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.
On Thursday, December 7, night the Calder Quartet will premiere Christopher Cerrone’s new string quartet, Can’t and Won’t, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It opens hefty program of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. Amid flights and rehearsals I was able to wrangle Chris into answering some questions about the piece and even recording a bit of rehearsal.
When this commission came through, did you know it would be programmed alongside Verklärte Nacht and, perhaps more a propos, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden? It’s hard, reading your score, not to think there’s something these pieces have common with the Ds and the way the polyrhythms work in both openings, the shapes of the lines in Schubert’s presto against your ending…and your program note does say “songs without words” a few times.
I think string quartets have something to do with D! One of the challenging of writing for a string quartet is coming terms to the reality. Though as we speak of this it does make me think of a quote from one of my favorite books, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West.
“He sat in the window thinking. Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature…the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worth while.”
Feels a propos of the piece! A lot of the piece is struggling with the basic nature of string instruments and how they work — these open strings — and how to address them in an interesting and creative way.
There’s a fascinating notational/metric trick at bar 226, when three members of the quartet switch to quarter = 76 and the cello keeps up its ostinato at the previous tempo of dotted quarter = 220, which makes for a not-quite-aligned dance. It seems like a super efficient way to get the intended effect, but I have to wonder how the quartet feels about it. In practice, is it executed accurately, or is getting very close workable in this context? And did you approach it this way because the notated polyrhythm would be essentially unreadable?
Oh no it’s super easy. Trust me players are really good at not playing together sometimes ;-). I think the goal was to have this running through line throughout the whole piece, this restless sense of pulsation. I always feel when writing for strings you need to give me a lot of activity, and movement, and through motion do they create sound. But on a simpler level, I didn’t want them obsessing over some kind of really complicated polyrthyms that I didn’t really care about — it’s just about turning foreground and background on one another a bunch.
The piece constantly returns to static harmony around D with various takes on ostinati, and your program note mentions trying to “find a sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time.” Though a literal interpretation of “programmatic” music of course runs into issues, do you find this is something you were intentionally doing in this piece as a reaction to, say, our current political dilemmas, or has it been an unconscious but real trend in your writing in general? I partially ask because I’ve heard quite a few composers over the past year or so suddenly begin writing much more harmonically static, perhaps traditionally-beautiful music, and parts of this certainly remind me of the balance of chaotic vs. static in Invisible Cities or The Pieces That Fall To Earth.
Hmm, sort of. The piece grows out of a melody I wrote years ago, but after I wrote it, so maybe or maybe not. What I found interesting that, even as I wrote the piece at the Macdowell Colony, a place mostly free of distraction, I still have felt distracted. I’ve felt distracted all year, and I’m sure many people have. It’s one of the weird, particularly toxic side effects of the Trump era: all of the news that comes in makes you more distracted, less focused, less able to do deep thinking: and therefore more like Trump.
This work is an inadvertent dramatization of that very fact.
You’ve become a bit of a regular here. Outside of our awesome concert hall, what’s your favorite spot to hang when you visit LA?
Usually my trips to LA are just jam packed with trying to see all the friends I’ve developed around my projects here. And if not that, sitting in the sunless room of a recording studio working on my new album with Wild Up.
But when I do have a few minutes, I’m excited to spend time in the Arts District, at the Hauser and Wirth gallery, and then swing by Wurstkuche after.
Tickets for the December 7 premiere are available at laphil.com/tickets/colburn-celebrity-recitals/2017-12-07.