It’s hard being the new kid on the block, especially when the block is one of the world’s greatest string quartets. But for violist Ori Kam, joining Israel’s celebrated Jerusalem Quartet for its 2010 concert tour has been a painless transition.

Jerusalem Quartet

Thursday at 8 p.m.
Rackham Auditorium
Tickets from $20

After 17 years together, the all-male award-winning Jerusalem Quartet was recently left violist-less when Amihai Grosz accepted the position of principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kam, who has toured extensively and won several international music competitions, was an ideal replacement for Grosz.

“I’ve known these guys almost as long as they’ve been playing together,” Kam said in a phone interview with the Daily. “I met them a long time ago, and we sort of had a musical relationship from time to time over the last 15 years. So joining the group was not the most unnatural or strange thing … I expected it to be much harder than it has been.”

In its third University Musical Society appearance on Oct. 21, the Jerusalem Quartet will perform two standards of string quartet repertoire as well as a lesser-known gem.

First on the program is Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 4 in E Minor. Composed in 1867, it was the second in a series of three quartets dedicated to the Crown Prince of Sweden.

“Mendelssohn is an important and pivotal composer,” Kam said. “On the one hand, he’s very much a classical composer … with a clarity of form and a clarity of ideas that comes in classical music like Beethoven and Mozart. On the other hand, (his music) has the emotional impact and complexity of the Romantic Period, with composers like Brahms or Schumann. And he’s very much the missing link between these two periods.”

Kam also pointed out that though Mendelssohn’s family converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, there is still a kind of “Jewish thread” running through the composer’s music to which the Israeli-based Jerusalem Quartet can relate.

Also on the Jerusalem Quartet’s program is Brahms’s String Quartet in C Minor. Composed in 1873, the piece is the second of only three string quartets that Brahms ever published. Brahms had, in fact, written sketches for a multitude of other string quartets that he painstakingly picked apart and eventually destroyed.

“It gives us the idea of how meticulously constructed these pieces are,” Kam said.

Between the Mendelssohn and Brahms pieces on the program is Israeli composer Mark Kopytman’s 1969 String Quartet No. 3. Kopytman immigrated to Israel from Russia in the early ’70s. In his new home, he developed a new style of composition based on ancient Israeli music.

Kam remarked that audiences shouldn’t be intimidated by Kopytman’s modernist style.

“I think the audience will be able to feel like they get it,” he said. “Very often with contemporary music the audience is left feeling a little bit at a loss. But this piece is very communicable and has a lot of beautiful textures and a lot of expression.”

Kam, an enthusiastic advocate of chamber music, has played an active role in promoting ensembles in his native Israel. As founder and artistic director of the Israel Chamber Music Society, Kam annually organizes concerts featuring Israeli musicians.

“In a string quartet, you can have four people who express themselves fully at all times yet still play together. And that’s something that’s very unique — and unique in the world as well. In what other area of life can four people speak or express themselves simultaneously and have separate ideas and personalities, yet be one?”

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