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The Calidore String Quartet returned to Duke University for the first time since 2018 to present the first full concert offered by the Chamber Arts Society of Durham since the pandemic began. The program was introduced by series director George Gopen, whose welcoming remarks elicited applause from the substantial audience, estimated at 50% of capacity. The venue was East Campus' lovely Baldwin Auditorium, one of the region's true gems. The venerable series is a component of Duke Performances, our region's most significant presenter of fine-quality cultural events. (This organization in turn traces its origins all the way back to 1931.)
Duke is also light-years ahead of public universities (and state agencies, too) in terms of COVID preparations and precautions, so we felt no discomfort as we made our way back to civilization in the form of a full-length concert. An ad in the program encourages vaccinations (which are required for all Duke students and employees), notes that masks are mandatory, cautions sick folks to stay home, and notes that cleanliness is next to Godliness – sanitizer is widely available. We were therefore surprised that portions of the audience were bunched together to a somewhat (to us) alarming extent, but we were then pleased that many people took this situation firmly in hand and moved to less-populated parts of the hall. (With a seating chart and knowledge of which slots have been sold this could easily be rectified, going forward.)
But all this was preliminary to the main attraction. A generous lineup of Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven constituted the bill of musical fare, and from start to finish this was an extraordinary event. True, the audience and the players, too, were primed to return to live performances. The artists were clearly thrilled to be back, and the crowd seemed ecstatic, too. Did we say generous? One of Haydn's first "mature" quartets (which is to say one from the post-divertimento period of his development of this genre) got things off to a great start. (During the pandemic we'd visited and studied all of Haydn's many quartets, finding in them far more variety and substance than we'd earlier realized – these things are important, innovative pieces that merit more attention than a mere nibble, as if they were simply appetizers before main musical courses.)
The "Sun" Quartet (Op. 20/4, Hob.III:34) was truly radiant, as realized here, with splendid ensemble, keen dynamic contrasts, and incisive, intense playing, even at low volume levels. The performance gave genuine pleasure, and not merely because it was so wonderful to be hearing live music again.
Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 2, in A, Op. 13, occupies a position of primacy in the Calidore's history as it was the first piece these students played together at Coburn in 2010. That may make it a "signature" work of sorts, and they certainly gave it their all on this occasion, delivering magnificent, truly refined, and often elegant playing that was rewarded with sustained applause.
After the intermission came one of Beethoven's most "symphonic" quartets, the late, seven-movement composition in C-sharp minor, Op. 132. This work, numbered 15 in the canon, is among his most profound creations, and this rendition seemed truly inspired – it's no wonder, then, that the ensemble is recording all of these works for Signum, following presentations of the cycle in several North American locations in 2019-20. Based on what we heard in Baldwin, this set is something to be keenly anticipated. And if the program hadn't started late, it would have all been over at precisely 10 p.m.
These younger groups can and often do play rings around the older, better known ensembles, and more than a few of them are positioning themselves to take leading roles on the world's concert platforms. That's certainly true of the Calidorians (named not for the character in Keats' poem but instead an amalgam of "California," where they were formed, and "dorè" [French for "golden"]). And this has been firmly underscored just recently by the announcement that the Emerson String Quartet, which has mentored these youngsters, will disband in 2023. Life goes on. Groups come and go. Music continues. As someone once said, let us rejoice and be glad in it.
There were no individual bios in the program, and the fine printed notes weren't credited, but the major omission was the year of this presentation – 2021 is nowhere given, so save this review to recall the date in years to come!
The Chamber Arts/DP series continues on October 23 with the Belcea Quartet. For details, see our calendar.