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Music on the edge

Times Staff Writer

All music careers are risky. Becoming a chamber musician is riskier still. Instead of collecting a regular paycheck and following a conductor, a member of a chamber group enters a complicated partnership that promises musical freedom and the chance for a strong voice, but few other guarantees. The audience may be more dedicated, in thrall to a repertoire of unmatched intimacy, but it’s definitely smaller.

Yet at an age -- their early 20s -- when many of their recent USC classmates are aiming for life in a symphony orchestra, and some of their generational peers are forming rock bands, Ben Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers are beginning to taste success doing something curiously in between.

Two violinists, a violist and a cellist, together they make up the Calder Quartet. Their lives entail not only playing difficult music requiring extraordinary discipline but also some of the same creative tension and frequent travel (if not the groupies and trashed hotel rooms) as life in a rock group.

Second violinist Bulbrook, 23, who holds an economics degree and often speaks in financial similes, compares the Calder to a small business. “I’ve heard orchestral playing likened to corporate life,” he says, “versus chamber music, which is more entrepreneurial.”

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The challenges go beyond the economic. Peter Marsh, the USC music professor who first put the four together, says the most difficult trick for chamber musicians can be putting up with one another. “Some people say it has all of the disadvantages -- and none of the advantages -- of marriage.”

To fans, chamber music has an intensity and human scale that orchestral music can’t touch. In this view, it represents a composer’s finest work: The small number of voices results in more purposeful expression than an 80-piece symphony. And the proximity of audience to performer means the musical push-pull, the tension and release, of the players acquires an almost physical force.

Jacobson, 23, is one of these true believers. “The repertoire is unparalleled,” says the elfin first violinist, who loves Beethoven’s knotty late quartets and Janacek’s folksy small pieces. “There’s nothing like it in other genres of music.”

“It’s also music that goes out on a limb,” says Bulbrook. “Did Beethoven write anything more out of sight than the ‘Grosse Fugue’?”

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Despite their strange calling, the Calders -- whose choice of mobile artist Alexander Calder as namesake hints at their playfulness -- come across as fairly ordinary guys. They’re all into pop or rap music; Byers, 23, the soft-spoken cellist, once played drums in a reggae band and took a semester off from USC’s Thornton School of Music to live in a van and rock-climb with a friend.

They see the jocks and rock fans they went to school with as their natural audience. They joke about finding a signature as good as that of the band Guided by Voices, whose lead singer guzzles beers onstage in a parody of rock-star excess.

Whatever lies ahead, the year just ended brought the group to a turning point. Last spring, all four graduated from USC. In the summer, they began a two-year residency at L.A.'s Colburn School of Performing Arts, the institution’s first, which offers them financial stability. In the fall, they made their New York debut, and now they have signed with a manager.

At the same time, their progress was shadowed by the illness of violist Moerschel’s wife. In September, she succumbed to the cancer she had battled for several years.

So far, the Calders say, all this has made them a stronger unit.

But because chamber musicians’ rapport, and their understanding of any given piece, tend to deepen with time, the life of such a group is a kind of endurance test. The longer and deeper the commitment, typically, the more sublime the music they can make.

“I’ve had sociologists just fascinated,” says Marsh. “How can it possibly work?”

DOWN TO BUSINESS

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It’s the day after a concert at Colburn’s Zipper Hall, and the Calders are in unusually relaxed moods. They’re in Bulbrook’s apartment, across the street from Colburn. Apart from an almost alarming cleanliness, it’s a typical post-college pad: nothing on the walls, one plant, velvet Elvis, big TV, simple blond wood furniture that could have come from IKEA.

Bulbrook is making coffee for his bandmates, though he’s clearly had enough himself. “The day after a concert, I’m so excited that I can drink coffee again that I go nuts,” says the thoroughly wired violinist, who worries that his bow will shake on held notes if he tanks up before a performance.

This day they’re discussing their new manager and considering which quartets to learn next.

A chamber group is defined by the pieces it plays, and certain quartets have a strong commitment to a single composer, era or national tradition. The Calders go for Austro-Germanic mainstream with a bit of flair: Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, with the odd contemporary piece like a dark-hued Christopher Rouse quartet. They encore with a strange and difficult movement of Bartok’s Fourth Quartet -- a crowd-pleasing frenzy of plucking and strumming to rustic Magyar melodies.

At Bulbrook’s, some of the Calders, decked out in jeans and sandals, have brought sheet music and are trying out various pieces. Byers has spent the last few months listening to all 68 of Haydn’s quartets, and introduces one he’s fond of.

“This is one I like to call Opus 64, Number 6,” he says, slipping into Grand Ole Opry patter.

Bulbrook picks up the Southern accent: “It goes out to all the ladies in the house.”

