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Callisto Quartet

2020-21 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence

Sunday May 2, 2021 @ 3:00pm - May 4

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Sunday May 2, 2021 @ 3:00pm – May 4

Praised for their “intensity and bravado” and the “cohesion and intonation one might expect from an ensemble twice their age” (Third Coast Review), the Callisto Quartet was formed in 2016 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and has since garnered top prizes in the 2018 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and the 2019 Banff International String Quartet Competition, as well as several others.

For their second performance as Caramoor’s 2020–21 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence, the Callisto completes its season-long survey of Bartók’s string quartets with the composer’s second, third, and fifth quartets.

Immediately following the concert, there will be a Q&A with the Callisto Quartet, with an opportunity for the audience at home to ask questions; moderated by Caramoor’s Artistic Director, Kathy Schuman.

Preceding the concert, on April 18, the Quartet hosts the second of two virtual conversations on the Bartók Quartets with special guest Ara Guzelimian, Artistic Director of the Ojai Music Festival and former Dean and Provost of The Juilliard School. Watch Part 1 here.


Paul Aguilar, violin
Rachel Stenzel, violin
Eva Kennedy, viola
Hannah Moses, cello


Bartók / String Quartet No. 2
Bartók / String Quartet No. 3
Bartók / String Quartet No. 5

Program Notes

At a Glance
Bartók’s half-dozen string quartets have achieved the canonic status of modern classics. As such, they have been subjected to microscopic analysis touching on every aspect of his musical language, from the finest points of pitch structure to large-scale formal organization. For the average listener, however, the most immediately striking and accessible feature of the Hungarian composer’s distinctive sound world may well be his prodigious inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere and the captivating sonorities he coaxes from the violin, viola, and cello.
The second installment of the Callisto Quartet’s two-part cycle illustrates Bartók’s varied and unconventional approach to both sound and structure. The three movements of the Second Quartet form a kind of triptych whose center panel is an energetic Allegro characterized by constantly shifting, dancelike meters. In the Third Quartet, Bartók emulated the rhapsodic lyricism of Alban Berg’s recently premiered Lyric Suite. At the same time, what Theodor Adorno called the quartet’s “iron concentration” and “wholly original tectonics” are reflected in its highly compressed single-movement form. The Fifth Quartet, by contrast, is laid out in five movements, three predominantly fast and two slow. The work is notable for its rhythmic verve, richly imaginative tonal effects, and sturdy, archlike construction.

About the Composer

In both his music and his life, Béla Bartók spanned two starkly different worlds: the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire of his youth, with its cornucopia of ethnicities and Old World traditions, and the restlessly dynamic, forward-looking culture of the United States at the dawn of the “American century.” To put it another way, Bartók was born in rural Transylvania (modern-day Romania) in 1881, the same year Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was premiered in Vienna, and died in New York City in 1945, the year Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel opened on Broadway. Throughout those six and a half decades, the Hungarian composer charted a purposeful and highly idiosyncratic course through the tangled thickets of musical modernism. Like Igor Stravinsky, another musical exile who found a haven in the New World, Bartók was a complex, Janus-faced figure: a cosmopolitan nationalist and a trail-blazing innovator whose music was deeply rooted in the soil of tradition.
Bartók’s early works were steeped in the lush, late-Romantic idiom that was the musical lingua franca of fin-de-siècle Europe. Starting in the first decade of the twentieth century, however, his exposure to the harmonic innovations of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, coupled with his pioneering research into the folk music of his native Hungary and other Slavic lands, resulted in a bold new synthesis. Liberated from what he called “the tyrannical rule of the major and minor keys,” Bartók forged a leaner, more muscular musical language. Spiced with modality and bitonal clashes that verged on atonality, and characterized by shifting, irregular rhythmic patterns, this new style would define his music for the rest of his life. In his richly expressionistic masterpieces of the 1930s and 1940s, such as the Violin Concerto and the Concerto for Orchestra, he gave voice to the restless, tormented spirit of W. H. Auden’s “Age of Anxiety.”
Although Bartók’s artistic sensibility was forged in the crucible of early twentieth-century modernism, many of his early works, in particular, are suffused with the melodies, rhythms, and colors of the Hungarian and Balkan peasant music that he heard and studied as a young man on his travels around the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the turn of the century, he teamed up with his fellow Hungarian Zoltán Kodály to document and preserve their country’s folk traditions. The scholarly anthology of folksongs that they published jointly in 1906 was a landmark in the emerging field of ethnomusicology. The combination of extraverted, peasant-style music and a darker, highly wrought, introspective idiom is a salient feature of Bartók’s string quartets and other works. “The despair in his quartets is no personal maladjustment,” the American composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote shortly after Bartók’s death. “It is a realistic facing of the human condition, the state of man as a moral animal, as this was perceptible to a musician of high moral sensibilities just come out of Hungary. No other musician of our century has faced its horrors quite so frankly.”

