Elegance, Authority and Charisma as the Calidore String Quartet Make their Proms Debut

17/07/2018

Proms

Proms at Cadogan Hall 1. Caroline Shaw, Schumann: Javier Perianes (piano), Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Meyers & Ryan Meehan [violins], Jeremy Berry [viola], Estelle Choi [cello]), Cadogan Hall, London, 16.8.2018. (CS)

Ryan Meehan, Estelle Choi, Jeremy Berry, Jeffrey Meyers (l. to. r)

Ryan Meehan, Estelle Choi, Jeremy Berry, Jeffrey Meyers (l. to. r)

Caroline Shaw – First Essay, ‘Nimrod’; Second Essay – ‘Echo’; Third Essay – ‘Ruby’
Schumann – Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.44

There were several ‘firsts’ at this lunchtime concert at Cadogan Hall, which opened the Proms Chamber Music Series in polished and confident style.  We heard a world premiere, the New York-based Calidore Quartet made their Proms debut, and it was the first time that I’d heard any of the musicians perform.

The Calidore Quartet – their name is a fusion of California and the French doré (golden) – was formed in 2010 when its four members were studying at Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles.  Following two years as artists-in-residence at Stony Brook University, where they were tutored by the Emerson Quartet, in 2016 the Calidore won $100,000 M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition, awarded by the University of Michigan, and began a three-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

This Cadogan Hall debut made it eminently clear why the young ensemble has made such a mark.  The Quartet exudes confidence and care: their attention to detail is untiring, but never mannered or extreme.  They produce a warm sound, in which the four voices are beautifully blended – in fact, there were times when the two violinists, Jeffrey Meyers & Ryan Meehan, seemed to be playing the same violin so perfectly matched was the tone and gesture.  Cellist Estelle Choi has a strong lyrical voice and the shaping of the cello line, whether in songful expressivity, rhythmic propulsion or bassy grittiness, is a powerful foundation for the ensemble’s colour, form and direction.  Jeremy Berry can make his viola heard through the texture without undue effort, and he had plenty of characterful contributions to make.  I was impressed by the balance of unity and individuality that the Calidore achieved.

This year the Proms has commissioned 20 new works from female composers, to mark the centenary of suffrage (for women over 30, at least), and the Calidore Quartet began the concert with the first of eight new works that will be heard during this Cadogan Hall series.  In 2013, Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for her Partita for 8 voices, becoming, at 30 years-old, the youngest ever winner of the Prize for music.  First Essay: ‘Nimrod’ was first heard in 2016 and has now been joined by two further ‘Essays’: ‘Echo’ and ‘Ruby’.  ‘Essay’ is perhaps apt, as ‘Nimrod’ was, Shaw explains, inspired by the writing of Marilynne Robinson: ‘Usually my music is inspired by visual art, or food, or some odd physics quirk, but this time I wanted to lunge into language, with all its complex splintering and welding of units and patterns!’  She wanted to capture the ‘lilt and rhythm’ of Robinson’s prose, and the way she weaves ‘delicately in and out various subjects (politics, religion, science) in each of her rich, methodical essays’.

The opening bars of ‘Nimrod’ are tentative as the three upper strings nudge gently above the cello’s pizzicato motifs, but quickly momentum is gained and there is a flowering of richness and dynamism.  Thenceforth, the music falls into repeated alternation of circling lyrical snatches and rhythmic riffs; there are moments of tension, and uneasily shifting chromatic slippages, but the idiom is predominantly tonal and tuneful – a sort of neo-tonal minimalism with a touch of popular song (Shaw has collaborated with Kanye West among other popular musicians).  The overall effect is of a free, light-weight musical conversation which ebbs and flows without every progressing very far along any one path, but which trips along easily enough.

Shaw has a good ear for string colours and textures, and the Calidore Quartet enjoyed the contrasts between tender crooning, quiet scurrying, assertive open string pizzicatos and rhythmic interplay.  ‘Echo’, too, exploited string sonics, opening with quasi-underwater murmurs – which swelled and receded as the Calidore expertly controlled the timbre, moving their bows between the bridge and fingerboard to shift from a tense hardness to gentle release – and closing with serene harmonics.  In between I enjoyed Meyers’ assurance and clean, open sound, as he rose up the E string into the foreground and then retreated to the fold.  After some glissandi wallowing, ‘Ruby’ became an effervescent dance, tinged with wildness at times, but always returning to ground, rooted in Choi’s literal grounds in the bass.

In the second half of the concert, the Calidore were joined by Spanish pianist Javier Perianes for a joyful performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet.  The question of balance is always a concern in this genre, and I wondered how Perianes would find his place within the Calidore’s wonderfully unified sound-world.  The answer was with perfect poise and musicality.  Throughout, Perianes impressed with his gentle but beguiling tone, fluid touch, and sensitivity to the ensemble’s nuances.  The musicians demonstrated a shared respect for the score and a clear-minded route through its pathways.

I liked the sweetness of the opening of the Allegro brillante: there was no hint of heaviness and rubatos at the ends of phrases subtly enhanced the exchange of the musical material between the piano and strings, in which Choi’s beautiful lyricism came to the fore.  The broad second theme expanded with freedom and freshness.  There was drama in the development section, but not excessively so, and the lightness of Perianes’ fleet semiquavers kept the texture light and the momentum always forward-leaning.  The piano’s arpeggio descent at the start of the In modo d’una marcia curved with effortless grace and lucidity, and the emphasis in this movement was on tender and precise articulation of Schumann’s quiet but sure forward step.  The prevailing pianissimo was punctured by the occasional firmer presence of an individual voice, and Berry’s interjections added varied colour and weight.  As the contrasting episodes unfolded the return to the march theme was always fluent and natural, made to seem inevitable.

Perianes’ rapid rising scale at the start of the Scherzo: molto vivace injected a carefree excitement which fired the violins’ perfectly co-ordinated spiccato quavers, and the movement zipped lightly along, flowing into the first Trio – in which Perianes’ triplets trickled nimbly – and then on to the second, which had an exuberant folky stamp.  The meticulous attention to detail was exemplified by the final three chords: after two punctuating punches, the final chord was judiciously accented, then sustained and graded with perfect accord.  With barely a breath, the Allegro ma no troppo was launched, an assertive but always stylish dance in which the conversational exchanges of the scalic circular motifs created a compelling impetus.  This movement characterised the whole concert: elegance, authority and charisma in equal measure.

Claire Seymour

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