St. Lawrence String Quartet takes on John Adams

St. Lawrence String Quartet, from left, Mark Fewer, Geoff Nuttall, Christopher Costanza and Lesley Robertson.

Joseph Haydn wrote some 68 string quartets. Ludwig van Beethoven wrote 16. John Adams is up to two numbered quartets. One of each was heard from the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on Sunday.

The St. Lawrence ensemble has been celebrating its 25th anniversary by commissioning new quartets and playing them at its Stanford Live concerts, sandwiched in between works by the old masters like Haydn and Beethoven. This Sunday was John Adams’ turn, with his Second Quartet.

Mr. Adams, 67, of Berkeley, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer famous for his operas such as “Doctor Atomic” and “The Death of Klinghoffer.” He also wrote his First Quartet for the St. Lawrence, and has collaborated with them on other projects too.

Speaking before the performance, he told of his new piece being inspired by his love of Beethoven, and of his charge to the players to “make it weird.” He must have been disappointed. This was one of the least weird pieces of new music I’ve heard in a long time. It was far less a bag of compositional tricks than was his First Quartet.

It did, at least, sound a lot like Beethoven, and yet like Adams, too. Adams thinks in chords, and is the heir to minimalist choppiness. Much of the work consisted of a succession of short-breathed phrases for two to four instruments. The harmonies were rich, consonant and typical of Beethoven.

The combination of postmodern phrasing and classical harmonies was unusual and a little disconcerting — maybe that’s what was supposed to be weird about it — but it was also deeply comforting and secure.

This was not a harsh piece of music, nor was it strikingly varied. It’s 22 minutes long, and in two movements, the second in two parts. Despite varying tempos, all the sections maintained the same feeling. The music did have the vitality that the composer loves in Beethoven. It also maintained an air of continuous seriousness.

So did Beethoven’s own Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131. It’s a huge work of seven movements, all played without pause. The St. Lawrence gave it seriously, even solemnly, with a minimum of drama or aggression. The transitions between movements disappeared in the ocean of the weight of late Beethoven.

Only in the scherzo near the end, and in the biting finale, did a sense of the violent punch of Beethoven’s muse begin to emerge, but then it was over.

Haydn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, was a bit different. This is a dark-toned early work that closes with a double fugue. There was high seriousness here, too, but also something else.

Like many quartets, especially early ones, Haydn’s is a display piece for the first violin. Geoff Nuttall, one of the most energetic and extroverted violinists around, took this bull and rode it. He played with decorations, he pushed and pulled the expression, he touched the bow to the strings to produce a tone like an imitation of harmonics, the high ghostly sounds that emerge when the bow is held lightly enough.

The other players — violinist Mark Fewer, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza — were all also consistently excellent. They came together winningly as an ensemble, a discipline most appreciated in Adams’ chordal phrases.

The St. Lawrence’s third and final new composition of the season is by Stanford composer Jaroslaw Kapuscinski and will be performed Sunday, April 12, along with works by Haydn and 20th-century composer Erwin Schulhoff.

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