Two quartets take on a powerhouse residency program at Stony Brook University
He points out an even “stronger, more mystical connection” between the then-18-year-old Mendelssohn’s music and the four young Calidores: “The title of the first movement’s opening chorale is ‘Ist es wahr?,’ which means in English, ‘Is it true?’
“And our answer was that it must have been meant to be. While playing through Opus 13 that first time, we realized that the Calidore String Quartet was true! We had found the right partners for our musical life together and none of us will ever forget that moment.
“In that moment, the four of us created a new, fifth entity.”
In February, the Calidore String Quartet, Colburn School alumni and current artists-in-residence at Stony Brook University, released their debut commercial album, which features a rendition of their now-signature piece, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13, and Haydn’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 76, No. 3, “Emperor.” The recordings were made at Colburn’s state of the art Zipper Hall.
Since forming in 2010, the Calidore Quartet—Meehan and Jeffrey Myers, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; and Estelle Choi, cello—has won numerous prizes and debuted on the prestigious Verbier and Ravinia festivals, Mannes College’s Schneider Concert Series in New York, and American Public Media’s national radio program “Performance Today.” In the fall of 2014, the ensemble began a two-year residency under the tutelage of the Emerson Quartet at Stony Brook University, 55 miles by Long Island Rail from New York City, where the Calidores live.
Appropriately, the future is shining brightly: The ensemble’s name is a portmanteau of “California” and “doré”, (French for “golden”) and refers to the diversity of culture in, Los Angeles, and the strong support it received from the “Golden State.”
Capitalizing on what violist Berry calls the “amazing performing activities and opportunities” at Colburn, the Calidore were selected for the first class of the Colburn Artists, a program that provides professional management services to students chosen through competition and deemed to be on the cusp of professional performing careers.
“When we were selected as a Colburn Artist,” Meehan says, “Laura Liepins, director of artistic administration and career development at the Colburn School, took us under her wing, and introduced us to Opus 3 Artists [a high-powered management company].”
As a result, this winter and spring, the Calidore Quartet will be performing on major chamber-music series in La Jolla, Malibu, Lincoln Center, Columbus, Oakmont, Three Rivers, at the Flagler Museum and Wigmore Hall, and on the Friends of Chamber Music series in Troy, New York.
In some ways, the path to the concert stage has been a straight one. For cellist Estelle Choi, whose three siblings were already playing instruments, “basically from the day I was born, I was a musician. One of my sisters even brought me to concerts, and sat me on the ground beside her; I would then pass out during the concert and wake up at the end—without crying.”
A few years later, towards the end of middle school, Choi wasn’t so sure. “At the beginning of high school, I was thinking biology. Then, one summer, I decided just to play music for fun, it all came together for me and I realized that music was what I wanted to do. When I met Aldo Parisot several years ago at Banff, and he offered to teach me at Yale, I knew this was what I could do,” she says.
Choi made a surprising admission for a member of one of the world’s most illustrious young quartets: “When I started with Mr. Parisot,” she adds, “I had played in piano trios when I was a kid, but my string-quartet knowledge started at Yale!”
First violin Myers, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, was already playing at five. “Everyone in my family played music, and my dad took me to orchestra concerts all the time—I never thought about doing anything else, he says. “When I heard [violinist] Leila Josefowicz, who was then studying with Robert Lipsett in Los Angeles, play the Sibelius Concerto with the Columbus Symphony, I thought that was pretty awesome.”
Both of second violin Meehan’s parents are lawyers, and he claims that no one in his family is musical. “I was lucky to get started at all,” he explains. “Although my school had a violin program in kindergarten, there were only enough instruments for half the kids who wanted to take the course. Luckily, when they held a lottery my name was one of those drawn.”
At first Meehan dutifully did his 30 minutes of practice a day, on piano, too, and never thought much of it. But when he was 12, “I got my really first great teacher, the concertmaster of the Fort Myers orchestra at the time,” he recalls. “It was my first encounter with a great violinist up close, it changed my perspective on what I could accomplish, gave me a goal to aim for, and fueled my desire to practice and try to get better.”