String Quartet No. 2, BB 75 (1917)
About the Work

The six string quartets that Bartók composed in the three decades between 1908 and 1939 chart a course from the warm-blooded exuberance of his early period to the bleak pessimism of his later works. His First Quartet, with its poignant autobiographical references and innovative cyclical structure, was so far ahead of its time that it had to wait nearly two years for its first performance. The Second Quartet won acceptance more readily: completed in 1917, it had its premiere in Budapest on March 3, 1918. Both performances were given by the celebrated quartet led by the Hungarian violinist Imre Waldbauer, which championed Bartók’s music long before other ensembles took it up. Published in 1920, the Quartet No. 2 was recorded in 1925 by the Amar Quartet, in which Paul Hindemith played viola. It was the first of Bartók’s quartets to be recorded—and the last for many years thereafter.
A Deeper Listen
A richly imaginative essay in instrumental colors and propulsive rhythms, Bartók’s Second Quartet reflects both his early impressionistic style and his fascination with the folk music of his native Hungary. The structure of the work is an asymmetrical triptych: two somberly lyrical outer panels of disparate dimensions frame an expansive, dancelike Allegro that pulses with raw energy. The opening Moderato has a haunted, otherworldly quality. The plaintive, arching melody that the first violin introduces at the beginning serves as a germinal motive: listen for its characteristic intervals throughout the movement. The middle Allegro is a tour de force of quartet writing, with its kaleidoscopic sonorities and textures and hyperkinetic, everchanging rhythms. The muted Lento picks up where the Moderato left off. The music hovers delicately between dissonance and consonance, much as the quartet as a whole hovers over, but never quite settles into, the tonal centers of A and D.

String Quartet No. 3, BB 93 (1927)
About the Work

Bartók’s fondness for special tonal effects—swooping glissandos and exotic strumming, ghostly muted passages, screeching tremolos played with the bow almost on top of the bridge—is evident throughout the short but substantial Quartet No. 3. The score dates from the summer of 1927, shortly after Bartók, an internationally renowned concert pianist, unveiled his formidably complex Piano Sonata at a contemporary music festival in Baden-Baden. On the same concert the Kolisch Quartet played Alban Berg’s recently composed Lyric Suite, and Bartók seems to have fallen under the spell of the suite’s richly coloristic atmosphere. Indeed, these “special” effects are so deeply embedded in his music as to be intrinsic to its very meaning and expressive power. The same might be said of the gestural quality that gives Bartók’s work so much of its irrepressible kinetic vitality.
A Deeper Listen
It is to these elements of timbre, texture, rhythm, and gesture, as much as to its unconventional formal design, that the Third Quartet owes its concentrated intensity and cohesiveness. The main section of its single, uninterrupted span is divided into two parts, the first knotty and densely contrapuntal, the second a set of variations on a vigorous, folklike theme. These are followed by a “recapitulation” of the first part, so free as to be virtually unrecognizable, and topped off with a Coda that combines elements of both sections. Although the quartet flies by at a helter-skelter pace that makes it all but impossible to take in much of its fine-grained detail on a single hearing, Bartók helpfully provides signposts for the listener in the form of clearly defined segments, transitions, repetitions, and allusions to traditional tonality. With a little effort, and a willing ear, it is not difficult to penetrate the work’s bristling chromatic surface and savor the somber lyricism at its core.

