The St. Lawrence String Quartet brought an important new work by a rising young composer to its Stanford Live performance at Bing Concert Hall Sunday.
Samuel Carl Adams, 27, of Oakland, is trying to make a name for himself separate from being the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams.
The younger Mr. Adams has had works played by the San Francisco Symphony and other noted ensembles. “String Quartet in Five Movements” was commissioned by the Spoleto Festival USA, of Charleston, S. C., for the St. Lawrence Quartet, and was first performed by the quartet there in June.
Mr. Adams has since revised the work, and Sunday’s was its first performance since the premiere.
The piece is about 22 minutes long. All five movements sound rather alike, and what they sound like is a musical depiction of slinking along on little cat feet sliding on ice. The music is mostly quiet and fairly slow, featuring held notes, glowing in isolation, that swell and fade mysteriously, or cryptically slide in pitch.
Although the music is tonal, this presentation makes it feel continually unbalanced. Combined with the slow and quiet demeanor, the result presents a strong air of tentative caution. Mr. Adams, speaking before the performance on a video link from New Hampshire, where he is currently working, said his aim was to convey a sense of lightness. But this work was too eerie, and also too grungy, to give me that impression.
Little sputters, scraping noises, outbreaks of frantic dissonance and tiny quoted phrases, as if someone had accidentally tuned in to a classical radio station for a moment, occasionally appear.
It’s an interesting work, and will doubtless grow on listeners after further exposure. But it resembles a string quartet in the same way that a Frank Gehry structure resembles a building. The roots of similarity are there, but it’s too offbeat to be assimilated by any standards other than its own.
The Adams quartet was surrounded on this program with works by Haydn and Beethoven. In the hands of the St. Lawrence Quartet, the old masters are still the best masters.
Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 71, No. 2, was played as if it were by Bach. It was all intricate Baroque figures and deep contrapuntal harmony. Haydn’s wit snuck in gradually, and took over by the lively finale. The piece was full of bounding enthusiasm, and made for a total delight.
Geoff Nuttall played first violin in the Haydn and Adams. He switched with Scott St. John for Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. This enormous late-period quartet was all lyric energy. The urgent, and surprisingly memorable, themes of the scherzo’s trio, the Andante interludes of the slow movement, and the finale, carried both tension and passion.
Particularly striking moments came when Nuttall, on second violin, and violist Lesley Robertson growled together in the middle parts of the ensemble, and in many small, pulsating solos for cellist Christopher Costanza.
The full chords making up most of the main Adagio parts of the slow movement were, like many in the Haydn, rich and hymn-like. So was the encore, the slow movement of Haydn’s Quartet in C, Op. 76, No. 3, a theme and variations on an actual hymn that he wrote for the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II. This tune is better known for its later employment as the German national anthem, “Deutschland über alles.” In this concert it was no anthem, just a hymn played as gracefully as the St. Lawrence Quartet can do it.