The snow has not deterred the inimitable Calidore String Quartet on Sunday afternoon for its first concert at the Phillips Collection since 2014. Californian violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry and cellist Estelle Choi – have received Last year's Avery Fisher Career Grant, the latest in a long list of awards and accolades. Their sound is warm and vibrant, and their hand-in-glove ensemble leaves plenty of room for individuality. More important, every note is full of character.
The opening was the late Haydn's String Quartet in F, op. 77, n. 2, in a performance that captured all his joy and drama on a background of glittering textures. They ended up with the third string quartet by Robert Schumann, making such a passionate commitment to the piece that described an inspirational bow from the beginning to the end. The second movement was fluctuating and stealthy, with a subtle give-and-take on time, and the voluptuous slow motion was painfully tender. The loving consideration of Schumann's expressive gestures produced a compelling and emotionally cohesive performance.
The main event, however, was "Three Essays" by Caroline Shaw, written for the Calidore and commissioned by a consortium that included the Phillips. Shaw is the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer, which he did in 2013 at the age of 30. She is a busy quartet (on the violin) herself, and I would not hesitate to name her as the most idiotic composer for the medium from Bartok.
Shaw's "Essays" are individually titled – "Nimrod", "Echo" and "Ruby" – but all are meditations on communication: written and spoken language, social media and political discourse, even computer programming language. The Calidore has given life to every playful and profound moment of "Essays". I've never tried a new piece of music (this was only his third public performance since the Calidore first performed for the first time in London last summer) who held a room full of people at margins of their seats, kidnapped everywhere. But this did.