Last night San Francisco Performances (SFP) concluded its four-concert Chamber Series with a recital by the Calder Quartet, whose members are violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bullock, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist Eric Byers. This was the group’s first SFP appearance since making its debut in the annual gift concert in 2005. However, they presented a three-concert series playing the six string quartets of Béla Bartók during the 2014–2015 SFJAZZ season. The ensemble was formed by students in the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. It won the prestigious 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant and has maintained an active schedule of concertizing, recording, commissioning, and mentoring the efforts of emerging composers. Their current repertoire includes over 40 commissioned works to date.
Last night’s concert was distinguished by the way in which the group balanced two strikingly different composers. The first half presented two compositions by Thomas Adès from different periods of his creative development, while the second half was devoted entirely to the second (in E minor) of the three Opus 59 quartets that Ludwig van Beethoven composed for Count Andrey Razumovsky. A recent, and relatively short, piece by Andrew Norman separated the two Adès selections.
Adès has a distinctive gift for fashioning works with an awesome wealth of intricate clockwork precision. Yet, for all of the thought he puts into those underlying mechanics, it is clear that his capacity for expressiveness is as strong as are his “mechanical” skills. However, this wealth of virtues poses a problem that is just as distinctive, which is that it is extremely challenging to get a grip on what Adès is doing by listening to most of his pieces only once. The prodigious inventiveness that goes into his structures can only begin to be appreciated once the listener gets his/her bearings; but, by the time those bearings are established, the music has progressed well into its discourse and may even be in the course of wrapping up its journey.
Both of the Adès works performed last night, The Four Quarters, which was composed in 2011, and the much earlier Arcadiana, composed in 1994, are suites of relatively short movements. In both cases the movements are conceived to establish highly distinctive perspectives but they also tend to be relatively brief. However, Adès has a subtle rhetorical capacity to blur the boundaries between exposition and transition. As a result, mind requires more that a little orientation when it comes to “parsing” an Adès suite into its individual movements. Since the movements all have distinctive titles listed in the program book, this poses a potential hazard. The listener who does not identify the boundaries correctly may have trouble figuring out when any particular title is being represented by the music being performed.
This meant that there were major differences in the very act of listening between the first and second halves of the program. The movements of Beethoven’s E minor quartet are firmly established by perfect cadences decisively executed, and the structures within the movements conform to familiar approaches to segmentation. Even those encountering the E minor quartet for the first time are likely to have “orientation expectations,” which could come from symphonies or piano sonatas, as well as other string quartets. Such expectations cannot be put into play where Adès suites are concerned. Indeed, his approaches are so inventive that even the structure of the program itself, preceding Arcadiana with The Four Quarters, did little to orient listening to Arcadiana on the basis of past experience.
I suspect that this problem is on my mind because, while I have enjoyed a fair-to-moderate amount of experience in listening to Adès compositions, I have never heard a single one of them on two separate performance occasions. This is more that a little frustrating, because I usually come away from those occasions thinking how nice it would be to listen to the music again. Could it be that last night’s program might have benefitted had a single Adès piece be played on either side of Norman’s “separating” composition? Enquiring minds want to know!
Norman provided his own program note for his part of the program. “Sabina” is a musical reflection of the composer’s impressions of the interior of the Santa Sabina basilica in Rome, particularly the play of light brought on by the clerestory windows, which are made of translucent stone, rather than glass. One might almost call this piece an instance of a “new impressionism” in music; and it, too, deserves more than a single isolated listening experience. (I also have to express pleasure with the brevity of Norman’s text. Unless I am mistaken, this is my third encounter with one of his introductions. The other two were so long-winded that I found myself befuddled even before the performance began! Last night found the sweet spot that deftly balanced explanation with actual experience.)
Since we are in the midst of Passover, it is hard to avoid asking, where the second half of the program was concerned, “Why is this Beethoven performance different from all of the Beethoven performances?” While that position is probably unduly extreme, it raises the question of whether there were any elements that endowed last night’s performance with its own distinctive immediacy. In that respect I must confess that I was a bit worried during the first three movements that this was a reading that was lapsing into the routine. However, there was an energy to the final Presto movement that set it apart from its predecessors. There was even some sense that Beethoven still had a sense of humor, reinforced by a cleverly calculated approach to making each iteration sound as if it were the final climax and then going on to establish an even higher “peak.” If nothing else, Calder definitely knows how to leave its audience endowed with a listening experience with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.