Throughout the afternoon, they’ll run through pieces, rejecting some, taking to others. Though each has his preferences, minor disagreements usually turn into consensus without much trouble.

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When talking business, they’re serious but sometimes mischievous too.

“Hey!” shouts Jacobson, while looking over a page of halls their manager works with. “I don’t see the Playboy mansion on this list of venues.”

The Calders, though, are serious about chamber music. Their rehearsals involve assessing one another’s strengths and weaknesses -- from details like articulation and tempo to the general character of playing -- but little shouting. Indeed, the life of a chamber quartet probably includes more listening than either talking or playing.

“I always view criticism as something that’s not negative but aimed at the greater good,” says Jacobson, who as the group’s leader says he tries “to keep the diplomacy flowing.”

“They have a commitment to what they’re doing,” says Ronald Leonard, the USC professor who coaches the group. “There are a lot of groups who get together, play well, but they don’t plan to make this a major part of their life. It takes an unusual dedication to say, ‘This is what’s going to come first.’ ”

Besides a three-hour rehearsal each weekday, the Calders practice by themselves three hours a day. Two are taking a music theory class, and their residency requires them to lead sections within the Colburn’s chamber orchestra. For the last few months, they’ve had a concert virtually every week, which can mean traveling to the South Bay or the northwest of France. When flying, Byers buys a ticket for his 230-year-old cello.

What really drives them is performing: They love the challenge of winning over a crowd.

“I think the chamber music audience in general is a little more informed,” says Moerschel, 24, “while with symphonic music, it’s more of a social thing: get dinner and see a concert.”

Even by the graying standards of classical music, chamber fans tend to be more gray, coming to the form only after years of listening. “It’s definitely more subtle,” the violist says. “Orchestral music is big and loud, and you’ve got someone waving his arms around.”

In mid-December, a black-suited Calder Quartet played at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Even without waving arms, and with tension induced by a radio broadcast, they were able to bring much of the sizable audience to its feet.

COMPLEX RELATIONSHIPS

Like the music they play, the personal dynamics of a quartet are a delicate balance -- the kind that can benefit rather than suffer from creative disagreement.

The Calders first got to know one another as friends, but they spend less time palling around now that the group has become a full-time job. Around Thanksgiving, they took a week off and didn’t even meet for a friendly beer.

In a 1988 documentary about the Guarneri Quartet -- a Calder favorite, esteemed for its warm romantic tone -- the Guarneri players discuss how they maintain an appropriate degree of proximity after heavy touring and hours of brutalizing rehearsals. Partway through a tour, three of them arrive in Tampa, Fla., for a concert. When the fourth, violist Michael Tree, gets there, he’s asked by the hotel concierge how close he’d like to be to his bandmates. “Put me in St. Pete!” he responds, referring to a city 25 miles away.

After observing the group’s range of personalities -- from swan to bulldog -- negotiate, quarrel and make up, it’s clear that Tree is not really joking. But the founding Guarneris lasted from 1963 until 2001, making them the United States’ longest-standing quartet with all original members .

Though its profile remains far lower than that of orchestral music, chamber music -- music for small groups, with a single player to each part -- predates symphonic music by roughly a century. Originally performed in the homes of aristocrats, often by amateurs, chamber music thrived in an era when musician and audience were not separate categories.

“The music was conceived to be performed in a small room where people are very close to you,” Moerschel says. “You’ve got these bare-bones ensembles and pieces with an incredible depth.”

“And a lot more pressure too,” says Byers. “Because you’re it, always. You can’t just blend into a section. You’re always exposed, and people always hear what you’re doing.”

In the early days, the audience was small to nonexistent: This was something people of a certain class did for fun, the way corporate executives play golf.

By the late 18th century, when the homes of wealthy merchants were displacing the salons of the gentry, chamber music began to take on its contemporary form as Haydn brought the string quartet to maturity.

Originally driven by a regal first violin with the other instruments accompanying, the quartet went on, as revolutions flared in North America and France, to parallel the move toward democracy: By late in Haydn’s career, the best quartets demonstrated a dynamic interplay among the four instruments.

In the hands of 19th century romantics like Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms (whose small pieces Schumann called “symphonies in disguise”) and in the rugged 20th century excursions of Bartok, Elliott Carter and Shostakovich (who saved his private feelings about Stalinism for his quartets), chamber music deepened further.

For all the evolution, however, chamber music still carries an effete, aristocratic connotation, says UCLA musicologist Robert Fink. “It evokes people in wigs sitting around with candles,” he says. “America has embraced the symphony orchestra, with its technological know-how and mass appeal. A large orchestra fits in better with a large country with a large middle class.”

At the same time, chamber music has been -- since the ‘60s minimalists -- the area in which composers do their most radical work, and the Kronos Quartet, for one, has concentrated on risky music for young audiences as no orchestra could. Chamber music now is played in private homes, in churches, in rock clubs.

