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Calidore String Quartet: Restraint & Passion

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 19th, 2016

Calidore String Quartet at Bard's Olin Hall. From left to right: Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan (violins); Estelle Choi (cello); Jeremy Berry (viola).

At the third and last of three Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle concerts, Calidore String Quartet, a young ensemble who just won the $100, 000 chamber music M-award from the University of Michigan, performed at Bard’s Olin Hall. Previously from Los Angeles, they are currently artists-in-residence at Stony Brook (SUNY). They also perform for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Calidore opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet in D major, K.575.  Adept at entrances and exits, they smoothly communicated intimate unity. I admired the elegant performance, yet thought that it was somewhat cautious, safe, and restrained. My friend David came up with the more appropriate word: “refined.”

They next performed Sergei Rachmaninoff’s only string quartet, a posthumously published piece. Rachmaninoff had composed it as a student studying under Tchaikovsky, whom obviously influenced the piece. I was not aware of it, but this is one of the reasons one attends concerts. String Quartet no. 1 consisted of two movements, presumable the second and third movements of an uncompleted four-movement quartet. Rich in melody, the piece was intensely lyrical, poetic. The third movement concluded with wry, self-mocking humor, which evoked laughter from the sophisticated audience.

Felix Mendelssohn's String Quartet In E-flat major, op. 44, no. 3, composed in 1838, is one of three quartets dedicated to the Crown Prince of Sweden when Mendelssohn was at the peak of his creative powers. The finished score is dated February 6, 1838, the day before Felix's first son Carl Wolfgang Paul was born, slightly over ten months into Felix's marriage with Cecile Sophie Jeanrenaud. They noted that this particular piece was rarely ever played in concerts, and that it had more notes per bar than any other Mendelssohn quartet.

While the quartet presents a re-engagement with conservative classical form, the first and fourth movements brim with Romantic passion, and it was that exciting, riveting passion the Calidore String Quartet captured with great enthusiasm. Repetition of simple motifs builds to Romantic transcendence. Intellectually, the fleet, light, third movement Scherzo, evoking storm-like passages, appears to be the most original invention in the composition, and here Estelle Choi's cello bass line was memorably haunting. Classical unity and harmony become transfigured by Romantic passion, as if Classicism had naturally evolved into Romanticism--similar to the gradual process of a dam bursting, or new growth springing up from a seemingly dead tree. This quartet was clearly in love with Mendelssohn's music: infectiously so!

 After two appreciative bows to the audience, Calidore emerged to play an encore. The encore tradition presumably offers a genial or jovial party piece to please a crowd. Bucking this successful tradition, Calidore played Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no. 6 in F minor, Mendelssohn’s lament for his sister Fanny’s death. While the general structure of this piece parallels the previous piece they played, the measured classicism recedes to a portrait of palpable anguish.  The slow elegiac movement paradoxically provides a soothing, yet temporary relief. The manic, even convulsive lines of the opening and closing movements offer no consolation. The syncopation of the second movement remains wondrously original. While this was Mendelssohn’s last major work, it sounds as if he is inventing a whole new musical language.   

Calidore’s well-honed performance of Mozart became a foil to set off Mendelssohn. The short Rachmaninoff number was to highlight how Romanticism reached a heightened lyrical dead end. They portrayed Mendelssohn as the consummate artist who synthesized the best tendencies of both Classic and Romantic sensibility. One could only applaud loudly in animated agreement.

The Hudson Valley Chamber Music Society will be doing the booking for the annual benefit Musicale and Reception at Wethersfield’s 4 pm Afternoon Family Concert in Millbrook on October 15. For further information call 845-339-7907 or email hvcmc.bard@gmail.com.