“A Lydian Bids Farewell,” by Phil Radoff and Jack Curley

Brandeis’s Lydian String Quartet will lose the last of its founding members when second violinist Judith Eissenberg departs at the end of the spring semester. Judy came to Brandeis 42 years ago, fresh out of graduate school at Yale, to join three other young women in establishing the University’s first and only quartet-in-residence. She leaves Brandeis to join the full-time faculty at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, with which she has had a part-time relationship for 20 years, as Coordinator of Chamber Music. Judy recently sat down with us (via Zoom) to review her musical career, plans for the future, and thoughts on leaving both the Quartet and the University after more than four decades.

Judy Eissenberg

Judy leaves with very mixed emotions: sadness at ending her participation in a string quartet with a close-knit relationship among members that has received both national and international acclaim; appreciation for the opportunity to expand her activities at Boston Conservatory; and gratitude for the professional experiences that her position on the Brandeis faculty and participation in the Lydian String Quartet have afforded her. She has enjoyed teaching chamber music and the Global Soundscapes course in the Music Department, as well as working with graduate composers, and she deeply values the range of repertoire that the Lydian has explored over the many years, with commissions, premieres, and many recordings. During the course of her career, Judy has been involved in the creation and nurturing of a number of organizations devoted to the advancement of musical performance, several of which continue to play an important role in her life. Since she founded it in 2004, Judy has been the Director of MusicUnitesUS, a Brandeis endeavor that supports intercultural residencies on the Brandeis campus and public-school outreach programs. The program sponsors the University’s Global Currents concerts that are the capstone events for week-long campus residencies. Each residency includes a music ensemble whose presence (in both words and music) in participating classes across campus invites discussions around music and beyond, including issues of social justice and coexistence in the global community.  Judy passionately endorses the MusicUnitesUS mission and says of her work with the program, “Over the years, we have had musical giants: virtuosos and deep thinkers in their various traditions, some classical traditions, some folk, some popular.  Hearing the music, listening to what these artists have to say about their lives, their understanding of cultural and social issues through time, and so on…I feel like I have been the luckiest person on earth.  All of them I admire, some of them have become friends. Will I miss that?  With all my heart.” Off-campus, she has an active musical life.  She is a core faculty member of the Chamber Music Conference, which for more than seven decades has each summer invited students from around the world to study and perform with a faculty of professional musicians. This summer the group will celebrate its 75th anniversary at its new home at Colgate University in upstate New York. Judy takes pride in her role as a founder and co-director of the Harvard Chamber Music Festival, which brings young professional and experienced amateur musicians to Harvard, Massachusetts for coaching and performance. Faculty members–professional musicians all–present an annual performance for townspeople. A former Harvard resident, Judy has found these concerts a joy and yearns for their post-Covid revival.  A particular pleasure for her, is that one of the other co-directors of the festival is Rhonda Rider, cellist – and another founding member of the Lydian.

Lydian String Quartet

While Judy has performed in ensembles of different sizes and instrument combinations, the string quartet remains her passion. Her preference is to perform “complex, expressive music” that “demands to be made sense of” and that “moves her emotionally.” Among her favorite works in the quartet literature are those of Bartók and Alban Berg along with the late quartets of Beethoven. She maintains that “the great composers saved some of their most profound work for string quartets.”  She also loves working with composers of these times – from the grad students at Brandeis to established composers around the world. As with all elite ensembles, the Lydian is more than the sum of its individual members. Each player brings something new to the group, though, Judy claims, it has retained the essence of its characteristic sound even as it has experienced rare personnel changes over the years. There haven’t been many such changes: only three first violinists, one second violinist, two violists, and two cellists since the founding 42 years ago. More than sound, the quartet shares a spirit of exploration and a sense of curiosity about all the music it encounters, from works by Haydn to Vijay Iyer. The Lyds like to find the ‘new’ in the older music, and the common roots of the newer music – music, all of it.  A mission that Judy has shared with her Lydian colleagues is to perform new music – to keep expanding the repertoire of the string quartet. They have commissioned and will premiere a new Iyer clarinet quintet this spring. Judy speaks almost reverently of the group’s early mentor, Robert Koff, who died in 2005. Koff served as the Chair of the Brandeis Music Department after retiring as second violinist of the famed Juilliard Quartet. Judy credits Koff’s role in promoting the establishment of the Lydian Quartet as a quartet-in-residence at Brandeis in 1980 and remembers the first two years of the quartet, when Koff coached with them nearly every day.  Quite appropriately, Judy now plays a rare Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin, “with a stunningly rich lower register,” that once belonged to Koff. She expresses great ambivalence about leaving the Quartet (“I love playing with these people!”), but feels now is the moment to exit, despite loving the intense ensemble work and performing with her esteemed colleagues. Judy is justly proud of the group’s many accomplishments, including receiving top prize in various international string quartet competitions, among them Evian, Portsmouth and Banff; winning the 1984 Walter W. Naumburg Award for Chamber Music Performance; and producing numerous acclaimed recordings of both classical and modern pieces for string quartet. On the other hand, Judy is very much looking forward to her role at Boston Conservatory, where she “intends to work with the Conservatory in expanding musical collaborations with other performing arts (dance, visual arts, etc.)  and engaging with diverse musical traditions in chamber music performance.” She also plans to play a part in deepening the Conservatory’s partnership with Silkroad, “a collective of artists from around the world who create music that engages their many ideas, identities, and traditions.” Founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 1998 and now led by Rhiannon Giddens, the performing organization encompasses a number of artistic, cultural, and educational programs focused on connecting people and ideas from around the world. Judy will serve as the Conservatory’s faculty coordinator and general liaison to the Ensemble. When not practicing or performing, Judy is a dedicated tennis player and jogger, who regularly covers distances of up to six miles while listening to audio books recommended by her daughter, Lily. Judy “kvells” when speaking of Lily’s many accomplishments, which include recently winning a Rhodes Scholarship to study philosophy at Oxford University in the UK. Judy thinks the world of Brandeis and departs with many “rich and sustaining memories.” She looks forward to maintaining ties to the University in her new role as professor emerita, and particularly relishes the opportunity to stay in touch with colleagues across campus. We couldn’t help asking Judy whether, in light of her long and affectionate relationship with Brandeis and the appeal of the University’s educational opportunities, she might consider joining BOLLI in the not-too-distant future. Her unhesitating response: “Sure. Why not?


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2 responses to ““A Lydian Bids Farewell,” by Phil Radoff and Jack Curley”

  1. Ostrow, Steven says:

    Thanks gents for such a sharp profile — exhilarating, inspiring, bittersweet. A great read, BOLLI-ites!

  2. Ruth Bramson says:

    Great article about this amazing woman. Her accomplishments are breath-taking.
    Thanks for sharing it with us.

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