By Brett Wines
Last Sunday, Stanford’s quartet-in-residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, put on yet another thrilling Sundays with the St. Lawrence performance of Beethoven’s string trio in Eb; Schubert’s enormous string quintet in C, his last instrumental work and only string quartet; and Osvaldo Golijov’s “Yiddishbbuk” for nearly 700 people in Dinkelspiel Auditorium.
One of the violinists, Scott St. John, was away for the concert on paternity leave. Though he left big shoes to fill, his substitute, Mark Fewer, took to the role admirably and melded perfectly with the rest of the group. Additionally, Andrés Diaz, who has played with the group many times over the years, played second cello for the Schubert quintet, making it the highlight of the performance. The third movement of the quintet was so exciting that some members of the audience exuberantly forgot the established rule of “don’t clap in between movements” before sinking with lowered eyes quickly and quietly back down to their seats.
The string trio played is designated op. 3, though it was actually the 105th piece Beethoven wrote — opus numbers rarely progress chronologically; both composers and publishers were historically astonishingly inconsistent with numberings. The piece itself was exhilarating to listen to; it featured several seemingly mini-cadenzas which violinist Geoff Nuttall played to the amazement of all listeners. At other times, he and violist Lesley Robertson played technically complicated fast passages at the same time, quite a difficult feat for any ensemble without a conductor.
Staying true to their tradition of keeping a varied program for their quarterly Sundays concerts, the program was kept varied, this time with Osvaldo Golijov’s (born 1960) piece “Yiddishbbuk,” the movements of which bear the initials of the five people commemorated in the work: three children who died at a concentration camp, a pioneer of the Yiddish literary movement and those of Leonard Bernstein, the renowned Jewish conductor and composer. “Yiddishbbuk” was written specifically for the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), and it was originally intended to premier this year in March, but wasn’t finished in time. Going by the average opinion of the audience, the wait was by and large worth it; though the technically difficult-to-play piece (it’s difficult for a listener to tell whether this challenge was accomplished) was very modern, one can’t explain the audience’s appreciation merely as a function of popularity of modern classical music: autumn this year, the quartet premiered a piece by John Adams which was less-than-enthusiastically received.
As for the piece itself, “Yiddishbbuk” seemed almost to be a perpetual fully diminished chord and evoked images of the color tan. It’s not pleasant to the ear, but it’s not meant to be. “Yiddishbbuk” is highly dissonant and full of large, dramatic jumps in the melodies, dynamics and a seeming lack of consistent rhythm or time signature, not to mention heavy use of screechy harmonics written for all the instruments.
Overall, the concert was yet another stimulating performance by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Though the group (thankfully) performs more than once a quarter, this concert was a re-affirmation of the fact that their quarterly “Sundays with St. Lawrence” concerts are always the most interesting.