Calidore String Quartet
When the Calidore String Quartet took to the stage of St. Francis Auditorium last Sunday, in a recital presented by Santa Fe Pro Musica, the second violinist announced that there would be a small change to the program, with Beethoven’s F-major Quartet (Op. 135) taking the place of Mozart’s D-minor Quartet. I’m not sure that quite qualifies as a small change, but it is the group’s prerogative even if it would have been more respectful to listeners to fix the program farther in advance. The speaker then continued with a musicologically erroneous commentary on the Beethoven, freighting the piece with the romanticized falsehood, long since retired, that the composer’s inscription of Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein! (Must it be? It must be! It must be!) at the beginning of the finale was a metaphysical outcry lamenting that this would be his last quartet. In fact, the inscription was a joke relating to Beethoven’s reluctant compromise about a licensing fee for a performance; and, rather than assume this would be his final quartet, he did go on to compose another complete quartet movement — the replacement finale for his Op. 130 — and started sketching another further string quartet, which didn’t get very far along before he died several months later.
When the Muss es sein? moment arrived in the score, the Calidores did convey it as hyper-emotive, with tossing of heads and eyes directed heavenward — so they get points for consistency of outlook. Their interpretation tended toward weightiness, especially in the first two movements, and the third movement was taken at a considerably faster clip than Beethoven’s marking of Lento assai would seem to indicate, with a commensurate loss of potential affection. If the group’s interpretative choices invited some head-scratching, there was no doubt about its ensemble skills, which were polished, usually secure on intonation, forward of timbre, stressing power and accuracy over delicacy of shading.
The composer Caroline Shaw is getting repeated exposure in town this season. Some attendees will have heard a movement of her Partita performed six weeks earlier, in the same hall, by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. She composed her First Essay: Nimrod for the Calidores last year. In a program note, she wrote that it was partly inspired by the rhythmic flow of the writing of the novelist Marilynne Robinson. That is the point of departure, but soon “the familiar harmony unravels into tumbling fragments and unexpected repetitive tunnels.” I might not say the repetitive business was entirely unexpected; to the extent that I know Shaw’s work, it would seem a hallmark of her style. This enjoyable eight-minute piece drew from disparate aspects of the musical past, including such strange bedfellows as minimalism and lateRenaissance madrigals. It has a pleasing melodic sense, keeps its harmonic adventures on the surface, displays rhythmic vibrancy, and sometimes falls into folkish fiddle-noodling.
The second violinist conveyed further fictions in his spoken introduction to Dvoˇrák’s Quartet in F major (Op. 96, the American). To choose but one, he stated that the National Conservatory of Music, the New York institution Dvoˇrák directed from 1892 to 1895 (during which span he composed this quartet), “has since become The Juilliard School.” Not so. It was a rival to the Institute of Musical Art, which was founded in 1905 and in 1924 was expanded to become The Juilliard School. By 1915, the National Conservatory’s reputation was in a downward spiral, it began moving from one address to another in an attempt to survive its straitened circumstances, and it went out of business in 1928 — not acquired by any other establishment, but simply allowed to disappear. So big deal, right? Many conservatories are teaching students that they should polish their speaking skills in order to build rapport with audiences through such commentaries. And yet, do those conservatories not inculcate that given the choice to say something true or something false, the former is to be preferred? The world becomes a lesser place when it is filled with misinformation.
The Calidore’s playing of the Dvoˇrák was its best of the afternoon, and the best of the Dvoˇrák was its second movement. As in the Beethoven, the foursome took a tempo faster than the Lento the composer marked, but here they made a convincing case for it, the members’ unanimity of rhythm and spirit yielding irresistible momentum. Again the players adhered to a hearty outlook overall, but their comfort level approached the absolute. For an encore, the group offered an ill-tuned rendition of the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s D-major Quartet (Op. 44, No. 1), but that did not detract from their excellence in the Dvoˇrák, which validated the enthusiasm the Calidore has been meeting in chamber-music circles. — James M. Keller Calidore String Quartet St. Francis Auditorium, March 5