Calder Quartet Tackles Rouse's Modern Vision

Transfigurations. Christopher Rouse’s String Chamber. The Calder Quartet (E1)


The LA-based Calder Quartet—Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Eric Byers, cello—is dedicated to championing living composers. It has collaborated with Christopher Rouse since 2002, premiering his two quartets on stage and disc. He is writing his third quartet for the group.

The players show admirable courage in tackling these works because Rouse calls his first quartet, composed in 1981 when he was an angry young man of 32, “17 minutes of rage.” Though written in homage to Bartók, the piece emulates only the harsh aspect of his style, with slashing chords, aggressive attacks, and sound effects like glissando and ponticello.

Beginning with a recurring pattern of rapidly repeated open strings, its dense, dissonant rhythmic unisons and short notes require such violent scratching that pitches are barely distinguishable. The instruments never sing a lyrical line, and never sound like a string quartet. Its five connected movements are all fast and loud. A slow epilogue memorializes Anwar el-Sadat, assassinated in 1981, using the assassinated Egyptian leader’s initials as notes.

The players handle this brutal music with untiring energy, authority, and aplomb. The second quartet, written in 1988 after Rouse visited Russia, is dedicated to its people. Mostly slow, bleak, and mournful, the work honors Shostakovich, incorporating his initials, as he often did himself. The performers display their imagination and tone control in its sustained, soft chords, and near-melodious lines, its contrasts of register and dynamics, and its sound effects. Rouse composed the septet “Compline,” scored a la Ravel, in 1996 following a trip to Rome. Th e players revel in the instrumental colors and soaring solos depicting the city’s sunny gaiety, while its bustle is reflected in busy, endlessly repeated figures.

*This article appeared in Strings February 2010
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