The Calder Quartet is a restless bunch. Formed at the University of Southern California, it regularly commissions new works and seeks out new venues for performance and outreach. The repertoire for their November 18concert in Oberlin Conservatory’s small Kulas Recital Hall was surprisingly conservative for a Calder concert, consisting of two Brahms quintets with two Oberlin professors.
No matter the size of the hall or feeling of the music, the Calders play vehemently, pushing the capabilities of the score. Their style of sharp attacks and angular phrases well suited the aggressive first movement of the String Quintet No. 2. Cellist Eric Byers’s opening solo in particular sounded pleasingly caffeinated without tearing out of the time signature. However, the ensemble took the same approach to the slow second movement, which created unsettling disconnects between the phrases and the musicians. This was especially noticeable when the melody was passed back and forth across the stage between first violinist Benjamin Jacobson and violist Jonathan Moerschel. The third movement’s seams were smoother, and the fourth movement was energetic and fun with a delightful helping of bravado on top.
Oberlin viola professor Michael Strauss was a fine addition to the ensemble for that piece. He blended with the Calder musicians so effortlessly that I, having not seen the ensemble up close before, mistook Moerschel for the guest.
The front row of the small hall filled up with Oberlin clarinet students at intermission, all eager to see their teacher, Richard Hawkins, perform the Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. The opening bars were once again too aggressive for the reflective piece. But from the moment Hawkins joined in, a calming color mixed into the sound, as if flowing out of the bell of the brown clarinet. Hawkins’s gentle, melancholy tone and smooth phrasing arcs guided the strings down Brahms’s path, from which they strayed not too often.
Those who say that no instrument can ever be more evocative than the human voice have probably never heard Hawkins play. His interpretation of the second movement was heartbreakingly human in a way words are insufficient to describe. The string players reflected and intensified the clarinet’s expressions, finally seeming to learn that serenity does not necessarily equate to complacence.
There was nothing that wouldn’t have felt like an afterthought after that second movement, but the last two movements were pleasant afterthoughts, with some more fluid dialogues between first violin and clarinet. In keeping with the second movement’s atmosphere, the unexpectedly loud string chord at the finale rested firmly on the ground, unlike the usual Calder style of launching such sudden moves into the air with a bright zing.
The Calders are a prominent presence in the current movement for progressivism and relevance in classical music, and they take pride in their energetic performances. However, constant harsh phrases and growling strings are not passports to relevance. Considering how they responded and connected with Hawkins, perhaps they just needed a little reminder that sometimes it’s okay to be sweetly sad, especially if you’re a German Romantic.