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Boston Premiere of Adams and Voltage Control from St. Lawrence String Quartet


As usual, Pizzeria Uno was pretty well packed for pre-concert Italian fare despite another rainy day in Boston. Just down the street at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall the opposite was unfortunately true. It cannot have been the rain or the program of Haydn, Adams and Dvorák that sadly left a balcony barren and far too many more seats unoccupied. My guess is that not enough Bostonians yet know of the St. Lawrence String Quartet who played Friday, April 9. Kudos goes to the Celebrity Series of Boston for presenting this youngish Canadian outfit, now celebrating its 20th anniversary.

The first violinist’s legs and feet flying left and right and into midair could not go unnoticed. But who could have guessed this happened with Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 9, No. 2, the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s program opener? Some found it distracting, but not all. Early Haydn might induce some R and R but not a chance with these four. The same would go for their Dvorák, the String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Opus 106. Then, while everyone knew there would be no electronics involved in this concert (the Adams quartet), voltage control was, however, in order. It was an evening of staggering performances, artful in all but one way. Most apparent, the pianos, pianissimos and even mezzo fortes in Dvorák’s score mostly went unobserved. If the amplitude came close, a puzzling underlying energy continued on. It could have been a fatiguing night out. What this quartet can do is quite remarkable.

Their highly charged and disciplined approach to Haydn right away was a clear indicator of why America’s leading light, John Adams, would so take to them. It was their performance back in 2007 of his Alleged Dances at Stanford University, where they are in residence, that inspired Adams to compose a piece for them. The world premiere was given in January 2009 at The Juilliard School, who commissioned his 30-minute String Quartet in two movements. Interestingly, the work is listed as being published by Boosey & Hawkes, yet after a thorough online search only one score popped up and that can be found in Julliard’s library.

Adams: “It’s perfectly OK if you leave this experience not really having an idea what you’ve heard! I recently heard a performance of the Bartók First Quartet for the first time in my life—I knew the other quartets, but did not know the First. It took me about ten hearings to get a rough feel for the shape of it—and I’m a composer!”

As with this admission, Adams’s honesty cutting right through into the matter was ever-present in his string quartet. His boyish American imagination knowing no boundaries finds candid, open ways of expression. There is always mind over his visceral matter. Naturalness in his crafting every rhythm and every color brings genuineness to an unmistakable voice. His finds from the world around us make their way into his music as celebration. However, I did not hear “Haight-Ashbury and rock” which the St. Lawrence String Quartet pointed out for us to hear.

Whereas Shaker Loops, El Niño, and Dr. Atomic remain for me his very best from the very first time I heard them, I will need to listen to his string quartet again—as Adams has pointed out about his hearing Bartók. What really surprised me was not really getting his quartet the first time. But then, who knows what John Adams will come up with next? There is no one making music today the way he does. He’s number one. Let’s go back and listen!

The St. Lawrence String Quartet’s encore of country-to-concert hall fiddling in Adams’ “Pavan” from Alleged Dances was exhilarating and fun right down to the final, humble bow taken by this out-of-this-world celebratory dance.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. Don’t despair…at the same time the St. Lawrence SQ was performing at Jordan Hall, the Chiara SQ was performing an all-Beethoven concert before a packed house at Harvard’s Paine Hall. There may be a limited cohort of people who go out on a Friday night (a rainy one at that) to listen to chamber music. OK, the Chiara SQ performance was free, but staying at home is free too.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — April 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm

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