This past Thursday the St. Lawrence String Quartet, came to Cornell all the way from California as a part of our concert series. They showed themselves to be masters of what is one of the most demanding avenues of classical music: chamber music.
After a charming introduction by violinist Geoff Nuttall, the quartet delved — with help from Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and Pianist Kevin Murphy — into the evening’s opener, Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle. It was an exercise in control, keeping all of the music’s emotional peaks in check using Chausson’s call for mutes over the duration of the piece. It is a work that relies heavily on intimacy, some of which was lost in a space as large as Bailey Hall. While the music was impressively balanced between the quartet, voice, and piano, this was really living room music, and it simply did not come through the vast reverberations that characterize Cornell’s newest auditorium.
This same problem certainly did not plague the evening’s second offering, Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, and this since this work is known as his “musical autobiography,” I was extremely excited to hear it.
After arriving on stage, the performers moved all of their chairs towards each other, and Nuttall gave a loving description of some of the piece’s defining features. Their interpretation was heart-breaking, as they drew out all of the complex colors and their intensity that defines this work. Looks of deep pain were exchangedbetween the players, as they seemed to tap into, at least for a moment, the sound of Soviet Russia.
After intermission, they opened with Debussy’s string quartet. It was clear that they had played this piece many times, and looks of sheer fun were traded between Nuttall and cellist Christopher Costanza. At times, however, it seemed as though they were ready to be done with the piece, rushing through several of its better moments.
The evening’s closer was a piece written for the quartet — along with Heidi Grant Murphy and Kevin Murphy, who returned to the stage — by Cornell facultcomposer Roberto Sierra, described as a “hometown hero” by Nuttall. Entitled “Song from the Diaspora,” it was a captivating collection of seven settings of Sephardic poetry, originating from the Jewish people who were expelled from Spain in 1492. The texts were chosen carefully, delicately weaving between serious references to the sense of longing plaguing the Sephardim and more everyday subject matter like “my mother-in-law the evil one.” Sierra’s music had an accessibility that one doesn’t usually associate with art music written in 2006, but it didn’t completely forsake contemporary musical languages either. The songs included countless well-placed flourishes of the atonal and abstract, but never in a way that felt alienating. The performers, all of whom could barely keep from smiling, expertly challenged this great synthesis between the rich tradition of Sephardic folk music and the contemporary performance hall aesthetic.
In addition to the music itself, I found myself fascinated equally by the cultural dynamics of such a piece. Roberto Sierra, originally from Puerto Rico, had set poetry of the formerly Spanish Jews in a musical language blending western convention and the folk idioms of the subject material and here it was being performed by American musicians for the international audience that comprises any Cornell event. Only so recently could such a complexly cross-cultural piece of art have come into being and not seem out
Overall, the minor problems in the Chausson and Debussy did not amount to much, and based on the Shostakovich and Sierra alone, I’d say this was a spectacular show. Although everyone in the group was an incredible player, I’ve returned to Nuttall so many times because he was such a dominating presence, sporting electric-shock hair and a shiny vest. He was the classical equivalent of a rock star front man, never afraid to really let go on some of the evening’s emotional peaks. Even when he moved to second violin, he was the one you watched while stomping casually to the “boom-chk-boom-chk” beat of Sierra’s final song. In the end, he was the spark that took the evening from great to fantastic.