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Cali­dore String Quar­tet

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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

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