Go Big or Go Home
by Michael Cameron
(reprinted from Ravinia Summer Program
A few decades ago, chamber music aficionados could count scarcely more than a dozen full-time string quartets, and a mere three or four American quartets dominated the recording market and touring circuit. While many symphony orchestras and opera companies have weathered financial setbacks and painful downsizing, the string quartet firmament has expanded, with new ensembles breaking out on a yearly basis.
The increased demand has been a godsend for the music world, but competition among emerging chamber ensembles has intensified. From their earliest days, the Calidore String Quartet recognized the need to hit pay dirt in short order in the international chamber music competitions that have proliferated in recent years. The awards came their way early and often, their concert schedule blossomed, and collaborations with some of the biggest names in the classical firmament have mushroomed.
Chicago area quartet enthusiasts have July 24th marked on their calendars for Calidore’s highly anticipated Ravinia debut with the Emerson Quartet, with music of Beethoven, Strauss, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. I spoke to first violinist Ryan Meehan during the group’s June trip to the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Michigan. For Meehan, the Ravinia appearance will be particularly meaningful because of his deep roots in the Chicago area. He studied violin and received chamber music coaching with Roland and Almita Vamos, both legendary pedagogues whose former students include members of the Pacifica, Ying, and Miró Quartets.
“I grew up in Winnetka and attended the Music Institute, where the Pacifica Quartet used to give master classes. All four of them would stand behind us and channel so much energy. Their infectious intensity and passion made a big impression and gave every group a real jump start. When I was a junior in high school, Mrs. Vamos assigned me to a quartet that performed in all the competitions. Her son (Brandon) and daughter-in-law (Simin Ganatra) were members of the Pacifica Quartet, and they became important mentors to us.”
While the Ravinia performance will be their most prestigious area appearance to date, they performed at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music earlier this year. “The night before the concert we went over to the Vamos’ house and had a coaching, so I guess we’re still being mentored by them!”
The four musicians worked through the usual standard solo repertoire in their academic training, but over time they realized that quartet music held a special allure for them.
“(Violinist) Jeffrey Myers and I both attended the Aspen Music Festival for many summers. Every year the Takács Quartet would visit, and one particular year he heard them play an electrifying performance of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, a version of which I later heard on a recording. He decided then and there to strongly consider the string quartet as a career.”
Given the initial interaction between the two violinists, they could scarcely have imagined that fate would bring them together as artistic brethren. The two competed in a number of quartet competitions as opponents, and for a while didn’t speak to one other.
Eventually they met in friendlier circumstances at Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Myers, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi were in the first iteration of Calidore that won the Grand Prize and Gold Medal in the 2011 Fischoff Competition. Meehan joined a few months later, and the foursome won seven more competitions in the next few years. “That first competition was the impetus for making the quartet the primary focus of our studies. It’s always been the mantra of our group to “Go Big, or Go Home”.
The quartet’s name is an amalgamation of “California” and “doré” (French for “golden”, as in “golden state”), an homage to their Los Angeles roots, the diversity of it’s culture, and the strong support it has received from from the area since it’s earliest days.
“The fact that there are so many quartets doing so well means that there is a lot of demand for chamber music”, continued Meehan. He believes that some of the fuel for this demand is economic, since orchestra concerts and operas are so costly to produce. If interest has surged recently, chamber music has long had a devote following, in cities big and small. “It’s always such a pleasure to talk with these people about their favorites pieces and recordings. It’s amazing how committed they are, more so than in any other genre. They’re quite sophisticated in their likes and dislikes.”
Another important catalyst in the proliferation of American string quartets in recent years is rising support from academia. Quartets-in-residence at conservatories and university schools of music were rare a half century ago, but now they provide a principal mode of employment for over a dozen quartets, lending financial stability for ensembles that perform most of their concerts on the road. As with so many other milestones in the rise of Calidore, the Emerson Quartet played a pivotal role connecting the young players with teaching opportunities.
“Our first contact with the Emerson Quartet was through David Finckel at the Aspen Festival”, according to Meehan. “Later, when we were still in LA, he encouraged us to play for him again. Soon after graduation from Colburn, we received a call from Stonybrook (Long Island) asking if we would assume a residency there. This kind of position is the dream of every young quartet, and it was largely on his recommendation that we were given the job. We worshipped the Emersons since we were young, both individually and collectively. It still seems surreal to have them now as mentors as friends.” At this point the quartet decided to re-locate to New York, a move that was soon rewarded with a three-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two program.
The accolades from competitions did more than simply beef up their resumes. The top prize in the 2012 ARD Munich International String Quartet Competition was not only an important career boost, but it gave them a chance to interact with rising European ensembles and led to coaching sessions with the Alban Berg Quartet.
“We really wanted a full spectrum of advice. We really hoped to bridge the divide between European and American styles of playing. I think it’s very important to have that kind of global perspective.”
Pressed on differences in music-making on either side of the Atlantic, he spoke of the generalizations about American musicians made by their European counterparts. “The perception is that Americans play with perfect intonation and big sound, but not with enough sensitivity in string color, and perhaps with not enough stylistic differentiation between works of different periods.”
The quartet considers it’s exposure to a variety of sources paramount to the development of it’s characteristic sound. “The Berg Quartet descended directly from the Viennese tradition, where a majority of the standard quartet repertoire emerged. They can literally trace their lineage back to Beethoven, which means that indirectly you’re getting instructions from Beethoven when you’re working on his quartets with them.”
