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Chamber
NOVEL OBOE-HARPSICHORD RECITAL FROM AIKEN DUO IN UKIAH
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Oboe and harpsichord recitals are a rare North Bay event, even in a pandemic environment where a formal hall setting isn’t available. So it was a delight Feb. 21 to experience on the Ukiah Symphony’s website a recital by Symphony oboist Beth Aiken and harpsichordist husband Tom. The Aiken home vis...
Symphony
A HEALTHY MIX OF TRANSCRIPTIONS AND ORIGINALS FROM THE SR SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 24, 2021
Transcriptions and ascending arpeggios were the order of the day on Jan. 24, as the Santa Rosa Symphony performed uplifting works by Bach/Webern, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Marianna Martínes and Mozart. The concert video was made in Weill Hall on Jan. 9. The first transcription was Webern’s 1935 renderi...
Symphony
HEROIC EFFORT FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 13, 2020
December 13 was a rainy day, perfect for huddling indoors and watching a prerecorded “live” performance by the Santa Rosa Symphony. The program was expansive, with music from the 18th through 21st centuries, and the mood was festive, in keeping with the holiday season. There was something in the fea...
Symphony
MASKED SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CARRIES ON BRILLIANTLY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 15, 2020
In some ways the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 15 concert on YouTube resembled a Conceptual Art performance from the 1970s. On display were about 30 masked orchestral musicians playing six feet apart from each other on stage, some of them separated by plexiglass barriers. In the 1970s, the concept behi...
Chamber
SPLENDID STRINGS IN A SUNLIT GARDEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 1, 2020
A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music. The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 Nov. 1, the day after Halloween....
Chamber
EXAMPLARY QUARTET PLAYING IN MARIN GARDEN CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Taped video concerts have pretty much dominated the recent fare for classical music fans, but sporadic live music making can still be found in the North Bay with outdoor chamber music. Of course with the obligatory social distancing and often decorative facial masks. Four San Francisco Opera Orc...
Chamber
VIDEO CHAMBER MUSIC FROM LINCOLN CENTER IN GREEN'S BROADCAST
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 17, 2020
Along with hosting its resident the Santa Rosa Symphony, Weill Hall has contracted to produce sporadic virtual programs of classical music, and began Oct. 17 with a charming three-part concert from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Hosted with comely introductions by CMSLC di...
Symphony
THRILLING SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE IN AN EMPTY WEILL HALL
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Viewers of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s inaugural socially distanced YouTube concert on Oct. 11 could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball), given that the string players in the opening shot all wore black masks. The sole excepti...
Symphony
BROWN VIDEO GALA LAUNCHES SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY SEASON
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 12, 2020
Similar to many North Coast musical organizations the Santa Rosa Symphony has scheduled a series of virtual concerts on video, spotlighting sections of the orchestra and the exuberant activities of its conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. However, as an introduction to the season, a Sept. 12 gala vide...
SONGS AND ECHOES OF HOME IN AIZURI QUARTET CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, March 8, 2020
From the first richly layered harmonies of Dvořák’s Cypresses, the Aizuri Quartet held the March 8th audience at Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church in thrall. The church was more than half full, a good crowd considering present anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus. Taking precautions, the M...
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.