Sixteen Strings, Twenty-Five Years, Countless Adventures
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, the St. Lawrence String Quartet will unveil three brand-new works at Stanford while also reinterpreting the rich historical legacy of the string quartet medium.
By Thomas May
“It’s a great time both to be playing in a string quartet and to be writing string quartets,” remarks Geoff Nuttall, first violinist and cofounder of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ). He’s thrilled about how both pursuits—those of the recreative performing artist and of the composer who creates from scratch—will be fused in three distinctive ways during the course of the SLSQ’s upcoming season at Bing Concert Hall.
Nuttall is referring to an extraordinary lineup of new commissions by the SLSQ. He and his colleagues—violinist Mark Fewer, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza—will be giving the world premieres of new works by John Adams (Jan. 18) and by two Stanford-based composers: Jonathan Berger (Oct. 19) and Jaroslaw Kapuscinski (Apr. 12).
Nuttall explains, “In a way, commissions are a way to get to hang out with some great composers and to create new work for the medium.” The new harvest of premieres “sums up what we’ve been doing to introduce new pieces since Yiddishbbuk.” That piece turned out to be a landmark for both the ensemble and its composer, Osvaldo Golijov, when the SLSQ introduced it at Tanglewood in 1992. At first, Nuttall recalls, “we had to force Yiddishbbuk down presenters’ throats. Now we get gigs because we’re playing the new Golijov quartet [Qohelet, which the ensemble introduced in 2011]. It’s been great to see the transition from struggling young composer to important presence.”
Yiddishbbuk’s premiere was just three years into the life of the SLSQ. It all started in 1989, when a group of students at the Conservatory of Music in Toronto “got a lucky break,” as Nuttall puts it. A native of Texas, the violinist moved to Canada to study and discovered his colleagues there. “Like most things in musical life, a lot of luck was involved. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time and got a grant that allowed us to rehearse for eight hours a day in our first year. Not having to scrape together a living was crucial for us being able to start as a string quartet. And we worked with great musicians from the Conservatory and Faculty of Music in Toronto, who helped give us a foundation.”
Although the SLSQ—named after the mighty St. Lawrence River—is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season with these three new commissions, Nuttall emphasizes that the musicians are simply being true to their mission, going about their work as usual—which means, for this crew, forging new paths in the string quartet medium and, at this stage in their career, serving as the kinds of mentors from whom they once benefited so abundantly.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that the SLSQ is the jewel in the crown of Stanford’s Music Department,” says Stanford Live Executive Director Wiley Hausam. “While there are wonderful string quartets in residence at a number of American universities, to my knowledge, none of them does what the SLSQ offers at Stanford. In addition to an exemplary annual season of concerts in Bing Concert Hall, they teach a heavy load, maintain a significant touring career, and have nurtured a true community of chamber music makers.”
Jonathan Berger, who served as chair of the search committee that selected the SLSQ in 1998, agrees. “In addition to being absolutely stellar musicians,” he says, “they have the ability to communicate and to transmit their passion about what they do in ways that are electrifying to any type of audience. Whether it’s teaching chamber music to young musicians, using music to show how interaction works for students in the business school or the law school, or working with research scientists who are trying to understand more about the effects of music, they’re magnificent ambassadors of music.”
For the first of the season commissions, in October, the SLSQ will introduce Berger’s most recent string quartet, Swallow, the fourth he has written for the ensemble (along with some shorter arrangements). Berger composed this five-movement work with the musicianship of the SLSQ players in mind. He also wrote Swallow in memory of his recently deceased brother, an attorney who had a passion for music and for ornithology.
“He made me very much aware of musical sounds over his lifetime,” says Berger. “Although there is no explicit birdsong, I took recordings of swallow songs and played with them in the studio. Swallows are often characterized as having three different types of sounds: chirps, whines, and gurgles. I found these took on a very expressive quality as the piece modulated from the world of birdsong to human speech and human music.”