The quartet’s repertoire is remarkably expansive considering their age, but they chose the well-trod music of Mendelssohn and Haydn for their first disc. “Mendelssohn’s Opus 13 quartet was the first piece that we ever sat down and played together and it carried us through many important moments in our career, including every competition we ever did, as well as our our Wigmore Hall debut. We were later attracted by the idea of doing the complete cycle. Like the Beethoven cycle, it spans his entire life, from the age of 18 to just a few months before he died. We’ve done all of his quartets twice now. It’s a lot of music, with a lot of notes, and it’s really helped our endurance!”
For their second disc, the players shifted gears and assembled a program around the theme of World War I, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of a war that had profound implications for many composers of the era. “Serenade: Music from the Great War”, was an offshoot of a performance of music by Hindemith and the little known Jacques de la Presle they presented at Verdun in northeastern France, the sight of one of the deadliest battles in history.
The group is not waiting until it masters the entire quartet canon before connecting with living composers. They have forged an especially strong bond with Caroline Shaw, who in 2013 became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize. Cellist Estelle Choi knew Shaw well from their time together at Yale when they were assigned to the same quartet. Choi thought of her at that time only as a violinist, and was surprised to hear that Shaw would be moving on to Princeton to pursue a PhD in composition. Close collaboration soon followed, with multiple performances of Shaw’s “Enr’acte" and the world premier this past November of her “First Essay”.
As for their joint concert at Ravinia with the Emerson Quartet, Meehan could barely contain his excitement. “The idea for the performance came from the Emersons, and it should be exciting to hear two quartets at such different stages of their career. The level of energy will be overwhelming. What you feel on stage is even much more intense than what you’ll sense in the audience.”
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Vadim Repin, violin
by Michael Cameron
Conductor Susanna Mälkki’s many appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in recent years have received considerable kudos from critics and audiences alike, although the skimpy attendance for the first of her two appearances Thursday at Ravinia suggests that some of the CSO faithful are still keeping their distance.
In a neat bit of programming symmetry and a nod to her Finnish roots, the orchestra has programmed music of Sibelius and Beethoven, with one concerto and one symphony by each on successive nights. Vadim Radim was the violin soloist in the Sibelius concerto, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) filled out the program. The orchestra under Mälkki’s firm hand was in top form, even with many principals taking the night off.
Mälkki and Repin were a good musical match, their relatively literalist viewpoints making for a nearly seamless partnership. Both are known for stripping decades of accumulated performance traditions from standard repertoire and looking at scores with fresh eyes. Repin has a deservedly loyal fan base among violin connoisseurs, and has many memorable Chicago area appearances under his belt. Sadly, this performance found him considerably off his game.
Given Mälkki’s precise gestures and keen ear for textural details, it’s safe to assume the hushed orchestral tuttis at the opening and elsewhere in the first movement were lovingly rendered. Assume we must, since Ravinia’s full throated cricket chorus utterly subsumed the orchestra’s quiet passages early in the concerto. Repin attempted an understated opening, a sensible strategy given the fights of soaring lyricism and highflying pyrotechnics that saturate much of the concerto. But his thin sound, shaky intonation, and patchy vibrato in these introductory bars foreshadowed problems to come, most notably in Sibelius’ many extended passages on the bottom G string of the violin.
Mälkki’s supportive accompanying gave the violinist room to explore every conceivable dynamic, but her vibrant tuttis were often more compelling than Repin’s solo flights. He seems to view the 1905 work as a lean 20th century masterpiece rather than a lush, 19th century romantic throwback. It’s a legitimate view, but one that failed to convince.
Repin was able to better connect with the score in some critical sections, in particular the extended first movement cadenza. He rightly presented it as vehicle for continued musical development rather than a platform for shallow showmanship. Intelligent details abounded, included some deftly voiced double stops and shrewdly molded dynamic gradations. But the fiendishly difficult final tutti was muddled, owing perhaps to a slight disagreement in tempo between soloist and conductor.
The middle movement fared somewhat better, with the soloist spinning soulful lyricism with graduated levels of intensity as a set-up for Sibelius’ ecstatic final climax. But one longed for the occasional indulgence or sense of spontaneity (genuine or otherwise) that characterize the most memorable readings.
By the finale, Repin seemed to have found his footing, and from time to time even allowed himself to inject personal touches that lent whimsy to a movement musicologist Donald Tovey described as a “polonaise for polar bears”. Mälkki seemed comfortably in her element with the music of her compatriot, and no doubt her reading of his second symphony tonight will confirm her bona fides.
It is unreasonable and perhaps unwise to expect anything novel in a reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but Mälkki’s take on the warhorse was consistently fresh and occasionally illuminating. Her tempos were on the fleet side of standard, but never ostentatiously so. The first movement was the most conventional of the four, with only the slightest deviations of the primary tempo allowed for structural clarity. The second movement funeral march inspired more flexibility from her baton, as each new variation was announced with pullbacks that were smartly assorted based on relative harmonic tension and shifts in orchestration.
The scherzo was allowed to take flight of its own accord, and the CSO’s horn trio responded with rustic, full throated abandon. Most impressive was her account of the finale, a reading brimming with characterful contrast. Again tempos were on the quick side, but Beethoven’s startling mood swings were a given a full, expansive platform. The wind principals were splendid throughout, most notably Keith Buncke (bassoon), John Bruce Yeh (clarinet), and Michael Henoch (oboe).
The CSO and Mälkki will perform more music of Sibelius and Beethoven Friday with pianist Kirill Gerstein.