St. Lawrence String Quartet — Image via davidroweartists.com

St. Lawrence String Quartet

Music in the Park Series
Works by Haydn, Adams & Goddard

The St. Lawrence String Quartet has long been known for its advocacy of new music, so it was a bit of a surprise to see that the program of their concert Sunday afternoon — in the Schubert Club‘s Music in the Park Series — would be dominated by Joseph Haydn, an old master if there ever was one. But in the end, it worked. By juxtaposing two very different Haydn quartets against two of their own recent commissions, the SLSQ highlighted both Haydn’s innovations and the connections between today’s composers and those of the past.

The concert began with Haydn’s Quartet in F minor, Opus 20 No. 5, one of the composer’s relatively few minor-key quartets. Throughout much of this quartet, first violinist Geoff Nuttall seemed committed to giving the music a soulful, quasi-improvised feel, often taking a strident tone, coming in behind the beat, and initiating dramatic pauses. This approach was not entirely convincing; the piece may be Sturm und Drang Haydn, but it’s still Haydn, and a little more sense of balance would have been welcome. In any case, these characteristics faded in the brief fugal finale, which the quartet executed with élan.

John Adams — Image via earbox.comNext came John Adams’s Second Quartet, the third piece the composer has written for the SLSQ, which premiered it earlier this year in California. Like Adams’s recent concerto grosso Absolute Jest, this piece is based on a few fragments of music by Beethoven, in this case all drawn from his late piano works. These fragments are processed through Adams’s own dense, energetic compositional approach and reassembled into the fast-slow-fast structure that is characteristic of much of his music. By and large, the piece was successful, though in the first movement, the distinctive snippet of the scherzo from Beethoven’s Opus 110 piano sonata that is the basis for the movement recurred in its original form perhaps a bit too often; I was taken back to Beethoven’s piece when I should have been focusing on Adams’s.

After the intermission came the other SLSQ commission, Marcus Goddard’s Allaqi. Like Adams’s quartet, this piece also had a fast-slow-fast structure. There was plenty of frenetic energy in the outer sections, based on rhythms and textures from the Inuit throat singing tradition, while the slow section, based on folk melodies, had a lyrical quality that effectively contrasted with and then merged into the busier opening material. The SLSQ made short work of both contemporary pieces, and the Music in the Park Series audience — traditionally somewhat cool to new music — gave plentiful applause to both.

The program concluded with Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet in C major, Opus 76 No. 3, a much later and more ambitious work than the F minor. The quartet is centered on the melody from Haydn’s patriotic anthem, “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (better known as the tune later used for Germany’s “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles“), which is treated to four variations in the slow movement and influences the other movements as well. Like Goddard’s piece, the quartet also incorporates folk material, especially toward the end of the first movement and in the minuet. The SLSQ gave an exceptionally poised and at the same time intense performance, including a powerful take on the slow movement. (As the concert’s program notes pointed out, Haydn’s anthem fares better than most outside the flag-waving context.)

The SLSQ showed yet another side of Haydn in their encore, giving a gentle and meditative rendition of the second sonata from his The Seven Last Words of Christ. All told, it added up to an intriguing and varied program, both puncturing the myth that all of Haydn sounds the same — even if I wasn’t so sure about one of the group’s interpretations of that composer — and successfully integrating classic and contemporary pieces in a manner that is often hard to pull off.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.