On Thursday night the Calder Quartet brought life to a formidable program of chamber works–new and old–at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Although the performance might have benefited from some amplified sound reinforcement, the energy and precision of the quartet kept audience eyes and ears focused intensely on the intimate assembly of musicians onstage. A well-designed balance of lively minimalism and lush romanticism set the stage for Schubert’s iconic (and massive) Quartet No. 14, Death and the Maiden. The program, however, offered more than stylistic contrast: The three pieces differed markedly in their approach to using musical time to engage the audience.
The classical language of the Schubert breaks the work into digestible chunks, its musical ideas and developments laid out in clear, periodic sections. Like much music of the 19th century, the challenge to the performer(s) lies in conveying passion without obscuring the clarity of form—a delicate balance deeply embedded into the performance practice of string quartets. The rhetorical value of this style takes advantage of human cognition and memory to build and articulate increasingly larger narratives, but as such its effectiveness becomes increasingly intertwined with the listener’s memory and frame of reference. So it was especially mindful to contrast Schubert’s thoughtful, rational bites with the Schoenberg (which lived fully in the heart) and the Cerrone (which was firmly planted in the body).
For Verklärte Nacht, the quartet enlisted the help of violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Nicholas Canellakis to round out the sextet. The ensemble succeeded brilliantly at drawing out the suspended, tortured lines to create a sense of timelessness—one more akin to Wagnerian romanticism than the expressionist modernism many associate with Schoenberg. Indeed, the balance and nature of six strings catered to a sense of atmosphere difficult to achieve with quartet alone, and the piece moved easily from complex contrapuntal textures to detailed, swelling blocks of sound. I say this performance lived in the heart because the musicians patiently explored passing themes without spoiling the frustrated trajectory of the work. As a result, a few moments—most of all the gorgeous final twinklings of the piece—provide reflective cadences both sweet and complicated; cadences that reflect the resignation and messiness of emotion rather than the tidy wrappings of rationality.
In stark contrast to both was the night’s opening performance, the world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s Can’t and Won’t. Evolving from faint tappings to raucous hockets, the piece married suspense-building devices of minimalism with savvy quartet writing. In particular, repetition and patterns allow Cerrone to redirect his audience’s attention to other aspects of the music; musical time unfolds not only through bold metric modulations, but also though subtle evolutions of harmony. Just as crucial, though, is its invitation to admire the dramatic athleticism of performing this music as the Calder Quartet summoned delicate, alternating harmonics with precision, and attacked furious bowings with vigor. Sonically, this physicality manifested in the wood and bow noise inherent to instruments, adding a rawness to the energetic build that prepares the final “tender” movement: The wild, frenetic energy is suddenly withdrawn to make room for soft, staggered re-entrances of the upper strings, swelling and climbing quietly into the stratosphere.
Programming for string quartet in a large space like Walt Disney Concert Hall requires consideration of the inevitable compromises to both the intimacy and the intensity of the performance. Even cornerstone works like the Schubert rely on their framing to succeed, and so opening the night with the charged and pulsing Can’t and Won’t was a smart exposition of the excitement possible in Calder Quartet’s tight virtuosic playing. Further, the added resources and musical breadth of Verklärte Nacht offered a subtle but effective dynamic; as a result each piece on the program felt like the centerpiece in its own way. Perhaps it is fitting for a hall that feels simultaneously modern and classic that each work on a program spanning nearly two hundred year felt essential, but it is also an indication of the immense talent and flexibility of the Calder Quartet.