The snow didn’t deter the inimitable Calidore String Quartet on Sunday afternoon for its first concert at the Phillips Collection since 2014. The Calidore — violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry and cellist Estelle Choi — received last year’s Avery Fisher Career Grant, the latest in a long list of awards and prizes. Their sound is warm and vibrant, and their hand-in-glove ensemble playing leaves plenty of room for individuality. Most important, every note is filled with character.
The opener was Haydn’s late String Quartet in F, Op. 77, No. 2, in a performance that captured all its joy and drama against a backdrop of scintillatingly rich textures. They closed with Robert Schumann’s Third String Quartet, bringing such passionate commitment to the piece that it described an arc of inspiration from beginning to end. The second movement was fleet and furtive, with a subtle give-and-take in tempo, and the voluptuous slow movement was heart-rendingly tender. Loving consideration of Schumann’s expressive gestures resulted in a gripping, emotionally cohesive performance.
The main event, however, was Caroline Shaw’s “Three Essays,” written for the Calidore and commissioned by a consortium that included the Phillips. Shaw is the youngest composer to win a Pulitzer, which she did in 2013 at age 30. She is a committed quartet player (on violin) herself, and I wouldn’t hesitate to nominate her as the most idiomatic composer for the medium since 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 brought every playful and profound moment of “Essays” to life. I’ve never experienced a new piece of music (this was only its third public performance since the Calidore premiered it last summer in London) that kept a room full of people on the edge of their seats, rapt throughout. But this one did.