Quartet’s mixture of contemporary and classic makes for stunning performance
Laxson Auditorium was noticeably not filled last Wednesday (Feb. 27) when one of America’s finest string quartets, the Calder Quartet, took the stage. Other than the fact that so many missed out on the quartet’s stellar performance, the shortage of bodies in the audience was of little consequence—those in attendance were moved to the point of offering enough clapping and cheering as to sound almost like a full house at times.
The Calder Quartet—known for its virtuosity in a number of musical styles, from classical to experimental to rock—consists of first violinist Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook on second violin, Jonathan Moerschel on viola and cellist Eric Byers.
The group began the evening’s program with a piece by contemporary composer Ben Johnston, “String Quartet No. 4, Amazing Grace.” True to the quartet’s (and the composer’s) experimental bent, the 10-minute-long piece started right off with an altered version of the melody of the familiar 18th-century hymn “Amazing Grace,” played by the violins and viola. The cello entered after a short while, adding a warm depth to the beautiful, slightly haunting music.
Notably, the piece sounded as if it harkened back to the 1700s—it had such an old-time Americana feel to it at times that it resembled the theme music from some of the 18th/19th-century period films that I have been watching lately (e.g., Amazing Grace and HBO’s John Adams). At the same time, the music also sounded strikingly modern, edgy, in its rhythmic and harmonic adventurousness. At one point late in the piece, the group’s expert playing evoked both the pastoral and the somewhat disturbing sound of bees buzzing in waves of crescendos and decrescendos.
“Cadenza on the Night Plain,” by Terry Riley—who has composed numerous string quartets (including this one) for the famed Kronos Quartet—followed the Johnston piece. “Cadenza,” said Bulbrook, who introduced the pieces the foursome would be playing, was “another take on the history of America” and “probably Terry’s most acclaimed string quartet.” The enthralling, inventive, 35-minute-long piece features four captivating cadenzas (one from each of the four string players) that punctuate the piece’s movements. They had titles like, “Where Was Wisdom When We Went West?” and “The Night Cry of Black Buffalo Woman.”
It was evident—especially during the Riley piece, which required much attention to perform the complex composition—that the violinists have played together for quite a long time. They watched one another intensely at times and played with such partnership (including synchronized bow movements) as can only come from a lot of time invested together.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s seven-movement String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 131, came after the intermission, during which my friend Grace said she was looking forward to it, traditionalist that she is. And the quartet did not disappoint.
In fact, the four players so accurately and appropriately immersed themselves in the Beethoven piece that if one had not heard the modern music that came before on the night’s program, one would have guessed that these impeccably talented men spend their time doing little else besides focusing on doing justice to the performance of classical music.
One local violin player, who was equally impressed with the Calder Quartet’s virtuosity, noted at intermission, “I really like their judicious use of vibrato. They don’t cover up bad intonation with vibrato [as some violin players do].” In other words, each member of the group precisely played his instrument in what seemed to be perfect tune throughout the entire performance.
The Calder Quartet’s musical performance was as near to perfect as any that I have heard. Kudos to Chico Performances for bringing this mesmerizing, world-class string quartet to a local stage.