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Music on the edge

Barely out of college, the Calder Quartet players have dedicated themselves to an intimate art form that's both artistically and financially challenging: chamber music. It's a bit like marriage, a bit like struggling in rock 'n' roll.

January 04, 2004|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

All music careers are risky. Becoming a chamber musician is riskier still. Instead of collecting a regular paycheck and following a conductor, a member of a chamber group enters a complicated partnership that promises musical freedom and the chance for a strong voice, but few other guarantees. The audience may be more dedicated, in thrall to a repertoire of unmatched intimacy, but it's definitely smaller.

Yet at an age -- their early 20s -- when many of their recent USC classmates are aiming for life in a symphony orchestra, and some of their generational peers are forming rock bands, Ben Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook, Jonathan Moerschel and Eric Byers are beginning to taste success doing something curiously in between.

Two violinists, a violist and a cellist, together they make up the Calder Quartet. Their lives entail not only playing difficult music requiring extraordinary discipline but also some of the same creative tension and frequent travel (if not the groupies and trashed hotel rooms) as life in a rock group.

Second violinist Bulbrook, 23, who holds an economics degree and often speaks in financial similes, compares the Calder to a small business. "I've heard orchestral playing likened to corporate life," he says, "versus chamber music, which is more entrepreneurial."

The challenges go beyond the economic. Peter Marsh, the USC music professor who first put the four together, says the most difficult trick for chamber musicians can be putting up with one another. "Some people say it has all of the disadvantages -- and none of the advantages -- of marriage."

To fans, chamber music has an intensity and human scale that orchestral music can't touch. In this view, it represents a composer's finest work: The small number of voices results in more purposeful expression than an 80-piece symphony. And the proximity of audience to performer means the musical push-pull, the tension and release, of the players acquires an almost physical force.

Jacobson, 23, is one of these true believers. "The repertoire is unparalleled," says the elfin first violinist, who loves Beethoven's knotty late quartets and Janacek's folksy small pieces. "There's nothing like it in other genres of music."

"It's also music that goes out on a limb," says Bulbrook. "Did Beethoven write anything more out of sight than the 'Grosse Fugue'?"

Despite their strange calling, the Calders -- whose choice of mobile artist Alexander Calder as namesake hints at their playfulness -- come across as fairly ordinary guys. They're all into pop or rap music; Byers, 23, the soft-spoken cellist, once played drums in a reggae band and took a semester off from USC's Thornton School of Music to live in a van and rock-climb with a friend.

They see the jocks and rock fans they went to school with as their natural audience. They joke about finding a signature as good as that of the band Guided by Voices, whose lead singer guzzles beers onstage in a parody of rock-star excess.

Whatever lies ahead, the year just ended brought the group to a turning point. Last spring, all four graduated from USC. In the summer, they began a two-year residency at L.A.'s Colburn School of Performing Arts, the institution's first, which offers them financial stability. In the fall, they made their New York debut, and now they have signed with a manager.

At the same time, their progress was shadowed by the illness of violist Moerschel's wife. In September, she succumbed to the cancer she had battled for several years.

So far, the Calders say, all this has made them a stronger unit.

But because chamber musicians' rapport, and their understanding of any given piece, tend to deepen with time, the life of such a group is a kind of endurance test. The longer and deeper the commitment, typically, the more sublime the music they can make.

"I've had sociologists just fascinated," says Marsh. "How can it possibly work?"


It's the day after a concert at Colburn's Zipper Hall, and the Calders are in unusually relaxed moods. They're in Bulbrook's apartment, across the street from Colburn. Apart from an almost alarming cleanliness, it's a typical post-college pad: nothing on the walls, one plant, velvet Elvis, big TV, simple blond wood furniture that could have come from IKEA.

Bulbrook is making coffee for his bandmates, though he's clearly had enough himself. "The day after a concert, I'm so excited that I can drink coffee again that I go nuts," says the thoroughly wired violinist, who worries that his bow will shake on held notes if he tanks up before a performance.

This day they're discussing their new manager and considering which quartets to learn next.

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