The Saint Lawrence Quartet with David Ying, cello

People filed quietly into the hall. Row upon row filled with the pleasant faces of fellow music enthusiasts, anxiously finding seats and awaiting the boundless pleasure that they knew was to come shortly. This was at Maverick Concerts on Saturday evening. Soon after everyone had found seats and settled into jolly chatter, Maverick Music Director Alexander Platt took the stage to say a few words and introduce the reason why everyone was there: The Saint Lawrence String Quartet, with special guest David Ying on cello. The Saint Lawrence Quartet performs hundreds of concerts each year. They are Ensemble in Residence at Stanford University, and along with music educator Robert Kapilow, they hold annual chamber music seminars there every summer. It is clear to any listener that The Saint Lawrence String Quartet understands, appreciates, and cherish’s the music that they play.

Saturday’s program was especially excellent:

 

String Quartet No. 14 in E flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2, Hob. III: 20                 Joseph Haydn

Moderato

Menuet

Adagio – Cantabile

Finale: Allegro di Molto

 

Lyric Suite                                                                                                                      Alban Berg

Allegretto Gioviale

Andante  Amoroso

Allegro Misterioso – Trio Estatico

Adagio Appasionato

Presto Delirando – Tenebroso

Largo Desolato

 

String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, Op. 163                                                     Franz Schubert

Allegro ma non Troppo

Adagio

Scherzo (Presto) – Trio (Andante Sostenuto)

Alegretto

 

The Haydn had a little bit of everything. The first movement was so perfect I would have been content had The Saint Lawrence Quartet stopped playing at it’s end… They of course did not, and I was delighted that they played not only the following three movements of the piece, but other pieces altogether too! Amazing! The second movement of Hadyn’s quartet had a stately waltz tempo, and the melody was charming. One of the many things I like about The Saint Lawrence Quartet is how animated they are in their playing. When the music pauses, the musicians also pause. Mid-air. They appear to breath at the same time, and their timing is always spot-on. Adagio – Cantabile, the third movement of the Haydn quartet, also had a gorgeous melody. The music seemed to float on air, as though filled with the weightlessness of understated drama. The fourth movement, Finale: Allegro di Molto, had plenty of runs, played flawlessly by the master musicians. It was a pleasure to watch the hands of The Saint Lawrence Quartet, as their graceful and nimble fingers danced along the neck of their individual instruments. 

There is an interesting story behind the Berg quartet… The story was not known until 1976, when composer and music theorist George Perle discovered a score in which Berg had written details on the autobiographical nature of Lyric Suite. Berg, who was married at the time, had written it for Hanna Fuchs, with whom he was having an affair (she was also married). The progression of the music represents the different stages of their affair. Before The Saint Lawrence Quartet started to play the piece, first violinist Geoff Nuttall took the time to explain the music a little bit. He said to the audience, “I’m worried about you all…”, causing everyone to chuckle. The reason he said that is because Alban Berg wrote music using the twelve-tone technique. The twelve-tone technique was devised by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1921. This method of composing has been used from 1923 on, for the first twenty years or so almost exclusively by the Second Viennese School (of which Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg were members). More recent composers to use the technique include Bela Bartok, Sergei Prokiev, and Igor Stravinsky, to name a few. All 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another and given equal importance, therefore the music avoids being in a key. Right before The Saint Lawrence String Quartet delved into the music, Geoff quipped, “So, everyone’s buckled in?” The Saint Lawrence Quartet also explained some of the techniques they use for playing the piece, which has unusual sound effects. For example, parts of the music are played with muted strings, while other parts use the back of the bow to enable the musicians to create ethereal sounds, and play quietly. Alban Berg originally intended for those parts to be played with no bow at all, rather, played by plucking the strings with only the left hand, to create as quiet a sound as humanly possible. Playing it that way however, is nearly impossible (if not downright impossible). It is somewhat of a life changing experience to hear atonal music, at least that written by a genius such as Berg, and played by as high a caliber of musicians as The Saint Lawrence Quartet. I loved the Haydn quartet, but after hearing it, Alban Berg’s work was actually a nice break from traditional classical style. The two pieces are extremely different, yet they somehow fit together well on the program. 

Last was Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, Op. 163. It was written shortly before Schubert died in 1828. His publisher refused the work, and it was not published until 1853. The first movement has a pleasant theme. The second movement starts gently, and is played with a majestic air. As for the third movement, Scherzo (Presto) – Trio (Andante Sostenuto), all of a sudden, fury overcomes the music and it runs in another direction altogether, spurred on by unseen forces nipping at it’s heels… The fourth and final movement, Allegretto, has flashes of the theme from the first movement – bringing a sense of closure to the listener’s mind – before becoming increasingly chaotic. All is brought to the summit, as faster and faster the music is played. Finally, in a whirlwind of bows, the music is brought to an end.

With The Saint Lawrence String Quartet, bows are wands, and what they create is magic. I swear they play with so much passion that I wouldn’t be suprised to see sparks flying from their strings one of these days… If I were ever stranded on an island, I’d want it to be with The Saint Lawrence String Quartet. Not only would I have glorious music all the time, we could probably start a fire with their playing! I think we would not only survive, but also lead a pretty decent life. I wouldn’t want that to happen in the first place though… Not that I would mind, but I want other people to be able to hear The Saint Lawrence String Quartet’s music too.

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