Last night four young guys in black suits, white shirts, and skinny black ties took the stage of the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport: Benjamin Jacobson (first violin), Andrew Bulbrook (second violin), Jonathan Moerschel (viola), and Eric Byers (cello) are the Calder Quartet. The concert it presented was no less fabulous for its wielding different axes from that earlier Fab Four. With established works by Mozart and Mendelssohn bracketing newer commissions by Adès and Norman (and an encore), the Calder Quartet gave spirited and energetic readings as part of its ongoing efforts to re-imagine a string quartet for the 21st century.
The concert began with Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet No. 19 in C, K. 465. An homage to Haydn and also an exploration of harmonic tension, suspension, and classical-era atonality, this quartet has a more modern flavor. The music becomes recognizably Mozartean, but the peregrinations it takes make this piece seem like the composer Mozart in search of his voice (or a story by Borges on a similar theme). Composed in 1785, this “deconstruction of a classical string quartet” gives intimations of what Mozart might have composed had he lived longer. From the hauntingly modern Adagio that opens this work, the Calder Quartet gave a sensitive and nuanced reading with considered and constant interaction among musicians and musical lines. Reveling in the combination of buffa and seria in this quartet of pastiche, they played with a lovely touch and a respectful degree of seriousness that never precluded moments of great humor.
If we think of Mozart as idyllic music (which the “Dissonance” is generally considered not to be), then the decision to program next Thomas Adès’s Arcadiana, op. 12 (1994) continues the theme. Yet as Andrew Bulbrook announced from the stage, this is a perverse paradise Adès presents in his exploration of the mythic and musical Arcadia, taking inspiration from the painters Poussin and Watteau, the music of Schubert, Mozart, Debussy, and Elgar, as well as traditional Venetian music and tangos. Structured in seven movements, each with a descriptive title, this quartet runs about 21 minutes. It opens with wispy harmonics and undulating arpeggios in the first movement, “Venezia notturno,” a foreshadowing of the journey to come. The second movement, “Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön,” delves into Romantic themes and harmonies, beautifully executed and full of longing and desire, yet accompanied by sounds resembling the chitterings of birds (recalling Messiaen, and to my ear, Saariaho). The third movement, “Auf dem Wasser zu singen,” takes its title from a Schubert Lied. Musically, the movement begins with off-beat pizzicati and pizzicati becoming descending glissandi; this is “melting Schubert.” The fourth movement, “Et … [tango mortale]” intimates the rhythm of tango; but the music recalled to my mind that of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, notably in the recreation of machine sounds by a string quartet (forceful sul ponticello bowing at forte volume, strongly-plucked pizzicati, pronounced and delayed portamenti). “L’Embarquement” featured soulful snippets of melody, recalling the second movement and the undulating opening of the first. This movement paired nicely with the lush, slow dreamscape of the next movement, “O Albion” (shades of Elgar), gorgeous and slowly changing harmonies abounding. The quartet ends with “Lethe,” the work fading away to silence. Adès has a wide array of musical influences that are manifest in this work; more impressively, he has incorporated them into his own original musical idiom. While this work was commissioned for the Endellion Quartet, the Calder Quartet has embraced this composition and presented a wide-ranging and memorable reading. Its tightly cohesive ensemble playing and love of new music shone through in this work in concert; the same could be said for its recording of this piece on the Calder Quartet’s self-titled album.
Following intermission, the Calder Quartet returned to the stage to offer Andrew Norman’s …toward sunrise and the prime of light… (2010). This brief quartet, lasting only some five minutes, was commissioned by the Calder Quartet and takes its title from Virgil, Aeneid, book VII, recounting as Aeneas and his men first see the Tiber River. This auspicious textual moment here rendered into music graced in first performance a university president’s inauguration. The music is a whir of frenetic motion and sound, yet a slower legato line continues throughout the work in first one musical line, then another. This gives the quartet a sense of stability and calm; the overall effect really is one of beginning and sunrise. This piece surprised me by its maturity and nuance, balancing destiny and turmoil, while also capturing a compelling melody to propel the composition forward to its rich ending.
The regular program concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in F, op. post. 80. With a drive and energy matching that of Norman’s composition, the Mendelssohn showcased the stamina and the profound musicality of the Calder Quartet. Here and in the opening Mozart, there were moments of rhythmic freedom, notably in the first violin line, while the rest of the quartet maintained consistency of beat. The deliberate play with rhythm gave a sense of innovation, a frisson of excitement, a new yet highly informed perspective to familiar music. I found this flexibility of tempo compelling, all the more so because it was used with prudence and brought out specific lines and passages in the music.
Played with verve and ardor, the pizzicato Assez vif second movement from Ravel’s Quartet in F gave a fitting end to a fun and captivating concert.