Classical Music Review: St. Lawrence String Quartet

St Lawrence String Quartet:

St. Lawrence String Quartet: The four musicians play absolutely as one.

Reviewed By Caldwell Titcomb

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) came to town for an April 9 Jordan Hall concert under the sponsorship of the Celebrity Series. Geoff Nuttall (violin) and Lesley Robertson (viola) are founding members, while Christopher Constanza (cello) joined in 2004 and Scott St. John (violin) in 2006. Three of the players are Canadian natives, but they all now live and teach at Stanford University.

What is impressive about the SLSQ is that the four musicians play absolutely as one.

The opening work was by Haydn, who was the first supreme master of the quartet medium and left some 70 examples during a period of 40 years. The SLSQ chose the fairly early Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 (dating from around 1769). Here, as he often does, Haydn writes a particularly demanding part for the first violin, in this case running an octave above high C. The third movement is in C-minor, and the E-flat finale is surprisingly brief—the whole quartet clocking at only 18 minutes.

There followed a 30-minute quartet by John Adams (b. 1947), widely considered the foremost living American composer. This piece was written for the SLSQ and premiered in January of 2009. Although Adams has not written a lot of chamber music, this was not his first string quartet: he had composed one, subtitled “Wavemaker,” which he wrote about in his fascinating and honest 2008 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction. The piece “crashed and burned at its premiere” (1978), and he proceeded to detail all that was wrong with it. He had better luck with his next quartet (1994), subtitled “John’s Book of Alleged Dances.” And he followed this with a five-minute quartet, named “Fellow Traveler” (2004), as a 50th birthday present for his frequent stage collaborator, Peter Sellars.

So what the SLSQ played here was Adams’ fourth quartet. It is cast in two movements, the first taking 20 minutes and the second only 10. It makes heavy demands of all four musicians, who lit into it with enormous energy. Along the way the cellist has to pluck the strings with the left hand, and there is a long viola solo. Sudden dynamic changes abound. The second movement is rhythmically complex and tries to end but then goes on a bit. The audience was exceedingly enthusiastic.

The second half of the program was given over to Dvořák’s late Quartet in G-Major, Op. 106 (1895). This is a big piece whose four movements add up to 40 minutes. For this the two violinists exchanged seats as they often do depending on the repertory. The melodic material is unusually generous. And the choice of keys is unorthodox, the second movement being widely explorative in E-flat major and the ensuing scherzo cast in B-minor. The whole work, especially the finale, provides one surprise after another. A better performance would be hard to find. As an encore, we got the pavane movement from Adams’ aforementioned “Book of Alleged Dances.” The audience left the hall dancing.

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