The Calidore String Quartet gave a discerning and absorbing concert Sunday afternoon at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo, concentrating on simple and direct expression and never exaggerating for drama or effect.
This is an unusual accomplishment for such a young ensemble, formed just six years ago at the Colburn Conservatory of Music. These musicians — Ryan Meehan and Jeffrey Myers on violin, Jeremy Berry on viola and Estelle Choi on cello — have had a breakout year, winning the $100,000 M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition and launching a three-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, among other accomplishments.
Their program Sunday featured two canonical works of the chamber music repertoire, by Beethoven and Schumann, sandwiching the world premiere of Caroline Shaw's "First Essay," a co-commission of Soka and Coretet, a program encouraging the creation of new chamber music.
Shaw, on hand for the occasion, was the youngest winner, at 30, of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013 for her far-flung "Partita for 8 Voices." Her wide-ranging bio lists composer, violinist and singer among her professional pursuits, as well as collaborator with Kanye West.
"First Essay" is her fifth work for string quartet. In spoken remarks and in a program note, Shaw said the piece was inspired by the writing of Marilynne Robinson, specifically its "lilt and rhythm," which she attempted to capture in her music. She also wanted to catch something of the essayist's way of suddenly opening "trap doors," of changing the subject as it were without losing the line of thought.
It is difficult to say if Shaw succeeded in her quest. "First Essay," on first acquaintance, at least, seems a mild and modest work, hardly the stuff of grand designs. (There is talk in the program note of the Tower of Babel, chaos and fragmentation too.) It opens with something resembling a pop tune, in fact, with a nice little catchy pulse.
Soon enough, this changes direction, though, the music literally bending into another sphere, but the narrative remains melodious, tonal and even pastoral through various creative scorings. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The threat of minimalism is never far away, and parts of the score remind me of John Adams or Arvo Pärt. The piece is euphonious, affectionate and beautifully scored for strings.
But at a mere eight minutes, it's not around long enough to make a huge impression. "I really liked your song," one audience member told the composer after the performance. Perhaps it will eventually become the first movement of a suite. The Calidores already had it well under their fingers.
They opened with Beethoven's String Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3, part of the set that was his first foray into the genre. Haydn was still alive and writing when Beethoven wrote them and they are very Haydnesque, on steroids almost, seemingly determined to outdo the master.
The Calidore players chose to play it in the manner of Haydn rather than as a preview of Beethovenian things to come, and here it seemed the right choice, a choice that traced the composer's mastery of a style not ultimately his and from which he would turn in his next set of string quartets.
That is to say that the Calidores were remarkable for the precision of their expression, their understated but relentless intensity. Dynamics were honored but never overdone. Articulations were pointed but never dry. The phrasing breathed easily.
This kind of playing paid dividends in Schumann's String Quartet No. 3 as well, a piece, as it happens, that draws on the quartets of Haydn and Beethoven, though with a more lyrical bent. In these players' hands, we were given the structural underpinnings of the piece as well as the songful tunes. In short, the Calidores balanced intellect and expression in such a way as to make them a pleasure to hear all afternoon. Keep your ears out for these young musicians.
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