String Quartet No. 5, BB 110 (1934)
About the Work

Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, written in 1934 at the instigation of the venturesome American patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, received its premiere in Washington the following year on a program with two other exceptionally challenging works, Beethoven’s B-flat-Major Quartet, Op. 130, and Berg’s Lyric Suite. Berg’s influence on Bartók has already been noted in connection with the Quartet No. 3. The Hungarian composer’s music also has a great deal in common with Beethoven’s late-period quartets, not least its intricate contrapuntal texture and searing emotional introspection. Yet Bartók, like Berg, had a deep-seated conservative streak, and for all its angularity and dissonance, the Fifth Quartet is neither particularly obscure nor difficult to listen to. The work’s five movements are constructed like an arch, with the central Scherzo bridging a pair of somberly spectral slow movements, which in turn rest on two thematically related outer movements of a predominantly urgent and somewhat frenetic character.
A Deeper Listen
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Quartet No. 5 is its rhythmic vitality. Bartók’s inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere was matched, in the twentieth century, only by a handful of composers such as Stravinsky and the great jazz masters. Indeed, the shifting, irregular metrical patterns of the folk-influenced “Bulgarian-style” Scherzo have an almost jazzy swing. Similarly, the overpowering intensity of the first and last movements arises largely from the insistently propulsive rhythms and the characteristically Bartókian repetition of small metric cells that cascade over one another in a relentless torrent of notes. Bartók’s palette of timbres and textures is almost as inexhaustible as his rhythmic invention. Now and then a snatch of diatonic melody peeks through the music’s densely woven chromatic fabric. Just before the end of the quartet, the inner voices break into what sounds like a simple nursery tune. But this half-remembered song of innocence fades quickly, and the music resumes its helter-skelter course toward its unforeseen goal: a startling unison B-flat.
– Harry Haskell

Learn More About the Artists

Praised for their “intensity and bravado” and the “cohesion and intonation one might expect from an ensemble twice their age” (Third Coast Review), the Callisto Quartet brings together four dedicated and passionate musicians who share a love for chamber music and a true desire for excellence. Since their formation in 2016 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the quartet has quickly garnered top prizes in nearly every major international chamber music competition and has been hailed by audiences across North America and Europe. Grand prize winners of the 2018 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and Second Prize Winners of the 2019 Banff International String Quartet Competition, the Callisto Quartet has also taken home prizes from the Bordeaux (2019), Melbourne (2018), and Wigmore Hall (2018) competitions. Currently serving as the Graduate String Quartet in Residence at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, they also study with Günter Pichler of the Alban Berg Quartet at the prestigious Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain. 

The quartet has participated and performed in many renowned chamber music festivals such as the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Emilia Romagna Festival, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the McGill International String Quartet Academy, the Juilliard String Quartet Seminar, and the Robert Mann String Quartet Seminar. In 2018, at the invitation of Gerhard Schulz, they attended the Prussia Cove International Musicians Seminar where they also worked with Gidon Kremer and Thomas Adès. As part of their prize from the Wigmore Hall Competition, the quartet received an invitation to the Jeunesses Musicales International Chamber Music Campus in Weikersheim, Germany where they worked with Heime Müller, Donald Weilerstein, and the Cuarteto Casals.  

Highlights of their recent performances include debuts in New York City and Chicago on the Schneider Concert Series and at Ravinia Festival, respectively, as well as at the Heidelberg String Quartet Festival. They were also featured in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in July 2019 as Grand Prize winners of the 4th Manhattan International Music Competition Chamber Music Division. Notable collaborations include appearances with cellist David Geringas at the Cleveland Cello Society’s 20th anniversary concert as well as a collaboration with clarinetist Frank Cohen on the ChamberFest Cleveland Series. Over the past two seasons at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival they have collaborated with Paul Watkins, Lawrence Power, Gilles Vonsattel, and John Novacek. 

The Callisto Quartet is committed to continually broadening their musical horizons by drawing inspiration from a plethora of mentors and musical approaches. They also believe strongly in passing along their musical insights to younger students and sharing their music in their communities. To this end they have served as faculty and given masterclasses at numerous schools and festivals including the Bravo International Chamber Music Workshop, University of Central Florida, Midwest Young Artists Conservatory, the Greenville Fine Arts Center, and the CIM Preparatory Division. They frequently perform in schools, retirement homes, and other community centers, and are featured as ensemble in residence at the Carolina Music Museum in Greenville, SC.  

“Callisto Quartet found warmth and severity … both searching and genial, with a tremendous variety of color.”

— The Strad
Livestream Access

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