They’re the cool kids of the chamber music scene. In fact, the last time I saw the Calder Quartet in concert they were performing with the indie band The Airborne Toxic Event at Walt Disney Concert Hall. That show opened with the Calders playing the second movement of the Ravel String Quartet to hundreds of screaming (literally!) fans.
And it’s not a gimmick. By all accounts, the four members of the Los Angeles-based Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; and Eric Byers, cello) love to rock. But they also play serious concert music with the best of them.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Calder Quartet’s most recent release, Transfiguration, featuring the complete string chamber music of that great former rock drummer, Christopher Rouse, whose motto is, “fast is good, loud is better.”
The two String Quartets by Rouse, written in the 1980s are painfully difficult to play and the Calders spent five years studying and performing them before making this world premiere recording.
Rouse himself describes these works as “ornery,” calling the String Quartet No. 1 “seventeen minutes of rage.” Indeed, it’s an angular, Bartókian score punctuated with harsh jabs from all involved. But sometimes Rouse’s “rage” is more ironic, his scowl becoming more of a smirk in the second movement, where the mash-up of glissandi and a churning rhythmic groove had me bouncing along with the music. Throughout, the Calders manage to dial up just the right amount of seething without making you feel like they’re ticked off at you.
The String Quartet No. 2 isn’t quite so angry. In three movements (slow-fast-slow), it’s the final movement that gives this album its name. About midway through, the music builds to a dramatic, highly dissonant climax, which in an instant, melds into a stunningly beautiful major-key coda. “Transfigurato,” Rouse says, in the score. And without exaggeration, this is one of the most sublime moments in all of classical music. Goosebumps for all.
The skillful, affecting performances of the Calder Quartet here are a reminder that Los Angeles is home to one of the great string quartets of the current generation. Small wonder that after a more than 20-year hiatus, Christopher Rouse has returned to the genre. His String Quartet No. 3, written for the Calder Quartet, will be premiered later this year.