February 26, 2020

Princeton University Concerts Presents Tribute to Beethoven in String Quartet Performance

By Nancy Plum

Like many performing arts organizations this year, Princeton University Concerts has joined the worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Last week, Princeton University Concerts presented the New York-based Calidore String Quartet in a concert linking Beethoven with the 21st century with a performance of a newly-commissioned piece and one of Beethoven’s most monumental chamber works.

Celebrating its 10th season, the Calidore Quartet has received significant international acclaim, especially after winning the inaugural M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition in 2016. Violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi brought their technical virtuosity to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night to pay tribute to Beethoven, contemporary interpretation of his music, and the Baroque form of the fugue. Featured in this program was the world premiere of a string quartet commissioned by Princeton University Concerts through Music Accord — a partnership among U.S. presenters dedicated to not only commissioning new works, but also ensuring the very necessary repeat performances of these pieces.

Franz Joseph Haydn is considered the father of the string quartet genre, and his works well captured 18th-century Viennese charm and conversational interplay among instruments. Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Opus 20, No. 2 was a study in contrasts on Thursday night, showing that “Papa” Haydn had more surprises up his sleeve than his well-known Symphony No. 94. Beginning with Choi’s sweet cello melody, this quartet was presented by the Calidore musicians with a light sound, effective dynamic contrasts and well-tuned thirds between the two violins. Choi took the lead with a serene melody in the second movement, and the Calidore Quartet achieved a graceful Classical feel in the movement’s adagio section. This piece was unusual in its quirkiness, and the Calidore players maintained solid performance through the complicated fourth movement — a complex fugue on four thematic subjects.

Princeton University Concerts has commissioned a number of works through Music Accord, and Thursday night’s world premiere of Anna Clyne’s Breathing Statues had a musical connection to Beethoven’s epic Opus 130/133, which closed the Calidore concert. English composer Anna Clyne composes in both acoustic and electro-acoustic music, and has won numerous awards, including a Grammy nomination. Breathing Statues pays homage to the numerous statues of Beethoven worldwide, and, as Clyne writes, draws inspiration from several Beethoven quartets, including Opus 133.

Clyne borrowed material from Opus 133, incorporating themes and lines into a work which grew in complexity as it went along. Breathing Statues began with a bowed upbeat, as the players “breathed” into the opening homophonic phrase. First violinist Myers played melodic material with urgency, over pulsating viola and cello accompaniment. The Calidore Quartet achieved uniform dynamics swells, with second violinist Meehan and violist Berry providing rich melodies. Fast-moving phrases sounded almost gypsy in character, and the piece ended in a moment of calm and serene hope.

Beethoven’s Opus 130 — String Quartet in Bb Major — departed from the traditional Classical form in its structure of six movements, and especially in the final Grosse Fuge. Beethoven’s original closing movement to Opus 130, later published separately as Opus 133, is musically and emotionally jarring even to 21st-century ears. Its chromaticism is in stark contrast to the preceding “cavatina,” and the music within the Grosse Fuge swings to extremes. Following the premiere of Opus 130, the Grosse Fuge was considered so immense and foreboding that Beethoven replaced this closing movement with one lighter in nature. The Calidore Quartet chose to perform Opus 130 in its original form — with the Grosse Fuge finale — creating a work which lasted almost an hour.

Besides the Baroque fugue form, Opus 130 contained other musical devices from the 18th century. The Calidore players emphasized the cascading 16th notes of the first movement, as well as a quick question-and-answer dialogue of the second movement. The fourth movement “alla danza tedesca” was marked by a graceful Viennese lilt, and the “cavatina” was elegantly led by the two violinists, as sound traveled back and forth between the instruments. The Calidore musicians played the opening subject of the Grosse Fuge in a detached manner, but well maintained the driving dotted rhythms throughout the movement. A sweet airy section contrasted with Beethoven’s jarring harmonies and abrupt changes in style, and one could hear elements of the Classical period within the revolutionary format. The Calidore Quartet paid further tribute to Beethoven with the concert encore, playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 with such well-unified sounds the four string instruments sounded like a pipe organ.

For this 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the Calidore String Quartet is presenting cycles of the composer’s string quartets worldwide. The Clyne work premiered on Thursday night will receive at least five more performances in this country alone, as the Calidore Quartet makes its mark in both solid performance of the masters and as innovators in contemporary music.