Another reference point was the classical chamber music literature. Berger’s new quartet will share the program with music by Haydn and Schubert. “The String Quintet in C by Schubert, in my opinion, is the greatest piece ever written. So in one way it was kind of cruel to ask to put me on that program! Despite the intimidation, part of me was trying to build a bridge between Haydn and Schubert, to refer in both directions.” Berger mentions “a very twisted scherzo in the third movement of my piece” as “an obscure nod to Haydn’s minuets,” while the fourth movement evokes the “slow and elegiac” character of the Schubert quintet, “which is a time-stopping piece.”
Berger’s discussion of the legacy of Haydn and Schubert brings up an important aspect of how the SLSQ understands itself. Despite its track record as a champion of new music, Nuttall insists that “as a string quartet we’re totally connected to and reliant on composers both dead and alive. Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are the foundation. You cannot not do that. And it’s also important for being able to connect with living composers, and it works both ways.”
This season the SLSQ plans to develop a pilot online program focused on Haydn’s Opus 20 string quartets. “That set of quartets from 1772 was groundbreaking and really set the model. They had a powerful effect on Mozart and Beethoven that’s hard to overestimate. These will be foundation for one of six session of this online course. And when we tour them, we’ll go through the history before and after them. We want to make the online experience of learning an important and positive one,” Nuttall explains.
That conversation with the past likewise plays a critical role in John Adams’ music for the SLSQ. The ensemble impressed the composer when he heard them play his first full-scale string quartet at Stanford, John’s Book of Alleged Dances (a piece written for the Kronos Quartet), and the result was the commission for String Quartet, premiered by the SLSQ in 2009. Nuttall states, “We’ve played John’s quartet 70 times in public by now. He’s a rock star in our world.”
Subsequently, Adams decided to fulfill a new commission for the San Francisco Symphony by writing an electrifying concerto for string quartet and full orchestra, a piece that on one level grapples with his fascination with Beethoven’s late quartets. Titled Absolute Jest (2012), it was a pivotal new work for the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season and featured the SLSQ as the soloist group. “I think probably more than any other piece of mine,” Adams says, “this one is about invention in the sense of taking material and doing all kinds of things with it.” In January, Stanford audiences will be the first to hear the latest result of the productive and ongoing relationship between this towering figure in contemporary music and the SLSQ.
And still to come in the spring is a new piece combining the string quartet with percussion by Stanford composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski. “I found the commission to write for combined forces very attractive,” Kapuscinski says. “Most of my work is audio-visual and involves projections or, as in this case, the use of heterogeneous materials.” He explains that there are few works for string quartet and percussion because of the timbral distance between these components. But even more than the difference in sonorities, it has to do with “the traditions both kinds of music come from. So this kind of heterogeneity allows me to create metaphors.”
The great insight about metaphor, according to Kapuscinski, is that it always embeds an “error” by bridging two worlds which normally would be illogical together. “But that’s the whole charm of metaphor. You can’t really feel ‘blue,’ and your heart doesn’t actually ‘break.’ When we speak this way, however, it refreshes our minds and opens us up to something else.” With the SLSQ commission, instead of smoothing over the differences, “I can emphasize the power of contrast between the string quartet and percussion. One inspiration for the piece is the late-period cut-outs of Matisse, when he was working intensely with contrasts. Suddenly he puts you into these impossible spaces and geometries. It’s all very beautiful and you don’t know how he does it.”
And while the SLSQ has built a tremendous reputation from the new works it has introduced to the music world over the past quarter century, the composers themselves express their sense of indebtedness for what they’ve learned from the players.
“The SLSQ players really work intensively on pieces in rehearsals, from what I’ve seen via my students,” says Kapuscinski. “There is a certain never-ending youthfulness and sense of hard work at the same time with them. And an incredible joy at always giving energy to the simplest musical idea. It’s not just about reading through scores. They are incapable of being boring!”
Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Stanford Live; he blogs at memeteria.com.