Despite the aesthetic triumphs of chamber music, the Calders felt as if they were going against classical music’s very grain when they formed their group in 1998. “Teachers will even say, ‘Let’s face it, a lot of you won’t ever have a solo career, so you’ll be making your living playing in an orchestra,’ ” says Moerschel. “I had to tell people, ‘No, this is what I want to do, even if I’m not going to make much money at it.’ ”

SOMETHING TO RELY ON

In early November, the Calders played a luminous concert as part of an 11-piece group at USC’s Newman Recital Hall. The concert, of Bach’s double and triple keyboard concertos, was so packed that people crowded the aisles and doorways to hear it.

Many in the audience, like the musicians, were assembled in honor of Eugenie Ngai, a pianist and USC doctoral student who had died two months before. She was also Moerschel’s wife.

“I think it changed us all,” the violist says now.

Three years ago, he had to go with the group to Colorado while Ngai -- whom he married late in 2002 -- was hospitalized. “She insisted that I go. It was really hard. I was calling back and forth 10 or 20 times a day. It was very hard to focus. It was difficult because the quartet really depends on me. If I was in an orchestra, they could just pick up someone else.”

Of the four Calders, Moerschel is the most cautious, the least whimsical; even his smile has a hint of resignation. He describes his personality as fitting the viola -- reserved, not show-offy. It’s perhaps no coincidence that while the other Calders live downtown, he’s half an hour away in Pasadena.

His sense of distance includes his handling of his wife’s illness. “I didn’t want to involve the quartet any more than I had to,” he says.

“When she was in the hospital, we were debating, ‘Should we just find a sub so John won’t have to worry about this?’ ” Byers says. “But John was really adamant about wanting to play. He would just spend the night in the waiting room and rush home for a few minutes to get a nap” before or after rehearsal. “I was amazed at how dedicated he was to her -- but also to the group.”

“John kept an amazingly optimistic attitude the whole time,” recalls Jacobson. “We never really knew the gravity of the situation; it was only when she actually died that we fully realized just how serious the whole thing was. We knew she was ill, but we always thought she was getting better.”

When she was at her worst, last August, Moerschel had to ask the group to go to France with Peter Marsh subbing for him.

“They live somewhat carefree lives, and my life has been very full of worry and stress for the last few years,” Moerschel says. “But I don’t get nervous playing in front of people anymore. It’s a reflection of what’s happened. It put things in perspective.

“I don’t know how it affected them,” he adds. “But I know I’ve been very thankful to have the group to play in, because if I didn’t, it would have been very hard to get myself to do things. I went on a trip with them to Chamber Music Sedona not long after Eugenie died, and that was a godsend for me. It was great for me to get out of L.A. and do something different.”

STAYING TOGETHER

One of the biggest threats to any group is not bad times but unevenly distributed good times, especially if a member gets offers to perform as a soloist. A whole group can collapse when a single player leaves. The London-based Amadeus Quartet made a vow that if one player left, they would disband. Forty years later, after the death of violist Peter Schidlof in 1987, they did.

To remain intact, the Calders plan to seek a residency to follow their gig at Colburn -- in this area or elsewhere. “Los Angeles needs a resident quartet,” the LA Weekly’s Alan Rich wrote after a Calder performance in September, adding, “on the strength of this one hearing, the Calders are worthy of consideration.”

If they stay, they’ll be following in the footsteps of groups like the Hollywood String Quartet, 1940s studio musicians who played with a telepathic rapport, and the Angeles Quartet, a long-standing group that broke up in 2002 soon after recording all of Haydn’s four-part works.

“What often happens,” says MaryAnn Bonino, who’s run the local concert series Chamber Music in Historic Sites for three decades, “is that groups go to New York and get major management. You’d think with the Internet and so on you could run a career from anywhere. But it all boils down to travel: If you want to go to Europe, you’re better being in New York.”

“At times, this feels out of place, because of Hollywood and everything,” the Ohio-bred Byers says of pursuing a livelihood in L.A. “And California is so new, compared to Haydn, or Europe. But we’re proud of the fact that we’ve stuck together in a place like this.”

What’s to keep individual Calders from straying once they taste the glamour of soloing?

“I feel like the greatest repertoire is the quartet repertoire,” says Jacobson. “You’re still completely exposed and have the ability to make yourself heard like you would as a soloist. And in a quartet, you have the camaraderie all the time, the input from the others, that I think can keep you a little bit more grounded.”

Earl Carlyss, a longtime Juilliard Quartet violinist and a Calder mentor, says it’s important they keep their dedication.

“You should always be searching,” he says. “You’re never finished with this music. Some musicians feel, ‘We’ve played it twice. We never want to bother with it anymore.’ I’ve seen this and it’s poison. This music is always a lifetime search.”


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