A year later Meehan had decided to make a go of it as a musician, but his teacher had moved away, and he had to look for a new one. Through recommendations he came in contact with Almita and Roland Vamos at Northwestern University, who were famous “for teaching kids under the age of 18. They took a really huge chance on me,” Meehan says, “and I am indebted to them for giving me all the tools I needed to succeed, and believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
The routine was rigorous. At one point, he was going through a new concerto every lesson, as Almita threw things at him “to get my fingers going. After the first six months, we started to slow down and focus—we spent at least half of each lesson on the opening few measures.
“I learned that the opening has to be really, really great because it sets the tone for the audience and for yourself; it’s about getting into the mood of the piece and capturing the essence of what the composer has to say.
“Unfortunately,” he cautions, “even when a performance warms up slowly and eventually becomes great and powerful, by then you’ve lost half the audience.”
For two of the Calidores, the Takacs Quartet played a symbolically central role. For Myers, who got to see the Takacs Quartet annually, it was something he “will never forget. Once they played Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, which I had just fallen in love with. I went out and bought and studied the music, and I bought a regular ticket, even though I was entitled to a free student ticket onstage, because I wanted the full concert experience in the best seat I could afford.”
During the Schubert, Myers told me, “the musical energy took my breath away—I felt exhausted like small schoolgirls at rock concerts after they stop screaming.”
By chance, Meehan also heard the Takacs play “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. “I bought the Takacs’ CD of the Schubert,” he says, “and I also started screaming. I thought they would come out of the loudspeakers and grab me by the throat.”
Violist Berry was eight when he realized that, in order to learn an instrument, he would have to “work, wake up and play scales.” He made slow progress until he heard Yo-Yo Ma when he was 15. “Seeing him work and turn to the audience,” turned on his passion. Berry was further inspired by one of his high-school teachers to “get into playing chamber music at the end of high school; she lit the chamber-music program on fire.” Berry joined the Calidores when violist Paul Coletti “thought I’d be a good match.”
Guillaume Sutre, former first violinist of the Ysaye Quartet and professor of violin and director of string chamber music at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, mentored the Calidore Quartet when he was invited to the Colburn School, downtown, across the street from Walt Disney Concert Hall, to coach them on Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76, No. 3, the “Emperor,” and Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, Op. 13.
“I had been coaching string quartets for more than 20 years, and never thought I would feel so strongly about the future of a young group, but the Calidores have rare and special qualities that enable them to learn and move forward so quickly,” he says. “They constantly surprise me with their subtle mix of hesitation and surge, of doubt and confidence. Of course, they are solid and flexible, inspired and profound, but they are also unpredictable when they need to be!”
Sutre, who described the Calidores as “four branches attached to a magnificent, growing tree in the very tiny, but so prestigious, garden of the world’s great string quartets,” was impressed by their high level of technique, individually and as a quartet, and by their “perfect ensemble and unvaryingly precise intonation.
Despite, or perhaps because of their large range of string quartet–specific knowledge,” Sutre says, “they are curious and open to new things.” Sutre reserves his highest praise for how they worked together at rehearsals: “I always enjoyed their reactions and interactions,” he says.
“They were always positive and constructive, even during the most challenging moments—like working on very difficult pieces or recording their first CD. In every situation, they make music the way they are themselves: inspired, intelligent, generous, and sincere.”
Talking to the Calidores leaves you with the impression that their approach to making music is about collaboration, preparation, and lots of work. Collaborating with other musicians, Meehan says, “is important for expanding our musical horizons. In Montréal, for example, we gained so many ideas about the Brahms Sextet, and about Brahms’ music in general, from Benoit and Marcus. Having the opportunity to collaborate with them was like a dream come true.”
Preparing to play the Brahms Sextetmeant working on the piece beginning a month in advance by playing it through with colleagues at Colburn.
