The Los Angeles-based Calder String Quartet Makes its San Miguel Debut
By Fredric Dannen
For years, the haughty world of classical music has displayed a bit of snobbery toward chamber ensembles based in Los Angeles, the self-styled “Entertainment Capital of the World.” The Hollywood Quartet, formed in 1939, faced derision from the cognoscenti—until, that is, their fine musicianship silenced the skeptics. The Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet, which this month is making its San Miguel debut, has been favored with terrific reviews (“superb”–New York Times; “one of America’s great young string quartets”—Boston Globe), yet all the same, the Calder has run into the same bias. “Oh, sure,” said Calder violist Jonathan Moerschel, in a recent interview, “despite the Los Angeles Philharmonic, despite the fact that L.A. has become a force in music and culture, New York still has the long tradition” in concert music. “So that’s been a strike against us. But,” he adds, “nothing speaks better than your playing and your music.”
Besides, there are undoubted advantages to being one of the few world-class string quartets in the City of Angels. The Calder has enjoyed a kind of uptown/downtown dual existence—you might find them one evening performing a late Beethoven quartet at the Kennedy Center, and on another evening backing up a punk rocker at Le Poisson Rouge. The group can be heard playing the theme music for the TV series DaVinci’s Demons. Because the Calder has performed with big-name indie rock groups, such as The Airborne Toxic Event and the Grammy-winning Vampire Weekend, the quartet has been featured prominently on the Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel—almost unheard-of publicity for a chamber music ensemble.
None of this would matter if the Calder was a run-of-the-mill quartet, but its concerts and recordings of some of the most challenging repertoire—from Beethoven to Bartók—have led critics to rank it with the best string ensembles of its generation. The Calder will give two concerts at the Teatro Angela Peralta, on Friday, August 15, at 7pm, and Saturday, August 16, at 7pm, as part of the San Miguel International Music Festival. The ensemble will be playing works by Beethoven, Schubert and Janáček, along with the more contemporary music of Anton Webern (1883-1945), Thomas Adès (born 1971) and Don Davis (born 1957). The Davis work, Vexed, commissioned by the Calder in 2012, is an immensely challenging piece that would be the undoing of a lesser ensemble. It calls for quartertones and super-high harmonics up in the dog whistle zone— “way off the end of the fingerboard,” Moerschel says. “I had never played anything that high before.”
The Calder, which takes its name from American kinetic sculptor Alexander Calder, has a sound all its own, perhaps the result of the tight-knit way it developed. Back in 1998, Moerschel and second violinist Andrew Bulbrook, boyhood friends, teamed up at the USC Thornton School of Music with first violinist Benjamin Jacobson and cellist Eric Byers, and the four musicians have been playing together ever since. “We were still studying our instruments,” Moerschel recalls. “We were all around the same age, and nobody was raising a family at the time, so there was no pressure to do anything but focus on our shared interest in the quartet.”
The ensemble soon found itself studying in Berlin, in marathon sessions with renowned chamber music professor Eberhard Feltz, who spoke and sometimes shouted at the young players in German, then waited for a translator to convey his instructions in English. The European influence can be seen today in the Calder’s seating arrangements: the violist sits inside the semicircle and the cellist on the end, the reverse configuration of most American string quartets. “It’s had a big effect on our sound,” Moerschel says.
Asked whether the experience of playing outside the comfort zone of most string quartets has also had an effect on the group’s sound—in addition to performing with rock bands, the Calder’s repertoire includes a work composed for string quartet and robot—Moerschel said, “No, not really. But it does keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.”
Fri, Aug 15, 7pm
Sat, Aug 16, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta