By Inge Kjemtrup
Resilience is a hot topic. We speak with admiration of the resilience of individuals who emerge with strength and dignity from traumatic experiences. We urge parents to instill resilience in their children so they can develop the inner resources to cope with life’s difficulties. One cannot predict the vagaries of life, the thinking goes, and so it seems wise to develop a tough yet flexible approach. Resilience is the secret weapon that will help you survive.
Resilience is also the title of a new CD from the Calidore String Quartet, a young ensemble that is not only resilient but seemingly all-conquering. Since they began in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, the Calidores have been winning prizes and the admiration of critics and audiences alike. Taking home the $100,000 grand prize at the inaugural M-Prize International Chamber Music Competition in 2016 brought them worldwide attention.
I meet the musicians—violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi—in a stylish London restaurant one hot July afternoon. They have just come from two concerts at the Cheltenham Festival and are preparing for a BBC Proms concert at Cadogan Hall.
My first question is about the quartet’s name. They explain that it’s pronounced “Cal-li-door” and the name is a portmanteau of “Cali” from “California” and “doré,” which means “golden” in French. But fans beware: The origin story they tell may vary from one day to the next—deliberately so, as first violinist Myers tells me: “It was originally from a Keats poem about Sir Calidore—he’s a chivalrous knight. We had the name for a while and one of our mentors, Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri Quartet, told us to make up a different story every time anybody asked us where the name came from.” Second violinist Meehan volunteers, “Someone after a concert once told us that in Greek it means ‘beautiful gift.’” Violist Berry adds agreeably, “And that works, too.”
The four players first joined forces as students at the Colburn School. Though they agree that their time in Los Angeles was the making of them, none are native Angelenos: Choi hails from Calgary, while Myers comes from Columbus, Ohio, Meehan from Florida, and Berry from Bellingham, Washington. Choi and Myers had played together in another quartet, and pulled in Berry and Meehan, the latter a friend of Myers since high school.
The quartet’s resilience and determination seem to have developed early on. As Meehan tells it, “A few months after we formed, we took this oath to each other that this was going to be our number one priority. Any solo engagements, anything else we had was going to be secondary, because you need that kind of commitment from all four people to be successful.”
At Colburn, their mentors included Quatuor Ebène, the French quartet that rocketed to the top of the chamber-music world with its exuberant yet exacting playing. Meehan recalls, “They taught us a lot of the fundamentals of quartet playing,” plus “a lot about intonation,” which explains the Calidore’s noticeably in-tune sound. The two quartets performed the Mendelssohn Octet together one summer at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland.
It was at Verbier where the Calidores worked with legendary chamber-music coach Gábor Takács-Nagy. “He was so much about trying to find spontaneity in the music, bringing the music to life, never repeating things the same way twice,” says Meehan. “These are concepts that we still hold really closely to our hearts because that’s the magic of his music making.”
They also hew to Takács-Nagy’s thoughts about the life of a string quartet. Choi says, “I remember one of the things he told us: Just remember if you are frustrated with someone, in all likelihood that person is equally as frustrated with you. So just keep that in mind when things start to get tense in rehearsals or if there is an argument going on, to look at it from another perspective as well.”
The Calidores have entered many competitions, claiming victory often. Their recent triumphs include the 2018 Avery Fisher Career Grant, the 2017 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, and the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship in the UK. They also became BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, which gave them recording opportunities, concerts, and broadcasts. Yet at the time of the M-Prize, they were, according to Myers, “on hiatus from doing competitions; we had gotten a little burnt out. But when someone announces they’re going to give away $100,000 for a chamber-music competition . . . ”
Though now based in New York City, the quartet says that Los Angeles, where they started, “will always be a part of us,” as Meehan puts it. “Because of the tremendous amount of support that we received from the Colburn School and our supporters in the area, we do feel a kinship with the city.” So why did they leave? Myers jokes, “We got sick and tired of the beautiful weather.”
Resilience, recorded in a quiet studio in a corner of Suffolk, came out of the quartet’s experiences during the presidential election in 2016. Post-election, on a West Coast tour, they sensed the concert atmosphere had changed. “All of a sudden we weren’t feeling any kind of activity or emotional response from the audience when we walked on the stage,” recalls Meehan.
