so much that he wanted it to be the most authentic quartet ever “acted”. Zilberman thought that if you spend a thousand hours filming actors playing an instrument, you will finally get something that looks like the real thing, but pretending to play a string instrument is extremely hard. They tried a million different things to get around the difficulties and make the playing look real. It was choreographic, quasi acrobatic. In the end, Janss wondered if so many hours of coaching were worthwhile: “The director might have asked the impossible. After all, the movie wasn’t about the actors playing the instruments but about the characters playing the instruments”.
Regardless of the acting difficulty, it was an amazing project overall. What better thing could happen to classical music than four great actors making a movie about a string quartet? Nobody knows what a string quartet is and all a sudden you have Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walker showing the world. “The craziness of it was so true to life, quartets are nuts”, specifies the young man. “The interactions between everybody can really get that crazy dramatic sometimes. People are losing their minds. I have been in groups where people pick up a stand and throw it against the wall.” When you play an emotionally overwhelming piece as quartets can get, when you put yourself in that kind of headspace it’s just so difficult to come back to reality if you have to stop to explain something, for example.
Besides his collaboration with a Hollywood movie, Janss is involved in an impressive variety of projects. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone as happy as he seems to be, simple, kind, concerned and open to opportunities. In addition to having shared the stage with the greatest artists of today, he is a respected teacher and coach. In fact, he is the youngest faculty member in the history of the Stony Brook School of Music. His biography also mentions him as a music arranger and the assistant artistic director of the Omega Ensemble, a chamber music series in New York City that promotes young artists in the beginning stages of major careers. However, in 2010 when he left the Escher Quartet, the young cellist had no idea what he would do. He even thought that he would never work again because people have a tendency to remember the name of a string quartet rather than the names of its members. “Nobody knew who I was. I had been spending the last 6 years just doing this one thing.” But very soon he got lucky enough to get an email from the cellist of the American String Quartet who was the contractor for the Marc Morris Dance Group. Since then, Janss has been working with the company. He truly admires its director who approaches his choreography through music. The piece of music he chooses is almost never one that people know but one that he loves. He listens to it about 30 times to really get the sense of it and then decides on the choreography. “Almost none of it is actual dance music”, enthusiastically specifies the cellist. “For example, the piece we did last year was Bartok String Quartet, Hummel Fifth Piano Trio, Schumann Quintet, Beethoven Folk Songs, Villas-Lobos String Quartet, stuff that you would never think of choreographing.” According to him it’s one of the best gigs you can get in New York because you get to play really great chamber music you never heard before and you get to work with amazing modern dancers. The dancers are strong and adapt to the rhythm and musicality in an unbelievable way. “To dance to the Bartok String Quartet, to be able to count the thing, I mean even professional musicians have a hard time counting it”, smiles the young man. Furthermore, the company is an incredibly popular group. Up to 2,000 people attend each show and unless you are the Emerson Quartet, that’s not a regular experience for classical musicians. Morris says it’s much more expensive and a logistical nightmare to have live musicians on stage. But then he could just as soon use a video of his dancers if he wanted to make his life easier. Live music to serve the dancers gives a completely different perspective to the music and it’s good for the dancers not to get used to a recording. Live music in different acoustic settings and on different stages keeps the show alive.