Review: Music at Menlo draws elegant links from Mozart to his admiring Russians

Calidore String Quartet
The Mercury News

This year's Music@Menlo festival is all about Russian music, but Friday evening's concert, titled "Elegant Emotion," started with Mozart.

If that seems counterintuitive, the reasons quickly became clear. Tchaikovsky's idol was Mozart, who was also a primary influence on the evening's other composers, Mendelssohn and Glinka.

Making those kinds of links is par for the course at Menlo, the annual South Bay chamber music festival and institute that places high value on context and connections. The festival's founders, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, want their audiences to experience something more than beautiful sounds -- although, with the Calidore String Quartet among the featured performers, there were plenty of beautiful sounds on this splendid program at the Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts.

If Finckel and Wu Han excel at assembling interesting programs, they've also proven adept at attracting top-flight artists to the festival. Dozens of acclaimed chamber musicians are on the schedule this year. But the Calidore String Quartet may prove the hottest of this year's attractions.

The foursome -- violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi -- have been much in the news lately. Founded in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, the quartet won two big awards this year: the $100,000 grand prize at the inaugural M-Prize Chamber Music competition, as well as England's coveted Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship.

In their Bay Area debut on Friday's program, it was easy to see what the fuss is about. In the first half, the Calidore gave a thrilling performance of Mendelssohn's String Quartet in D Major, Op. 44, No. 1. The sleek attacks and precision dynamics of the work's outer movements offered marked contrast to the spun-gold sound of Mendelssohn's inner writing. The quartet, buoyed by the warmth and eloquence of Myers' solo violin contributions, brought out the work's charms in abundance.

They returned in the second half to play Tchaikovsky's First String Quartet. Tchaikovsky made this luminous 1871 score a heart-on-the-sleeve tribute to his idol Mozart, and the Calidores sounded wonderfully spontaneous in its zesty first movement. The melancholy, often-excerpted Andante cantabile, based on an old Russian folk song, famously brought Tolstoy to tears at one of its early performances; here, it sounded irresistible -- exquisitely shaped and filled with emotion. The low strings shone in the third movement, and the foursome blazed through the ebullient finale.
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