“As we played we found not only did we feel better immersed in the music, but we felt—and this was verbalized after the concert—from the audience, ‘This is what I needed today. It was hard to get out of bed.’ Of course we were in a very liberal setting. But across the board, this election exposed a lot of the philosophical conflicts in our society. It was kind of the pinnacle of the tension, this election.”
Choi explains, “In a time when we’re so hyper aware of what’s happening in the world, there is a certain feeling of powerlessness because we don’t have control over so many of these elements. How do we gain control of who we are, what we do, and our place in society? What are we contributing? That’s when we started thinking about music, and how the music brings the best out of people, thinking about composers themselves facing intense difficulties, whether it’s inner conflict or outside conflict.”
They chose four pieces that show how beautiful art can emerge from conflict and tragedy: Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2, Op. 92, Janacek’s Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata,” Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, and Mendelssohn’s searing Quartet No. 6, Op. 80.
Violist Berry points out the importance of the backstories for these pieces: “Mendelssohn: going through a personal crisis after his sister passed away. Prokofiev: in World War II. If you listen to the Janacek and you haven’t read the Tolstoy novella, you could almost write the novella yourself because the music is so incredibly clear.” In Tenebrae, Golijov combines the memory of taking his son to the NYC planetarium for the first time and seeing the earth as a tiny blue dot in space with his memory of a visit to Israel during a wave of violence in that country.
“I think the Golijov really synthesizes the message of the album,” says Meehan. “Here’s an instance of somebody in a really violent circumstance in the middle of a war that breaks out while he’s in Israel. He finds himself a week later back in New York and seeing the awe of his child. The juxtaposition of the two—that this can be happening while this happens—is kind of the message of this album. That this art can be created amid this turmoil.”
Prokofiev, who evacuated in 1941 from Moscow to Kabardino-Balkar Republic, drew upon local folk sources for his Second Quartet. “It would make sense for him to have written something kind of bleak, given the circumstances,” says Choi, “but instead he turns to the music of the people—folk tunes, folk rhythms—and using his own unique voice weaves something that has this optimism to it, something that can bring hope to the people.” Meehan notes that optimistic exterior belies “undercurrents in passages that really have a barbed sting in them . . . it’s trying to force a smile in a way.”
Janacek’s First Quartet, in which the composer draws parallels to his hopeless love for a young married woman and Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” novella, is the newest addition to their repertoire. “When we first started the piece, it was like trying to decipher a completely new language,” comments Myers. “It took us a while to get our footing, but once you tie in the narrative of the story, it all comes alive.”
The Calidores had coaching on the Janacek from Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet. “Gene pushed us at the beginning to really make the extreme very evident, to not shy away from the ponticello, to make that as evident as possible,” says Meehan. “As string players you always work so hard to make everything sound beautiful and nice but you have to know how to be raw when the composer asks for it.”
Mendelssohn’s final completed quartet closes the CD. His Op. 13 quartet was one of the first pieces they played, so his music is “almost part of our DNA” says Choi. (Last year they performed the full cycle of six quartets.)
“I remember the first time we read Op. 80,” says Meehan. “I think we all had such a clear idea, after so many years of listening to it and planning to learn it, about how we wanted it to go, and we came to a collective consensus very quickly, almost within the first rehearsal, about how we wanted it to be. It was very exciting. We had it all burning in our heads about how we wanted to realize it. Then to finally play it together was cathartic.”
“When we first started the piece, it was like trying to decipher a completely new language. It took us a while to get our footing, but once you tie in the narrative of the story, it all comes alive.”
My interview with the Calidores ends as they have to leave for rehearsal. I see them next onstage at Cadogan Hall playing Schumann’s Piano Quintet, with pianist Javier Perianes, and a triptych of American composer Caroline Shaw’s Essays for string quartet. Choi is a longtime friend of Shaw’s and the group admires and has commissioned her work. “We always try to commission at least a few works a year, with a push to try to get female composers, because they are so underrepresented,” says Choi. Look for the Calidore to be playing music by Anna Clyne and Hannah Lash soon. (Fanny Mendelssohn’s only string quartet is in their repertory as well.)
Self-assured, mutually supportive, creative, grateful for all the guidance they have had: The Calidores would seem to have the resilience they need for a long and fruitful musical career.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.