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Symphony
A SLICE OF HEAVEN FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzlin...
Chamber
A COMPLETE MUSICAL PACKAGE IN ARRON'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Cellist Edward Arron has been a welcome artist at the Music at Oakmont series, and after his Jan. 10 recital it’s easy to understand his popularity. His artistry is a complete package, with potent instrumental technique wedded to integral musical conceptions. In a nearly flawless concert with pian...
Choral and Vocal
COMPELLING WEILL HALL MESSIAH ORATORIO FROM THE ABS
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work. Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written...
Opera
PURCELL'S DIDO IN YOUTHFUL SSU OPERA
by Abby Wasserman
Wednesday, December 05, 2018
A doomed royal love affair, the theme of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was brought to lovely life at Sonoma State University Dec. 5 in the school’s Schroeder Hall. Conducted by faculty member Zachary Gordin, who also played continuo, the performance was only the second opera production presented by the...
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HERALDS THE HOLIDAYS
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Antlers are typical headgear during the holiday season, but the ushers and one bassist at the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Dec. 2 sported apples atop their heads. The red fruits were festive but perplexing until the orchestra began Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, at which point even the dull-wi...
Symphony
A HERO'S ODYSSEY IN SO CO PHIL CONCERT
by Art Hofmann
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The audience at the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 concert was warned at the outset that the old Santa Rosa High School auditorium boiler was turned off, and there was a steady eminently audible tone in the hall. Conductor Norman Gamboa said the tone was an A, a high one. But there it was, a...
Recital
MTA BENEFIT CONCERT FEATURES FAURE, DVORAK, JANACEK AND BARBER WORKS
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 11, 2018
In a splendid concert Nov. 11 the Music Teachers Association of California, Sonoma County Chapter, presented their sixth annual benefit concert before 40 avid listeners in the Santa Rosa home of Helen Howard and Robert Yeats. Highlights of the performances, involving eight musicians in various perf...
Recital
SERKIN'S SINGULAR MOZART AND BACH PLAYING IN WEILL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 09, 2018
Returning to Weill Hall following a fire-related recital cancellation in 2017, pianist Peter Serkin programmed just three works in his Nov. 7 concert, three masterworks that challenged both artist and audience alike. It needs to be said at the outset that Mr. Serkin takes a decidedly non-standard a...
Chamber
LUMINOUS FAURE TOPS LINCOLN TRIO'S SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, November 07, 2018
Familiarity in chamber music often evokes warm appreciation, and it was thus Nov. 7 when the Chicago-based Lincoln Piano Trio made one of their many Sonoma County appearances, this time on the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series. Regularly presented by local impresario Robert Hayden, the Lin...
Symphony
PEACE AND LOVE FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 04, 2018
Before the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 4 performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” Symphony CEO Alan Silow took a moment to acknowledge the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and to observe that music offers a more peaceful and loving view of the world. Mr. ...
CHAMBER REVIEW
St. Lawrence String Quartet / Saturday, October 11, 2008

INSTRUMENTAL TAUTOLOGY

by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 19, 2008

An old joke observes that a string quartet consists of a good violinist, a bad violinist, an ex-violinist (the violist) and someone who hates violinists (the cellist). While the last two characterizations may still hold true, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the violins apart. For the second concert in a row at the Russian River Chamber Music series, the violinists switched chairs midway through the performance.

For last month’s concert by the Rossetti String Quartet, the violin switch was a mixed blessing. In contrast, the switch at the Oct. 11 concert by the ever-daring St. Lawrence String Quartet was a revelation, with new second/first violinist Scott St. John displaying complete mastery of his instrument and full comfort in either role.

Geoff Nuttall—the original first violinist and founding member of the quartet, along with violist Lesley Robertson—is well known for his active legs, swaying upper body, and intense expressions. One lives in constant fear that he will knock over his music stand, but he always manages to elude collisions. Instead, he somehow translates his perpetual contortions into fluid bowing and rock-steady fingering.

Both those qualities were on display in the opening quartet, a rarely played early Haydn, Opus 9, No. 2. Nuttall, still in his customary first-violin slot, began playing almost before sitting down, his bow flying through the air, his upper torso engaged in a series of dramatic lifts worthy of a body builder. But wait. Just to his left, another bow was flying through the air, also accompanied by flailing feet. These belonged to St. John, who matched Nuttall step for step in an elegant choreography of Haydn’s surprisingly emotional score.

Early Haydn is by no means simplistic. The first-violin part of this early quartet is as intricate and demanding as any Haydn wrote, particularly in the intense Adagio movement, with its many virtuosic displays. The playing throughout was vivacious and engaging, from all four corners. Cellist Christopher Costanza and violist Robertson offered a terra firma grounding for the kinetic energy of the violins.

After hearty applause from the full house, the violinists switched chairs, and the quartet launched into “The Bridal Canopy,” a brand-new work by Jonathan Berger, a composer at Stanford University. The quartet takes it title from Shai Agnon’s 1931 Hebrew novel, a kind of Jewish Don Quixote, in which the hero wanders through Galicia (Ukraine) in search of a groom and a dowry for his daughter.

As one might expect, the quartet evokes klezmer music, with frequent wailing melodies and tremolo backgrounds. But there is much more than klezmer at play, as evidenced by the tempo marking for the first movement: “Rapidamente, scintillanti e metallico.” Metallico? Heavy metal fans, take note. Combining a fierce attack, sustained trills and unusual bowing positions, the St. Lawrence generated a mesmerizing sound, without recourse to amplification or wah-wah pedals.

The ferocity of the first movement was more than balanced by the serenity of the second, which began in unison and then explored the limitless possibilities of that most basic interval: the fifth. Combining repeated figures with a chant-like drone, the music became increasingly spiritual, culminating with a chorale-like ending marked by a heartmelting cello solo.

Having witnessed the extremes of emotion, one wondered what the next movement would bring. It began pianissimo, with an insistent, driving rhythm. Soon Ukrainian folk-dance themes began peeping through, accompanied by the ever-moving legs of the two violinists. The effect was joyous, tempered only by the concluding Largo movement, which reverted to the contemplative aspects of the second. All told, the work was coherent, effective and dramatic, as was the performance. The composer joined the St. Lawrence on stage for a standing ovation.

The second half consisted of another rarely performed gem, Dvorak’s Opus 106, his next-to-last quartet, composed two years after his most popular chamber work, the “American” string quartet. Echoes of that masterpiece resonate throughout the later work, from the life-affirming major chords to the constant onrush of new melodic ideas. The score is exceedingly difficult, which may account for the rarity of its performance. Notes fly all over the place, particularly within the violins, which engage in a rollicking series of duets.

Nuttall remained at second, letting St. John bask in the glory of the virtuosic writing. Both were a treat to observe, with Nuttall displaying the mime talent of Marcel Marceau and St. John offering a complete range of dynamics, from shattering fortissimos to pianissimos so quiet that one could hear the audience breathing. Not to be outdone, violist Robertson played several evocative solos, and cellist Costanza stabilized everyone with a beautifully rounded, solid tone.

By the concluding Allegro con fuoco, the St. Lawrence had completely won over the audience. The performance was one for the ages—and it will be for the ages, because KRCB-FM had the foresight to record it for Chamber Music OnStage. You won’t be able to see the flailing legs or the switching violinists, but the sound will still be transcendent.