Formed in 2016 at the Cleveland Institute of Music and bearing the resonant name of an infelicitous nymph from Greek mythology, the Callisto Quartet has garnered prestigious prizes and won multiple accolades for performances in major music venues. Named the “Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence” at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts for the 2020-2021 season, the ensemble was encouraged to commission a new work to be performed in the bucolic setting of the Mediterranean-style estate built in the 1930s by Walter and Lucie Rosen. Impressed by a young composer’s first attempt in the genre, the quartet commissioned a second from Saad Haddad. The world premiere of his String Quartet no. 2 was the centrepiece of the Callistos’ recital in Caramoor’s Venetian Theater.

Callisto Quartet
© Titilayo Ayangade

This new opus continues Haddad’s long-time preoccupation with marrying different characteristics of the Western musical idiom with the Arabic maqāmāt¸ evoking different moods in the mostly melodic system used in traditional Middle Eastern improvisations. Here, he started, according to his own introductory comments, from the formal structure of a work by Nicola Vicentino, a 16th-century Italian composer, probably as keen as Haddad to explore microtonal excursions in his oeuvre (Vicentino is mostly remembered for the invention of a microtonal keyboard). Quarter tones are introduced gradually, with the soundscape focused more on timbral, aural values and associations than on rhythmic patterns. The three-part score starts with a diatonic section “with church like harmonies”, followed by a second, chromatic one, where microtonal inflections are first introduced, and an “inharmonic” segment where melody “seems to appear out of nowhere”. Unfortunately, the experience of listening to this interesting 15-minutes-long work that asks the audience to focus on odd combinations of pitches was marred by inclement weather. It was raining heavily in Caramoor and the musical output was almost totally covered by the noise of water droplets hitting the canopy sheltering the public.

After inviting the sparse audience to move closer to the podium and waiting for a while (quite unsuccessfully) for the rain to subside, the members of the young Callisto Quartet courageously launched themselves into an energetic rendition of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 9 in C major, a work featuring its own distinctive use of an enharmonic interval – the augmented second repeatedly appearing in the Andante. The Callistos clearly brought out the tradition-defying character of the last of the “Razumovsky” quartets. The Finale – a sonata form with the primary theme a surprising fugato first enounced by Eva Kennedy’s viola, not the first violin as expected – had a special intensity. The attention-grabbing slow introduction with its long avoidance of the C key chord sounded eerie. The contrast between the brilliant close of the first movement and the mysterious Andante was rendered in all its glory.

Having played the complete Bartók quartets in two previous appearances at Caramoor, the Callisto started their Thursday night concert with an epitome of Classicism, Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op.20, no.1. The musicians demonstrated a remarkable level of cohesiveness, from the initial Sonata-Allegro to the final Presto, marked by an abundance of syncopations. The Affettuoso e sostenuto aria was full of calm, with Paul Aguilar’s first violin leading the other voices but never breaking the equilibrium. Like other Haydnesque dances, the Menuetto had a certain rigidness and forced elegance. It reminded me that the nymph Callisto was transformed by her mistress, Artemis, into a she-bear. Certainly, a beautiful one.