The St. Lawrence String Quartet is on a mission to promote the composer who made the string quartet the cornerstone of chamber music.
But these days, Haydn’s quartets have a way of getting lost in the shuffle – and the St. Lawrences are out to change that.
They’ll bring their cause to Houston on Saturday, when they’ll open their concert at the Wortham Theater Center with Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet. The program, which also includes Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 9 No. 3, is presented by Da Camera of Houston.
“More than any other composer,” first-violinist Geoff Nuttall says, “Haydn suffers from mediocre performances and inactive listening. Sometimes, when you go to a concert, Haydn is just the ‘preamble’ – like an opening act at a rock concert, when people aren’t really listening yet.”
To encourage more active listening, the St. Lawrences will break down the “Emperor” for their audience Saturday.
“In Houston,” Nuttall explains, “we’re going to prepare the audience with a discussion, revealing some aspects of the piece before we play it. If we can get people to listen more closely, then we’ve done our job.”
So what’s so special about Haydn? Nuttall has plenty to say on that subject.
“One of the most obvious things,” he begins, “is Haydn’s effortless sense of wit and humor. Most composers have to struggle to be witty.
“Another thing – he was a master of creating something incredible out of sparse material. He could work with a few notes like a magician to make something that’s emotionally meaningful. He had an incredible imagination – with just four instruments he created a whole world of tone and gesture. When I’m playing Haydn, I feel like a kid in a candy shop. I never get tired of it.”
After 25 years in the St. Lawrence String Quartet, performing a wide variety of music, Nuttall speaks with an experienced voice. He’s one of the founding members, along with violist Lesley Robertson. Cellist Christopher Costanza has played with the group since 2003, and second-violinist Mark Fewer joined earlier this year.
The quartet got started in 1989 in Toronto, where Nuttall and three young colleagues were studying music. The four players were a mixture of Americans and Canadians (Nuttall is originally from College Station), and they took their name from the river that connects the two countries.
These days, the St. Lawrences live in Palo Alto, Calif., where they teach at Stanford University.
For their 25th-anniversary season, the quartet has commissioned three new works, by composers John Adams, Jonathan Berger and Jarek Kapuscinski. They’re also having a matching set of silver-tipped bows made for them by the Montreal luthier François Malo.
But Nuttall says the quartet’s 25th season is pretty much business as usual for the busy ensemble.
“In many ways, it’s no different from any other year. But maybe we’ll have a cake.”
© Colin Eatock 2014