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Power and precision highlight St. Lawrence players


Featuring Geoff Nuttal, violin; Barry Shiffman, violin; Lesley Robertson, viola; Marina Hoover, violoncello.

Works by Bartok, Mozart, and Mendelssohn.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

If a free string quartet recital in Kresge Auditorium is a welcome dividend, then a free string quartet recital by an ensemble that can boast a professional association with the Emerson and Julliard String Quartets must be a goldmine. True to their formidable credentials, the St. Lawrence String Quartet delivered a dramatic and incisive performance Friday night in Kresge Auditorium.

Their style and presentation is in stark contrast to the refinement of the Endellions who appeared earlier this year. The St. Lawrencers (Geoff Nuttal, violin; Barry Shiffman, violin; Lesley Robertson, viola; Marina Hoover, violoncello) performed quartets by Mendelssohn and Bartk, as well as a set of five fugues written by J. S. Bach that were arranged for string quartet by Mozart. They appeared through the courtesy of Music and Theater Arts and the Office of the Arts at MIT.

The first thing one notices when watching the St. Lawrencers perform is the tendency of the first violinist to move wildly. Though the other players sometimes mirrored Nuttal's compulsion to almost ambulate off the stage, they never came close to executing his brand of gymnastics. But obviously, the amount of swaying a performer does while perched on his or her seat is no measure of his or her ability as a musician.

All four members demonstrated fine musicianship at the start of the concert with a highly charged account of the String Quartet No. 2 in a minor, Op. 13 by Mendelssohn. This piece is noteworthy for the role of the viola, which introduces a number of important musical ideas, which Robertson capably rendered.

The way the quartet blended tones was striking, especially apparent from the outset of the beautifully played Adagio introduction. With such tonal beauty and dramatic declamation, it was easy to see how the players' exaggerated movements added to the whole experience. At times, Nuttal sounded a bit raw in the upper register of his fiddle, but his histrionic forcefulness succeeded in pushing the music forward without parodying his own showmanship. I was also overwhelmed by the purity of their playing in the Five Fugues by J. S. Bach, transcribed for string quartet by Mozart. Some of the final chords sounded so well-matched that they seemed to reverberate from only one instrument.

The various qualities of sounds worked together because the ensemble demonstrated phenomenal technical execution, which recalls the perfection achieved by their mentors, the Emerson String Quartet. Bla Bartk certainly did not write for an easy listening crowd, especially for his string quartets. This was surely in evidence as a good portion of the audience, upon hearing the Quartet No. 3, decided they had had enough Bartk for one night and exited quickly after the Bach/Mozart to save their livid ears from the Quartet No. 4. My first hearing of a Bartk string quartet was the Quartet No. 2 through the Joseph Kerman Listen tapes that are used in some music classes; other MIT students may have shared a similar experience. Upon hearing live quartets perform them for a couple years now, I am still constantly amazed at the variety of harmonics, pizzicato (left- and right-hand), and ponticello effects that are used. Seeing and hearing a first-rate ensemble like the St. Lawrence String Quartet only adds to one's appreciation of such music. How do four separate people communicate on a level to execute such daring and moving music?

The music is forceful and even "funky," with driving rhythms and contrasting dynamics. But the St. Lawrencers achieved subtlety on top of all that. Shiffman showed excellent coordination with his violin counterpart, and Hoover played with great depth during the Non troppo lento of Quartet No. 4. Alongside the quartets of Shostakovich, the Bartk quartets must rank as the most important 20th century works of its genre. It was a privilege to hear two of them performed in the same evening.

Perhaps in the near future, the St. Lawrence String Quartet will command the authority to have an audience sit for two and a half hours and listen to all six string quartets by Bartk at one of the world's most prestigious music festivals. When that happens, we will surely be asked to pay, even for the less than satisfactory lawn seats. Hopefully, MIT student readers will find time to fill more of the seats in Kresge and hear some truly outstanding artists while they are still free.