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Opera
VERDI'S THEATRICAL LA TRAVIATA TRIUMPHS AT CINNABAR
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, June 19, 2022
Symphony
MARIACHI MEETS ORCHESTRA AT THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, June 12, 2022
Choral and Vocal
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by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Saturday, May 28, 2022
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Thursday, May 19, 2022
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY PREMIERES DAUGHERTY SKETCHES OF SONOMA COUNTY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 8, 2022
Chamber
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by Nicholas Xelenis
Thursday, May 5, 2022
Chamber
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Sunday, May 1, 2022
Recital
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by Gary Digman
Friday, April 29, 2022
Symphony
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by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 24, 2022
Choral and Vocal
A SPIRITUAL FAURE REQUIEM IN GOOD FRIDAY CANTIAMO CONCERT
by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Friday, April 15, 2022
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.