St. Lawrence String Quartet: Nothing’s Routine

Christoper Costanza and Lesley Robertson of the St. Lawrence String Quartet

Christoper Costanza and Lesley Robertson of the St. Lawrence String Quartet

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Feb. 16, 2014) — Perhaps the only predictable aspect of the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s performance at Rackham Auditorium on Feb. 14 was the quality: superlative. Nothing else was routine for this foursome — in Ann Arbor under University Musical Society auspices for a concert and a little teaching at the University of Michigan Music School.

Novelty started with the lineup, which now includes, after the recent departure of Scott St. John, a new second violinist, Mark Fewer, who joins first violinist Geoff
Nuttall, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza. We got to really hear Fewer in great singing solos and soulful duets with Nuttall in the concluding Dvorak C Major Quartet, Op. 61. Fewer is more, a terrific addition to a group that still plays spectacularly in the moment.

But anchored to the moment they’re not. Friday happened to be Valentine’s Day;
their live-wire program offered just a nod (and a strong wink) to the occasion, with
the Martinu String Quartet No. 5 (married composer has intense affair with much
younger woman/pupil, who eventually goes off and marries someone else and dies
soon after. Happy Valentine’s, everyone!) and a “Romance” encore from Verdi’s
e minor String Quartet, written when a singer’s illness delayed his production of
“Aida.”

Nor is the group anchored to convention. You might have expected ease and charm, conveyed via sunny, honeyed sound in the opening Haydn quartet (D Major, Op. 71,
No. 2). No siree! If the music making was merry and mercurial, wry and jolly, the
tone was almost nasal and a little edgy, in a reedy Baroque sort of way; timings were
razor-sharp and finely honed. Nothing docile and “Let’s ease ‘em in with Haydn”
here.

And yet, eased in we were, awakened by the wit of the performance. Just in time to
be steamrollered by the motoric drive of the Martinu. Atop the thrumming charge,
Nuttall spun a silky melody that his companions expanded one by one, each singing
a verse of what had to be a love song. When the last movement brought back the
demonic motoric energy of the opening, it somehow had, in the wake of those songs,
a more obstinate, introspective character, as if each player was isolated in his or her
own thoughts, stuck there – till sucked down by a last chord played like a vortex of
resignation.

It was quite a journey. Enough to make you thankful for the Bohemian balm of some
Dvorak. The fifth quartet is a little discursive; it’s not my favorite of the quartets,
nor is it the most Bohemian. But what a slow movement it has, and the players sang
sublimely in this gorgeous, soaring music. Seduced by the music at the hands of
the St. Lawrence players, I found myself thinking – anachronistically, of course –
that, yup, Dvorak, was the Bohemian Astor Piazzolla. It was a sultry, and unexpected
groove to nestle into on a cold Valentine’s Friday.

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