We’re used to thinking of great string quartets — The Emerson, Quartetto Italiano, The Tokyo — as heralding from culturally older and richer places than California. But one bright and exciting group that is now making worldwide impact was born just 80 miles south of here. The Calder Quartet was formed in the late 1990s by four students at USC’s Thornton School of Music; 18 years later Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook (violins), Johathan Moerschel (viola), and Eric Byers (cello) are still going strong. Better, they are flourishing and truly coming into their own. Some things cannot be rushed. When it comes to the delicacy and emotional transparency of quartet playing, nothing beats the slow growth of long-term relationships.
Slow-growth is the secret to mastering works like Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 127, one of the so-called “late quartets” revered as a monument of Western chamber music, and on the program for Campbell Hall Saturday, April 23. “Get into it early, and give it a lot of time to percolate,” said Andrew Bulbrook, who spoke with me by phone last week. The Calder is in the midst of a three-year project of cycling through Beethoven quartets at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. “That’s what’s great about the Beethovens,” Bulbrook continued, “there’s so much depth to them, and also so much collective thought that’s gone into the best way to play them.”
Of course, approaching a well-known work, there is always the challenge of hearing it afresh, and interpreting it originally — that is, authentically. “It’s not something you’ve never heard before in your life,” said Bulbrook. “I think we try to start it by ourselves, and not be too committed to what we’re going to do in the beginning. And we try to give them a lot of time so that they can evolve.” Another point is not to push too hard at any one time. “We don’t work on them non-stop. We’ll work on them and come back.” Bulbrook said there is a real advantage to cycling back and forth between works of the same composer. “It’s neat when you get into a single composer and spend a lot of time. We noticed this with the [Bela] Bartok cycle [of string quartets]. They all cross-reference each other in a certain way.” Although some difficult passages may grow a little rusty during periods of reprieve, often difficulties get easier by just being left alone. “A lot of times problems might solve themselves, that were holding you up before.”
The Calder was last hosted in Santa Barbara by UCSB Arts & Lectures in 2014, the same year the quartet won an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Although in demand for standard repertoire, they are much associated with contemporary music. The quartet itself has commissioned more than 25 new works by composers that include Thomas Adès, Peter Eötvös, and Andrew Norman. British composer Adès was last month appointed artistic partner with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his first string quartet was played at Calder’s 2014 Santa Barbara performance. Saturday’s performance will feature his second quartet, The Four Quarters, which references four periods of the day. “It mixes with classical writing so well,” reflected Bulbrook. “He’s so steeped in that world, but puts it all through his own modern prism. It fits beautifully. And it’s nice on this concert that we’re doing [Benjamin] Britten’s second string quartet as well. Britten had a really important place culturally in the U.K.; I think [Adès] occupies a similar role today. So it’s nice to pair them together, and there’s a certain lightness to the sound.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents the Calder Quartet Saturday, April 23, 7 p.m. at Campbell Hall. For more information, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu