Unwrapping a delicious musical sandwich

Rebecca Bailey, Hop writer & media relations coordinator

The St. Lawrence String Quartet is known for a culinary approach to programming: they like to sandwich contemporary works for string quartet between two established pieces from the repertoire. Here we look at what the quartet plans for its October 10 concert at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth.

Celebrating the 30th year since its founding in Toronto in 1989, the St. Lawrence String Quartet—violinists Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby, violin, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza—have been described by critics as "modern," "dramatic," "superb," "wickedly attentive" and "with a hint of rock 'n roll energy," offering performances renowned for their intensity and breadth of repertoire.

One approach they take in programming is to serve up "sandwiches" of older repertoire wrapped around new music, to show the roots, development and possibilities of the string quartet genre.

For their Thursday, October 10, concert at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth, the "bread slices" are two of Joseph Haydn's Op. 20 quartets, all of which the St. Lawrence recently released a recording of. Haydn wrote the works in 1772, when he was 40 years old and had been the court composer to the Hungarian Count Esterhazy for 12 years (he would stay another 18).

The opus 20 quartets are arguably Haydn's first quartet masterpieces. In their notes for the Hop concert, the St. Lawrence writes: "For the first time in a small ensemble context one can hear the democratic participation of four truly equal [instrumental] voices. Haydn draws on an immense range of emotional expression in Op. 20, with brilliant compositional flourishes to match. He synthesizes the very pinnacle of baroque-era counterpoint with his distinctive wit, whimsy, pathos, and the groundbreaking use of silence as 'topic.' It is these six quartets specifically that threw down the gauntlet and which inspired every major later composer to compose their most profound utterances for the medium of string quartet."

The top "bread slice"  is Op. 20, No. 4. Writes the St. Lawrence: "The calm pastoral theme that opens this musical story gives no hint of the virtuosic, brilliant and quicksilver music that follows without warning. This movement is a tale of two distinct characters—one serene, one excited—that interact and interrupt each other throughout. The slow movement is perhaps Haydn's most deeply felt and emotional theme and variations. It sustains an almost painful affettuoso, culminating in an extended final variation and coda that explodes in anguish, and then ends with quivering pain. A dance follows: a jubilant minuet in the Hungarian Gypsy style. Here Haydn is playing on the knowledge and expectation of the minuet rhythm (see No. 6). One can almost hear him chuckling as players and the dancing audience stumble. In contrast, the "trio" (the middle section) could not be a more perfectly symmetrical, danceable and proper cello solo. The emotional release from the adagio continues with an effervescent Rondo finale. Scherzando throughout—musical laughter with a hint of bluegrass."  

Listen to the St. Lawrence play its fourth movement.

Making the "meat" of the sandwich are two works written for the St. Lawrence.The first is the Second Quartet (2014) by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams. The quartet is third work he composed expressly for the St. Lawrence, his "favorite chamber group." Wrote Adams: "String quartet writing is one of the most difficult challenges a composer can take on. Unless one is an accomplished string player and writes in that medium all the time—and I don't know many these days who do—the demands of handling this extremely volatile and transparent instrumental medium can easily be humbling, if not downright humiliating. What I appreciate about my friends in the St. Lawrence is their willingness to let me literally 'improvise' on them as if they were a piano or a drum and I a crazy man beating away with only the roughest outlines of what I want. They will go the distance with me, allow me to try and fail, and they will indulge my seizures of doubt, frustration and indecision, all the while providing intuitions and frequently brilliant suggestions of their own. It is no surprise then for me to reveal that both the First Quartet and Absolute Jest went through radical revision stages both before and after each piece's premiere. Quartet writing for me seems to be a matter of very long-term 'work in progress.'"

Listen to the St. Lawrence giving the work's premiere at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, in 2015.

The second is Yiddishbuk (1992) by Osvaldo Golijov, which the Jewish Argentine composer wrote in tribute to children interned by the Nazis at the Terezín concentration camp, the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. Wrote Golijov: "I had written Yiddishbbuk for the St. Lawrence without knowing who they were, trusting to the excitement that Gilbert Kalish and Richard Ortner felt for them. I was, as usual, late with the piece and came to the first rehearsal, two weeks before the premiere, with only the first movement written. Before playing a single note they told me in so many words that they could make no sense of it. I was completely taken aback by their open mistrust, but ready to fight. [They] challenged me to sing it: I sang for a minute and they all said, 'OK, now we get it'. They grabbed their instruments and played that first movement. It felt like lightning. For the first time in my life I was listening to what I had written being played as vividly as I heard it in my head. ... I wrote the rest of it and then some more. There was no further need to sing: now we were able to work by telepathy. At the premiere they came on stage like hungry cannibals and I felt a strange sense of tranquillity."

Listen to a performance of Yiddishbuk by the St. Lawrence.

The bottom "bread slice" is Haydn Op. 20, Number 2, in C Major. Writes the St. Lawrence: "This quartet begins with a cello solo, while the viola plays the bass line—musical democracy in action! The second violin leads a dramatic transformation in the second half of the movement to stormy minor material before a return to the sunny opening music. The adagio is one of the most groundbreaking and influential movements in the history of the string quartet. It invokes a Greek chorus, opera, recitative, aria, and full symphony orchestra, all in one capricious musical journey. The movement flows without pause to the sound of bagpipes in the folk-inspired minuet. The trio returns to the solo cello and the dark, brooding qualities of the slow movement. Haydn proudly announces a fugue with four subjects to end this quartet. It's serious counterpoint, albeit with a very unserious jig-like spirit. Haydn wrote at the end of his autograph score, counterpointing a deep religious faith with characteristic wit, "Laus omnip: Deo / Sic fugit amicus amicum." (Praise to Almighty God / Thus one friend escapes another).

Watch the St. Lawrence perform this work.