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Recital and Community Jam with St. Lawrence String Quartet in Blacksburg

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Published: October 26, 2015 at 2:55 AM [UTC]

St. Lawrence String Quartet
St. Lawrence String Quartet. Photo by Leonardo Mascaro.

It's already a fine thing to spend a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon listening to one of the great ensembles of our time, St. Lawrence String Quartet. But can you imagine the thrill of getting up on stage with them afterward and playing through some Haydn?

That's just what I (and ca. 20 other local amateur and student musicians) did on October 25, 2015, at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech.

Joseph HaydnThe quartet features violinists Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Christopher Costanza. Nuttall kicked off the recital with a engaging, 15-minute lecture! He explained the significance of Haydn to the emergence and development of the string quartet. Then, the quartet played the opening theme of the Haydn Op. 20 No. 5 in F# Minor two ways. It's a dark theme in the first violin with an angry, pulsating accompaniment in the other instruments, but they also played it with a simple whole-note accompaniment. Nuttall asked the audience whether they heard a difference, and if so, which version they thought was Haydn's. He used this example and several others to demonstrate why all of the voices in a quartet matter, and how Haydn in particular rewards active listening. They played two contrasting themes -- dark and cheerful -- and Nuttall asked the audience to voice the anguish and joy they felt in response. Nuttall explained that we should expect/allow ourselves to have these intense feelings when we listen to music.

Nuttall concluded by walking the audience through the structure of the Op. 20 No. 5, explaining what we should expect to hear in the four movements. Each of his points was illustrated with a brief excerpt, played by the quartet, and the presentation was engaging, scholarly, and liberally salted with Nuttall's quirky, light-hearted humor. No wonder he was dubbed "The Jon Stewart of chamber music" by The New York Times.

Then the group dove into the piece with abandon. They played with a full, boisterous sound, and were led well by Nuttall, as much a charming showman as he is a wonderful violinist. In this regard, he and Ray Chen seem cut from common cloth.

Despite the recital having been billed as a “Haydn Discovery” event, after intermission the audience was treated to none other than the breathtaking Beethoven Op. 131. Again Nuttall and the group first demonstrated what we needed to listen for, including how to recognize when each movement starts (because they are all played together as a single work), and especially how Beethoven built upon Haydn's foundation. The performance itself was spellbinding. For an encore they played a lovely slow movement from the Haydn Op. 20 No. 3 featuring a gorgeous cello solo, a light dessert.

But then -- then the real fun began! Following a brief reception in an adjoining theater, a couple of dozen local amateur musicians (high-schoolers to retirees) took the stage -- with the members of the SLSQ -- for an informal “community jam” of Haydn quartets. Apparently SLSQ does this at a lot of the places where they perform. The selections were the first two movements of the Op. 76 “Emperor” quartet and three movements from “The Last Words of Christ on the Cross” (Sonatas 2 and 7 and the Terremoto Finale). We were notified of the selections a few weeks beforehand. Even with time to prepare, I found the Second Violin parts pretty challenging, especially the Terremoto movement. A number of participants showed up hoping to sight-read and were caught off-guard. My stand partner was a gifted youngster that I know because he and I have the same teacher. We sat right behind Owen Dalby, so we were able to follow him as he cued the entrances, dynamics (not very well marked in the IMSLP "edition"), and so on. The SLSQ chose a mercifully moderate tempo for the Op. 76. I admit I had been rather fearful after watching their YouTube of the same work!

My overall conclusion is that the “Community Jam” is a breakthrough concept on the part of the SLSQ and I hope they keep doing it. Other quartets: Follow suit! But they should also provide the local organizers more information about what musicians should expect, and what the real “level” of the music is likely to be. The promotional material said "all levels," but what we had to prepare was at least Suzuki Book 6 level. I challenge *any* amateur violinist to sight-read the Terremoto at tempo. My guess is that most local organizers have never dealt with this kind of opportunity before and will need guidance. But the brilliant Moss Center staff cheerfully ran off to make extra copies of the parts for those who came without, and everyone was made to feel welcome, and in the end it was thoroughly enjoyable for all.

* * *

Here is a TED talk that the Lawrence String Quartet called "The Humor of Haydn."

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