“We then spent several weeks refining our interpretation of the four parts, we discussed character and sound color, and we sorted out ensemble and intonation issues. We had about five hours of rehearsal the day before the concert to iron out our ideas in demonstrations and play-throughs of complete movements, and to put together the whole program,” which included the string sextet from Richard Strauss’ Capriccio and pieces for mezzo-soprano and strings by Zemlinsky and Respighi. For the Calidores, recording the Mendelssohn was clearly an act of love—after all, it had brought them together and connected them.
“With Mendelssohn,” violist Berry explains, “you don’t hear compositional technique, or even instrumental technique—you hear how he was feeling at a raw level.”
Meehan concurrs, describing the Calidores relationship with Mendelssohn as being with music “in which you don’t have to restrain yourself. It’s ok that everything you feel in the music comes across. This quartet,” Meehan says, “is an epitome of love, including its most intense and feverish outpourings.”
The Calidores arrived at Stony Brook almost by chance, or perhaps serendipity. While working with Gilbert Kalish at the 2014 Banff String Quartet competition, the pianist mentioned Stony Brook’s new program that connects young quartets on the cusp of a career with the Emerson Quartet (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins) and their more than 30 years of playing, recording, and otherwise communicating the string-quartet repertoire.
After two months at Stony Brook, Meehan reports that “the Emersons always encourage our own voice to shine through; they help us refine our interpretation—not reinvent it.”
One of the Calidores’ first lessons was without their instruments, Meehan says: “They taught us about the thought process behind choosing the programs they play each season.
“They encouraged us to develop programs where each of the pieces is connected by an idea or theme.”
Based on the Emersons’ guidance, the Calidores conceived of a program of French quartets “through time, including works by Hyacinthe Jadin (1776–1800), Claude Debussy, and Henri Dutilleux.
In this program, the audience not only experiences a string-quartet concert, but also leaves with a deeper understanding of how French composers wrote for the string quartet, exploring how it evolved and what commonalities remained over the course of centuries.” As they go out into the world, the Calidores seem to be becoming true wherever they go. Meehan says that “the entire Stony Brook University community welcomed us with open arms from our start in September.
“We’ve had the privilege to meet and befriend many of the artist faculty, and made our debut at the university performing Schumann’s Piano Quintet with piano faculty member Christina Dahl.”
The Calidores already are something of a legend there.
On the faculty page of the Stony Brook University website, the Calidore Quartet is headlined as the “Fantastic Four, talented and fun-loving.” Meehan’s enthusiasm for what is going on at Stony Brook mirrors what is happening with the chamber music in schools nationwide: “The head of the music department, Perry Goldstein, has spent countless hours in making our residency become a reality,” he says.
“His fantastic and progressive vision for the music department is putting Stony Brook University on the map as a powerhouse music school, and the Calidore String Quartet is proud to be a part of it!”
What the Calidores Play:
First violinist Jeffrey Myers plays a Stefano Scarampella violin (circa 1900). His bow was made by 19th-century French bowmaker Joseph Alfred Lamy. And he uses Thomastik Dominant strings. His Scarampella, he says, “has a very brilliant yet rich tone.”
Cellist Estelle Choi plays a Charles Jacquot cello (circa 1860, on loan to her from her former teacher Ronald Leonard). Her bow is made by the late 20th-century maker Giovanni Lucchi (on loan from the Maestro Foundation). She uses Thomastik Spirocore strings. The sound of her Jacquot cello, she says, “has a dark chocolate hue.”
Second violinist Ryan Meehan plays a Eugenio Degani violin (1894). His bow is also a Lamy. And he uses Thomastik Peter Infeld strings. His Degani, he says, “has a very dark and warm tone color.”
Violist Jeremy Berry plays a Peter Greiner viola (2005). His bow is by contemporary maker C. Chagas. And he uses Thomastik Vision Solo strings. His Greiner, Berry says, “has a clear and sonorous tone.”