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Awesome Johnston Quartet Highpoint From Calder


The Calder Quartet, a boy band from Los Angeles in black suits and skinny ties, concluded a weekend at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on June 23rd with guest clarinetist John Bruce Yeh in a program of quartets by Ben Johnston and Beethoven and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. After an afternoon punctuated by fierce thunderstorms, violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violist Jonathan Moerschel and cellist Eric Byers came to the stage at the Shalin Liu Performance Center as the giant window behind them disclosed a golden sunset over Rockport Harbor.

We were not in time, unfortunately, to catch more than a few words of the pre-concert talk by composer-pianist John McDonald. Readers who were there can fill us in, we hope, on what he had to say. The program proper began with Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace,” a 1973 work by American composer Ben Johnston (who, at 86, is still among us, though not at the concert), a single movement set of variations on the eponymous hymn.

Now, an 11-minute set of variations strikes us as less of a string quartet than a movement from a string quartet, and apparently Johnston came to the same conclusion and put it together with his 1966 one-movement Quartet No. 3 to be a single work (with a silent two-minute interval between them) called Crossings. Each of the quartets (he has so far written 10) can still live independently, and No. 4 in particular has proven popular, with several recordings with and without No. 3. “Amazing Grace” also proved a turning point in Johnston’s own style, in which, without abandoning his commitment to “just intonation”—a microtonal system based on “pure” mathematical ratios between pitches rather than the complex compromises needed to support the standard tempered scale — he geared his sound palette in a more readily approachable direction.

The piece itself is quite remarkable in its own right, apart from any novelty in its intervallic construction. (This was presumably by design; we could very seldom detect the microtonal inflections in this piece, in the way we always can in other microtonal systems such as Ezra Sims’s 72-note-per-octave structures.) The theme was presented in an austere harmonization in fourths and fifths, after which the variations, which were ingeniously interlinked, moved in an ogival way away from and then back to the sense of the original. One variation about two-thirds of the way through served a recapitulative function rather like the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, except here the tune was etherealized in harmonics. This brings us to the other striking feature of Johnston’s work, which is the variety and richness of its coloration, from the lushness of the opening and closing variations to some rather sere and spare textures and registers, as well as a thrilling passage in pizzicato harmonics for the cello. We especially appreciated Byers’s perfect rendition of these, as one of our own works that called for this techniques was greeted with catcalls of “impossible” from the performers. The quartet’s overall performance was, in a word, awesome. The ensemble was as tight as could be, its control, especially dynamic, was impeccable, and their presentation was bravura without a touch of hamminess.

The first half of the program ended with Beethoven’s Quartet No. 8 in E minor, op. 59, No. 2, the middle Razumovsky quartet. The Calders demonstrated throughout, but especially in the outer movements, the precision and control they adumbrated in the Johnston, although there were moments in both movements in which some rapid passagework was less exact than it might have been at a less precipitous pace. Their attention to dynamic nuances was extraordinary, and their well-judged rubatos at phrase endings enhanced the dramatics of this piece. That said, they did not seem out to make big statements with this work, which, considering the slightly dry acoustics for strings in this hall, was probably a good thing. The slow movement received all the sostenuto TLC it could possibly want. The scherzo has received considerable attention over the two centuries of this quartet’s existence, both for its inventive rhythmic complexity and its use and treatment of a traditional Russian theme in its trio. While this is most often taken as Beethoven’s tribute to Count Razumovsky, who commissioned these quartets and was their dedicatee, some wags have suggested that Beethoven’s rather jaunty approach to what was originally a fairly solemn theme, and his very odd harmonization of it — juxtaposing melody and harmony in counterintuitive ways, was actually a hidden backhand slap at his patron. The Calder performance followed the conventional wisdom, and while its reading was spirited, it did not seem in any sense satirical. The finale, too, eschewed the potential for galumphing through the principal theme, receiving a delightfully sprightly reading.

The second half of the program consisted of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet featuring John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal of the Chicago Symphony. He has toured and recorded extensively (though he doesn’t seem to make it up this way all that often), and we were most familiar with his superb recording of the two clarinet sonatas (one for the E-flat clarinet, which is Yeh’s specialty with the CSO) by Easley Blackwood.

Every clarinetist reserves his most elegant and haunting tones for the opening of the Brahms quintet, arguably the apex of Brahms’s chamber music (which is saying a lot: pace Mozart and Beethoven fans; Brahms’s chamber music is the epitome of the genre). Yeh was no exception here: his playing throughout the work gave evidence of exceptional preparation and attention: the passage from one note to another was absolutely, stunningly smooth; there was not a single intrusive noise from the instrument; his dynamic nuances were calculated to the fifth decimal place, and he studiously avoided the temptation to exploit the hall’s acoustics, which favor winds and brass over strings, to dominate the ensemble, while giving full measure to Brahms’s plummy sonorities. As just one example, we loved the Hungarian-flavored middle section of the slow movement. The only issue we had, except in the finale, was an emotional detachment that perhaps went hand in glove — but needn’t have — with the careful execution. Yeh’s interpretation took no risks, which was also true of the Calders. For some reason, the dynamic subtlety they brought to the Johnston and Beethoven was not too often in evidence in the Brahms, which is not to say there was anything wrong with their playing; they just didn’t blow us away as they did in the other pieces. This did not, we must report, dampen the enthusiasm of the audience, which gave the ensemble, by our count, four solid curtain calls.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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