I had the unnerving feeling, at the Calder Quartet’s concert for San Francisco Performances on Oct. 10, that I’d come back from intermission through the wrong door. The playing still dazzled — the Calder Quartet always does, whether in a cavernous tent at the Mendocino Music Festival or in a more intimate setting, as on Tuesday at Herbst Theatre. But the best music was behind us.
Timo Andres’s First Piano Quintet is a magnificent work, but his new quintet, The Great Span, written for the Calder and premiering this season, with Andres on piano, sounds like a composition that has been struggled with mightily.
Moments are grabbing: thrumming pizzicato, opaque drones, spangling major-minor chords. Andres, born in 1985 in Palo Alto, is a fine orchestrator; under his pen five voices can sound like many more. Faltering in both concept and pacing, though, this quintet is a mere hodgepodge. Listening to it is like shopping: plenty of options, but when nothing in particular stands out, you go home emptyhanded. And neither would you likely buy Ann Southam’s Remembering Schubert, a piano piece heavy like a soup spoon in sorbet, also on the second half.
On the first half, though, was Andres’s joyful, inventive string quartet Machine, Learning. He described the 2019 work, also a Calder commission, as music that, chewing over a series of intervals, generates itself. But don’t get the wrong impression. This is warm, approachable music. You get the sense that Andres loves the classical tradition.
Novel sonic effects add dimension to the post-minimalist textures of the first movement, “Light Weight.” But it’s the next movement, “Hammerspace,” where Andres really gets creative. The movement’s title refers to the dimension in a cartoon gag from which characters seem to pull objects out of thin air. You can practically see the gutters between the comic-book panels as the two duets jig, the inner voices’ drones setting off the singsong trochee of the outer voices. Then, the music swells, venturing, with a theatrical spirit reminiscent of Thomas Adès, to Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” The final cadence is wacky and exquisite. The third movement, “Earthly Bodies,” is a sweet chorale — a passacaglia? A sarabande? Uncategorizable from just one listen, but it’s familiar, comforting yet not cloying. It’s obvious that the final resolution will repeat, wonderful when it does.
Under violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Tereza Stanislav, violist Jonathan Moerschel, and cellist Eric Byers, every line of Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet was spotless and unwavering, as if revealed by the peeling back of painter’s tape. That’s not to say that the Calder’s performance was ascetic. Choice indulgences, such as Jacobson’s breathless style of bowing in the first movement’s usually sober theme, played up the work’s romantic characteristics. The Andante, often interpreted as a kind of pale, convalescent pavane, was here a full-bodied song.
Occasionally, we could have used more time to appreciate Schubert’s genius. I nearly missed the capricious elaboration that creates an odd-length phrase in the first movement’s recapitulation, and the ground could have dropped just a bit more when, in the morbid minuet, the harmony plunges into a haunting parallel dimension. On the other hand, it’s not unwise for an inherently repetitive movement to move along. The finale sparkled. I listened as if standing at the plinth of a great monument, hoping not to scuff the floor with my presence.