Dallas — The St. Lawrence String Quartet held forth on Monday evening as part of the Dallas Chamber Music Society’s concert series held in the Meadows School of Music’s Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University. They presented an interesting program that featured a world premiere of a work by composer Doug Balliett along with Beethoven’s late String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, and Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor, Op. 51, No. 2.
This is an era of string quartets that strive for unity of the players. In fact, courtesy of the Nippon Music Foundation, the Tokyo String Quartet plays on the legendary Stradivarius Paganini Quartet, which is four instruments made by Stradivarius that were once owned by the legendary violin virtuoso. They were acquired by the foundation and are on loan to the players.
Not so with the St. Lawrence String Quartet are all solid players, with a sure mastery of technique and solid musical instincts. They also have impressive credentials and distinguished careers festooned with some of the biggest names in music today. In 1998, they were appointed to the prestigious position of ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University.
While I have no idea what instruments they use, their individual approaches to playing them are quite different, which created uneven balances throughout the concert. Perhaps this is a carefully created musical style, but it appears to go against current thought about string quartet playing. Once the listener became used to this dichotomy, the performances were fascinating to experience because of these differences. Thus, the quartets didn’t sound like we are used to hearing.
First violinist Geoff Nuttall is an obvious leader and he founded of the quartet in 1989. He is a wild player with lots of showy moves, such as stomping his feet along with the big moments. While being exciting to experience, this aggressive approach caused him to have some occasional intonation problems. Second violinist Owen Dalby is also an active and exciting player in the same manner as Nuttall, although not to the same extent. He is the newest member of the ensemble.
Violist Lesley Robertson is a completely different kind of player. She is much quieter in her approach to playing the instrument. This might not be as noticeable with a less aggressive pair of violinists, but here her introverted playing offers too noticeable a contrast. Cellist Christopher Costanza has been with the ensemble since 2003 and, while he is not as active as Nuttall, his sound was at least one or two decibel levels above all of the others. We could hear him distinctively over the other three players in every piece they played.
In the Beethoven, they made the most out of all of the strangeness of this experimental quartet that the composer combined with a return to Haydn’s framework. It is the last in the series of quartets that date from the end of his life. But it was this return to Haydn-esque simplicity that was missing from this reading. The second movement, while an exciting scherzo, was over-played with an almost exaggerated roughness. This also characterized their reading of the last movement.
The performance of the Brahms was somewhat better. The gentle rocking theme from the first movement was especially lovely. There were also some sensitively played sections of the second movement as well as in the third movement, although it felt rushed. The final movement, based on the Hungarian czárdás, suffered from their trademark assertive manner.
The highlight of the program was the new work, Zefiro Tornado, by composer and bass virtuoso Doug Balliett. He is a member of the Deviant Septet and his compositional influences are classical, new and early music, rap, and rock. Drawing on his work in early music, this work is based on a chord progression, used like a chaconne, that first appeared in a madrigal by Claudio Monteverdi. It was also based on a pedal point of a single note, inspired by the Baroque composer Henry Purcell. We were all included in the performance by singing that single note throughout. This is a fascinating opium dream of a composition and was well received by the audience.